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The Tangled Bridge
By Rhodi Hawk
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2012 Rhodi Hawk
All rights reserved.
NEW ORLEANS, NOW
ONCE, WHEN SHE WAS ten, Madeleine brought home pockets full of potatoes she'd found behind the school cafeteria. Mother was already long gone by that time, and Daddy had been away for weeks, so potatoes were a nice break from the usual scrounging. Madeleine and her brother Marc were getting sick of redfish from Bayou Black.
Zenon had come that day, too, escaping his own empty kitchen. He was also their brother, but none of them knew that yet.
That was a good long while ago. Long before they'd learned how to separate their ghosts from their bodies and walk the briar world with its winding, shadowed river. Before Zenon had become a murderer.
Madeleine remembered how she'd stood on the step stool and laid out one potato for Marc, one for Zenon, and the last for herself. All three potatoes were sprouting tails. The boys had watched while Madeleine took the first one and lopped off the end where a long, snaking root had been growing.
"Three blind mice!" Marc had said. "She cut off the tail with a carving knife!"
They'd laughed, all three kids, laughed themselves dizzy over a bunch of sprouted potatoes.
There were no parents around that fall, not anywhere.
Now, two decades later, Madeleine wondered about Marc's baby, out there somewhere, semi-orphaned. The child was most certainly safe, she told herself. Marc was dead, Daddy was dead, and Zenon was as good as dead. The baby's mother had gone and hidden with it somewhere in Nova Scotia. That was good. She should hide. Madeleine didn't want to know where they were.
"Three blind mice!" Marc had said way back when.
She thought of it every time she saw a potato.CHAPTER 2
NEW ORLEANS, NOW
MADELEINE HAD LAIN DOWN in her own bed and slept hard, very hard, but when she awoke she was not in her bed. She was in the passenger seat of her truck.
Ethan was asleep behind the steering wheel. They were parked somewhere dark — it didn't look like it was anywhere near Madeleine's place or Ethan's. She rubbed the corners of her eyes, blinking, waiting for sleep to fade so she would recognize where she was. But no, this didn't make sense. She was supposed to be at home in bed.
Is this a dream?
She put her hand on the gearshift, solid and real under her fingers. No dream. Her hair was slick with sweat. Last thing she remembered she was lying in bed, Ethan breathing evenly next to her, and now she was ...
No idea. She looked through the windshield. Just shy of daylight out there. The truck was parked on a gravel shoulder off some road, beyond which a chain-link fence wrapped around a boat dealer's lot. On the other side, a sharp grassy rise ran along the road like the berm to a sandstone quarry.
She was still wearing her bedclothes: a tank top and drawstring cotton shorts. But there were sandals on her feet. Keys still in the ignition.
In the driver's seat, Ethan groaned and then blinked awake.
"Is the doctor in?" he said.
"Witch doctor! Just my luck." His eyes were puffy but he was smiling at her.
"What ... are we doing here?"
He rubbed his face. "I don't know. We were at your place and sometime in the middle of the night I wake up and you was gone. Found you gettin into the truck."
She listened, bewildered, trying to dig out a memory from last night:
Tick tick tick tick.
Ethan reached for her and she held his hand to her face, grateful for the comfort of it. Even though she'd grown used to the lapses in time — a few hours here or there — this was the first time she'd truly wandered off.
He said, "Couldn't let you go driving around in your sleep so I took away your keys. But then you just got into the passenger side instead. You told me where to drive you. Don't you remember?"
She hesitated, shaking her head. "I don't ... Maybe. What happened after that?"
"Then we drove here."
"The levee, I think. You wanted to go outside, but I wouldn't let you, so you sat there arguing with someone I couldn't see."
He shrugged. "Couldn't tell, honey. Just assumed it was a river devil. Severin, I guess."
Madeleine reached over and turned the key so she could roll down the window. The mosquitoes were waiting. They'd been lapping at the dew on the glass. In the fresh predawn breeze, she smelled silt and also something acrid: smoke. Campfire smoke gone cold.
She said, "Hobo fires."
"Probably, yeah. This part of the levee. What all do you remember?"
"Just ... I remember I was looking for something. A bird."
She frowned, because that wasn't entirely true. She wasn't just looking.
She said, "But that was ... you know, briar. River devils. I didn't realize my actual flesh-and-blood body was in on it."
"Well, maybe it's just a plain old case of sleepwalking."
She looked away. Sleepwalking! Wouldn't it be nice if it was as simple as that?
Her gaze swept the grassy rise. At the top, an asphalt bike trail formed a spine along the levee's ridge. It looked like a beast curled around the Mississippi River. Streetlights illuminated only the trail and left everything beyond it in darkness.
She couldn't see over the rise, down to the underbelly. Down there, she knew, was the reason she'd come here. The tick-tock bird. Something had gone terribly wrong down on that river, somewhere among those hobo camps.
Ethan said, "Well, baby blue, I guess we oughtta head back now."
He raised his hand to the ignition, but she stopped him. His eyes flickered. He was feigning puzzlement, but he knew good and well they weren't done here.
She said, "I'm sorry, honey. You know we gotta check it out."
* * *
NO REASON TO BE cold, but she was. There had been a sweatshirt behind the seat, which she now hugged close around her even though there was no chill to the air. Damp, yes, without being hot nor cold. It'd be hot as soon as the sun came up. Real hot.
As they ascended toward the hike-and-bike trail, Ethan reached for her hand, and in doing so brought more warmth than the sweatshirt had. Their sandals left dew prints — dotted parallels from Madeleine and a dot-dash that matched Ethan's limp. A high school football injury had once put him in a wheelchair with little hope of ever walking again. But as he'd worked through college, his muscles slowly responded to relentless physical therapy until he got to the point where he could walk on his own. Now a limp and the occasional ache were all that remained.
He said, "I don't like it. It's dangerous."
"I can use pigeonry if I have to."
He gave her a sidelong glance.
Behind them, a neighborhood lay hushed in the day's first glow: shotgun cottages and potholed streets bathed in amethyst. The Mississippi was just a stretch of blackness ahead.
They reached the asphalt spine and she scanned the river's edge. The camps were likely somewhere in the black woods along the banks below and to the left. Overhead, an electrical tower supported a network of wires, and beyond that the pumping station routed pipes from the river. They continued moving down the slope toward what her nose judged to be a bog.
Three blind mice ...
The rhyme was stuck in her head now, but that was the point, wasn't it? Music calms the savage breast. Usually worked to distract Severin. Too bad it had to be a blood rhyme. Always a blood rhyme.
"Why're you so quiet?" he asked.
She answered in a whisper. "Because if there are people out here, it's best we find them before they find us."
"Woman, you gonna put me to an early grave."
She squeezed his hand. The neighborhood's glow vanished behind the rise. Full darkness, here, and this was good. It forced her to draw from her other senses. Because she wasn't kidding herself — this really was dangerous. Even with pigeonry.
Pigeonry was the word they used for the way Madeleine could place thoughts into other people's minds. It stemmed from what Mémée, Madeleine's grandmother, had called "pigeon games." Mémée and her siblings used to practice briar skills like pigeonry by working on simple subjects, such as birds. The children of the briar could make pigeons fly, walk, or stack one atop the next by implanting thoughts into the birds' minds.
The sound came. She paused. The sharp clicking. Over to the right. It eclipsed the other bird calls.
Ethan paused, too, and looked at her. She nodded in the direction of the sound. He turned to look. So dark, though. They could see nothing.
Click click click.
Not like any bird or insect she'd heard before and she'd grown up on a bayou. More like something she'd hear in the river devil's bramble. It made her feel stealthy, catlike.
Ethan put his lips to her ear and whispered, "I'll check it out. You stay put."
She nodded, because she didn't want to go see for herself. She didn't fear the thing she heard. She feared what it brought out in her.
Ethan moved off into the darkness.
Her toes were now wet. She took a step and felt the earth softening beneath her. A bog. A haven for mosquitoes ... and leeches, too. She rimmed the soggy part and made for the woods. Didn't like being out in the open like this.
The scent of cold smoke grew stronger. Ethan was probably still close by but she couldn't see nor hear him, and the tick-tocking had stopped, too. Perhaps she could take a quick check of the camp before Ethan got back. She was thinking that, yes, this place was dangerous, but they weren't the ones in danger. Not if they were careful.
She walked with hands outstretched, catching branches and easing between them. Dry wood snapped beneath one foot and she paused, listening.
The birds were very loud now. The predawn cacophony. She could hear nothing else out there. She ventured again, but with the next step came another snap. This was no good — she needed to move in silence. She bit her lip and took another step, sliding carefully without picking up her foot so that she moved without a sound. Much better.
But then she heard a third snap. This one hadn't come from her own footfalls.
* * *
THE GROWING DAWN WAS now illuminating the river. Though dim, she could see a silhouette, a human form much larger than herself. Not Ethan.
Madeleine froze. Her eyes strained, fingers splayed and ready. She zeroed in on that silhouette and seized control.
Put both hands on the nearest tree.
The sound of snapping branches near that silhouette: far too close. She moved so that he was backlit by the Mississippi, and she saw that he was obeying the pigeonry — both of his hands were pressed against a tree.
She asked aloud, "What are you doing out here?"
"Just sleepin, lady, I ain't hurtin nobody."
She stepped closer. She could tell he was a black man, much darker than herself, with short hair that was almost completely gray.
She tightened her mind's grip on him. "Is that really all you're doing out here? Tell me the truth."
"I ain't lyin. Got up to take a pee. Was just headin back to get my things and clear out."
She stared, believing him, because the way he was holding that tree indicated that he was fully susceptible to the pigeon exercise. He probably didn't even know why he felt compelled to hang on like that.
She released him. And then, taking a step closer, she realized that she recognized him. He was a busker who played the harmonica. Used to sing on the streets with her father. She'd even fed him herself when her father had brought him home for supper on occasion.
"You're Shalmut Halsey."
He peered at her, his posture relaxing. "My God. Maddy?"
"Hey!" Ethan's voice, sharp.
Madeleine turned toward him and found his hand. "It's alright, Ethan. Shalmut here's an old friend."
"I thought you were going to stay put," Ethan said.
"I meant to. What did you find?"
"Nothing. There was a camp, but no one in it. Looked like whoever was there had just left."
Madeleine turned back to Shalmut. "You know anything about that?"
Shalmut said, "Sure: the little blind boy, Bo Racer, and his mama."
Madeleine cast a glance back toward the levee; dawn was growing stronger with every moment that ticked by. She was beginning to feel foolish.
Shalmut asked, "Whatch'all doin out here, Maddy? This ain't no place for you."
"Tell you the truth, Shalmut, I have no idea."
He exhaled, and it smelled like booze. He was staring at her with an intensity that made her feel grateful the sun hadn't made its full way to the horizon yet.
Shalmut said, "Yes you do. Some'm wrong. You got the insight, just like your Daddy before you, God rest his soul."
She said nothing.
He slapped the back of his neck. "Y'all come on, these woods is fulla muskeetas."
They followed him, and Madeleine spotted the place where the blind boy and mother must have been: a thick quilt and a carved wooden stick — just the right height for a boy to use as a cane. He and his mother must have left in a hurry.
Madeleine, Ethan, and Shalmut continued past it to where the trees opened up before the Mississippi, then walked along the shoreline. The birds were at the peak of their morning frenzy.
"Still enough smoke to keep the bugs away," Shalmut said, indicating the charred skeleton of a campfire.
He looked from Ethan to Madeleine. "Y'all wanna tell me why you really here? Never know. I may be able to help."
But before Madeleine could answer, she heard a woman's slow, fractured voice: "Well, look who's here."
Madeleine spun around.
The woman was heavyset and tall, about six feet, with long frizzy hair. Madeleine stumbled backward in reflex.
"Jesus!" Shalmut turned and retreated a few feet into the woods.
The woman was grinning. Madeleine stepped backward, clamping her thoughts onto the woman's mind.
The tree. Put both hands on that tree.
But the woman didn't respond to the implanted thought. Instead she took a step forward.
"Hunting that little boy same as me, Maddy?" Her voice was deep and cigarette cracked.
Madeleine didn't know her. It felt disorienting the way she spoke her name, but having worked with countless homeless folks around the city, people she didn't know often recognized her.
More disturbing was the fact that she couldn't get a hold on this woman's mind. And that she kept moving closer.
Madeleine said aloud, "Stop right there."
Ethan stepped between them, his posture tense.
The woman laughed. "Whadjoo bring him along for? Gotta travel light."
"God, look at her hands," Shalmut whispered.
They were filthy. Worse than that. In her right hand she clutched a beer bottle with a broken off neck, and from fingertips to elbow: thick black streaks. Even in the growing dawn Madeleine could see that it was blood.
Stop moving, stop, STOP!
That strange grin widened. "Oh no you don't. This here's my pigeon."
Madeleine jerked her head toward the woods, scanning the trees.
"Who you lookin for?" The woman took another step forward.
"Stop right there," Ethan said, hand blocking her.
Madeleine asked, "Who are you?"
"You ain't recognize me? Gotta look past this old lady crack whore."
"Y'all, we got to get!" Shalmut whispered.
The homeless woman spoke again. "They's good hunting round here, yeah. You been lookin for the blind boy, like me? He's slippery."
Madeleine tore her gaze from the sticky bottle and cast an involuntary glance in the direction of the camp where the quilt and the little cane had been.
The woman was looking toward that direction, too. "Yeah, well, I'm done for now." Her gaze swiveled to Shalmut. "Maybe I'll use him next."
She blinked once, and then tossed the bottle onto the cooling embers. Her expression slackened. And then she looked up with a furtive glance from Madeleine to Ethan and then beyond to the north, pausing, her face pinched in thought. Maybe even fear.
Madeleine realized that the hold had lifted. She tried again to snag the woman's mind.
Sit down on the banks, hands on your knees.
This time, the pigeon exercise took. The woman knelt down.
Madeleine breathed a sigh of relief. "It's OK. She's alright now."
She scanned the woods again, her eyes wide and her ears tuned. Nothing. No one else there.
Shalmut was right by her side. "We got to get!"
Madeleine shook her head.
Ethan agreed with Madeleine. "No, we can't leave. Not yet."
The woman was still kneeling near the blackened camp.
"Who are you?" Ethan asked her.
She answered with a hint of confusion in her voice. "Alice."
Madeleine said, "How do you know me?"
"You asked me, did I recognize you?"
Alice said nothing.
Madeleine tried, "Just a moment ago. You called me by name."
And then Madeleine asked, "Did you kill someone last night, Alice?"
Silence, and then, "Yes, ma'am."
"Jesus, God almighty," Shalmut whispered.
Alice cast a glance at Madeleine's eyes and then her gaze fell to the shore beneath her knees. "Ain't sure if he's dead, but I tried."
"How many people did you kill?" Madeleine asked. "One?"
Alice looked back over her shoulder and a lock of frizz fell over her eye. "Yeah, just the one."
"Why? Why did you?"
"I don't know that, ma'am. Can't say that I recall. I remember I's lookin for a boy, though. He'uz in a car at first, and then he's out in the woods somewhere. Couldn't get'm."
"Who exactly did you kill?"
"I don't know. Someone got in my way."
Excerpted from The Tangled Bridge by Rhodi Hawk. Copyright © 2012 Rhodi Hawk. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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