Jeffrey J. Mariotte is the award-winning author of more than thirty novels, including Missing White Girl, The Slab, the Witch Season teen horror quartet, and many more. He also writes comic books, and his horror/Western series Desperadoes was named the Best Western Comic Book of 2007 by True West magazine. He’s a co-owner of specialty bookstore Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, and lives in southeastern Arizona on the Flying M Ranch.
River Runs Red , of which the first chapter appears here for the first time, is the second novel in a loose, thematically linked “border trilogy” of supernatural thrillers set in the border regions of the southwestern United States. 2007’s Missing White Girl was the first book of the trilogy, and he’s currently working on the third, Cold Black Hearts. River Runs Red will be published by Penguin/Jove in September 2008.
For more information about Jeff, please visit his website at http://www.jeffmariotte.com.
Lawrence Ingersoll intended to take the night off from death.
The fact that it didn’t turn out that way was no fault of his. He got caught up in events. Best laid plans, and all that. A man who took his gaming seriously, he might have said that he played the cards he was dealt. But when the red king calls, somebody has to answer.
All day long, bitterly cold rain had fallen from skies as gray as a stretch of old road; after the November evening enveloped the San Juans, it turned into a gentle, persistent snowfall. Ingersoll had no appointments, and no client would make the trip up the mountain, not until the snowplows went through, so he looked forward to a rare quiet night. In his lodge-style home outside Creede, he stirred the embers of a fire with an iron poker, jabbing the poker into a pinion log and releasing swirling nebulae of sparks that wafted up the chimney and away. He liked the warmth against his nose and cheeks, enjoyed watching the orange clouds he agitated, and when his phone made an obnoxious chirping noise that could in no way be described as ringing, he swore, closed the wire mesh curtain, and set the poker down on the stone hearth.
The bearskin rug he crossed on his way to the phone had once been a mature black bear; Ingersoll had bought it from the neighbor who had killed it a couple of miles from the house. Life was that way in the mountains; more to the point, so was death.
Ingersoll cared about the natural world. He chose to live in rural Colorado, far from big cities, because he wanted to feel connected to nature, but he was no stranger to death and he had no problem with those who hunted for sport. His occult studies taught him that death was a transition, not an ending. Although he could no more know if wild creatures had an afterlife than he could know their hearts and minds while they lived, he had no reason to think they didn’t. He was, furthermore, pretty sure they didn’t spend their lives afraid of death, as so many people did.
But then, most people didn’t share his profound understanding of it. Death was as much a part of Ingersoll’s daily life (or nightly, since he met most of his clients after dark) as numbers to an accountant or whips to a dominatrix. He made his living—a very comfortable one—communicating with the dead on behalf of the living. When not working, he was usually in his study reading rare, often forbidden texts, trying to increase his understanding of the various worlds outside the one most people knew, which he had always referred to as the straight world.
He had his fears, of course, as did everyone. Ingersoll’s included high ledges and cliffs, roof edges and the like, public speaking, incapacitating injury, and the idea that restaurant chefs might spit disease-ridden saliva into his food.
Not death, though. Never that.
“…the seventeenth day of apparent captivity in Iraq for CNN reporter Wade Scheiner,” his plasma TV blared. “Last seen in a video released more than a week ago, bruised and gaunt but—”
Ingersoll snatched the remote off the arm of a sofa, punched MUTE, then grabbed up the phone.
“Ingersoll,” he said. A bad habit, he knew, left over from corporate days when he and the other guys in his technical writing office had pretended that first names didn’t exist.
“ Lawrence.” A female voice, throaty and velvet, with a Chinese accent evident in the single word.
“Millicent,” he answered. Millicent Wong of Hong Kong, whose identity, so like a child’s rhyme, disguised the fact that she was a mature, graceful, accomplished woman, far from childlike in every way but physical appearance. “What a pleasure to hear from you.”
“You won’t think so in a moment, Lawrence.”
“Something’s wrong?” He had already noticed an unfamiliar tightness in her voice. She was worried. “What is it?”
“I’m not certain,” she said. “There’s a problem of some kind. It’s disrupting the ley lines. I’ve been trying to perform a reading and nothing’s working as it should. I am very concerned, Lawrence. Frightened, a little.”
“I’m no expert at that sort of thing, Millicent,” Ingersoll said. Ley lines directed mystical energies around the world, and to points beyond, worlds beyond. Like electricity or the Internet, he could use them but that didn’t mean he could fix them when they were broken. “Why call me?”
“As well as I can determine from here, you’re the nearest of my acquaintances, physically, to the disruption’s focal point. I hoped that perhaps you could learn something from there.”
His mind buzzing with possibilities, Ingersoll quickly agreed. As he had warned her, this sort of thing was far from his realm of expertise. He considered himself a novice compared to an old hand like her, a mere dabbler in the petrifyingly deep waters of the occult. No way to learn like on-the-job training, though. Anything that scared Millicent had to be significant, and therefore something from which he might gain wisdom.
On the other hand, if Millicent, with her wealth of experience, was afraid, it had to be pretty damn scary. Treading carefully would be a good idea.
He exchanged a few more terse words with her—the usual how’re you doing, what’s new, how about them Broncos pleasantries didn’t seem appropriate—and ended the call, anxious to get started. A cup of tea he had brewed earlier was abandoned in the living room along with the muted TV.
Ingersoll’s study was the sort of “masculine” room that model home designers built and magazine editors loved. The lifeless, unblinking eyes of mounted elk and bobcat heads gazed down at his rough-hewn wooden desk from high on knotty pine walls. Indian rugs covered part of the polished plank floor. Other artifacts, mostly mystical objects he had collected around the world, crowded onto bookshelves and a wide burl coffee table set in front of a pair of low-slung brown leather chairs. The bookshelves would have looked wrong in a magazine layout, because they were stuffed with books, mostly old, thick, bound in leather, and well used.
He used the study to sit and read when he needed a large desk surface, and he interviewed prospective clients there, but it was primarily a showplace. For his real work, he left the study through a doorway almost hidden between two of the massive bookcases. As a private joke, he called the next room his inner sanctum, aware of its pretentiousness and also of the old radio show with the same name.
The room itself was no place for jokes. The study was meant to impress, while the inner sanctum was purely functional. Its hardwood floor was painted a dull battleship gray. Dark purple curtains draped every wall, to muffle sound. The room was wired for electricity, but Ingersoll preferred to light the candles scattered on top of antique wooden tables and chests. He lit one now, placing it on a small table in the exact center of the room, then pulled up a shabby but comfortable chair and sat down.
Gazing into the nascent flame, he worked on blanking everything else from his mind—the cup of tea that had seemed so important a short time before, the television news, the snow outside, the checks for his mortgage and the payment on the Escalade that had to be mailed before the end of the week, even the greasy scent of the thick black candle. Mentally taking each topic and closing it into a black box, he folded down the flaps and stacked those boxes neatly on a shelf. His greatest gift was the ability to slip quickly and easily into a trance state, in which he could commune with any of several spirit guides with whom he had developed relationships.
Ingersoll stroked his mustache a couple of times, the few white whiskers thrusting through the darker ones notable for a little extra wiriness. He had been forty pounds heavier when he worked in the tech industry (and living in a second-floor apartment in Cupertino, California, overlooking a sea of carports, instead of a six-bedroom lodge with its own sauna and a stunning view of Uncompahgre Peak). He had cultivated a new image to meet the expectations his clients brought with them: a drooping, Fu Manchu-style mustache, a thick head of curly hair that required a curling iron to get just right, a sturdy but not intimidating physique. He wore dark pants and a fitted dark shirt or V-neck sweater with a couple of esoteric-looking but purely decorative medallions on thin gold chains around his neck. He had patterned the look, basically, on Dr. Strange from the Marvel comic books—although he didn’t think he could pull off the voluminous red cloak—and once he adopted it, the difference in attitude on the part of potential clients had persuaded him that he had nailed it.
More meaningful than any physical changes, though, was the change in how he felt about what he did. He helped people now. In his previous career, he had written technical documents read by precisely no one. Engineers thought they already understood everything, and lay people didn’t believe they ever could. Now, people left his home with deeper comprehension of their own lives and acceptance of the things they couldn’t change. He had never felt so rewarded as a technical writer, not in any emotional sense.
He appreciated the rewards of his new life, his new career, both tangible and not. Better the rustle of wind in the firs than the rush of freeway traffic, the glow of stars at night than the flash and tawdry glitter of city lights. Better a sense of real satisfaction than a steady but inadequate paycheck.
Dropping his hand to his lap, Ingersoll stared into the candle’s flame, which grew and flickered and reached ceilingward like a mutilated paw. He let the fire fill his vision. The silence was broken only by the hiss and spit of the candle. He willed his breathing and heartbeat to slow.
The flame was everything.
The world fell away; in its place, a universe of yellow-white light embraced him.
After several seconds of nothing but that light, he saw himself walking through an indistinct glow. He looked down on that other Lawrence Ingersoll, as if watching from a height of twenty-five or thirty feet. His dark clothing had turned to white, his hair gone as thick and snowy as Mark Twain’s. He walked on cobblestones made of pure light.
He knew this way well. The cobblestone road led toward a gleaming, city, its spires and minarets jabbing at a golden sky. One of his spirit guides would meet him outside its gates. He hoped it would be Alicia, which would save time. Alicia was well versed in ley lines, arcane energies, and the like; a noted spiritualist in her day, even before death she had been well versed in the occult.
Along the way, though, an unexpected sense of unease—bordering on panic—clutched at his chest. The road twisted where it should not have, leading toward a bridge arching over a dry, reed-choked riverbed into what looked like dense forest. Ingersoll took a few steps back, trying to return to the spot from which he had been able to see down the straight, glowing road all the way to the city, but that view was gone.
Inside the riverbed, something rattled, like the river’s bones under a loose coat of skin.
The Ingersoll sitting safely in Colorado felt the other one’s growing dread, but at the same time part of him remained detached. This must, he told himself, be what Millicent Wong was talking about. Something was screwing with the other worlds, near enough to the straight world to threaten it too.
Time to pull out of the trance, before something terrible happened to the astral Ingersoll, defenseless on that road of light. As if reeling in a fish, he psychically tugged at his other self.
Instead, his physical self was yanked forward, like someone had jerked him from his chair. He flew through the ether and slammed into his astral self with enough force to make him sway unsteadily.
For the first time in his life, Ingersoll was totally inside his astral self, with no consciousness remaining behind in his inner sanctum.
And his astral self quaked with terror.
That rattling noise came from the river again, a dry, somehow covetous sound. Then a shape reared up from the riverbed, a shape Ingersoll thought he could make out until it flared into dazzling light. He blinked and threw his hands up protectively, but could still hear it coming at him. Behind his hands, his eyes burned, as if the brilliant flame was cooking them, and they ran down his cheeks like hot wax. The top of his head smoldered from the inside, like he held a candle in his mouth.
For an instant, he saw himself sitting in his inner sanctum, through the eyes of his astral body. That wasn’t supposed to be possible. The head of his physical body head was thrown back, smoke wafting from beneath his hair, from empty eye sockets, from his mouth and nose and ears. His hands clutched at empty air. The desiccated rattling noise came from him, he realized, as the heat sapped all the moisture from his body.
The image flashed out of existence almost before it had time to register, then the heat grew even more intense and the rattling thing from the river reached him and white heat overwhelmed his consciousness. He was back in his inner sanctum just long enough to know two things: the heat radiating from his body had set the drapes on fire, and his fear of death was actually much, much stronger than he had ever realized.
(C) Jeff Mariotte 2008
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.