Hollow City / Page 32

Page 32


The town was named Coal. Not Coaltown or Coalville. Just Coal. The stuff was everywhere, piled in gritty drifts by the side doors of houses, wafting up from the chimneys as oily smoke, smeared on the overalls of men walking to work. We hurried past them toward the depot in a tight pack.

“Quickly now,” Emma said. “No talking. Eyes down.”

It was a well-established rule that we were to avoid unnecessary eye contact with normals, because looks could lead to conversations, and conversations to questions, and peculiar children found questions posed by normal adults difficult to answer in a way that didn’t invite still more questions. Of course, if anything was going to invite questions, it was a group of bedraggled-looking children traveling alone during wartime—especially with a big, sharp-taloned bird of prey perched on one of the girls’ shoulders—but the townspeople hardly seemed to notice us. They haunted the laundry lines and pub doorways of Coal’s twisting lanes, drooping like wilted flowers, eyes flicking toward us and away again. They had other worries.

The train depot was so small I wondered if trains ever bothered stopping there. The only covered portion was the ticket counter, a little hut in the middle of an open-air platform. Inside the hut was a man asleep in a chair, bottle-thick bifocals slipping down his nose.

Emma rapped sharply on the window, startling the clerk awake. “Eight tickets to London!” she said. “We must be there this very afternoon.”

The clerk peered at us through the glass. Took off his bifocals and wiped them clean and put them on again, just to make sure he was seeing properly. I’m sure we were a shocking sight: our clothes were mud-splotched, our hair greasy and sticking up at odd angles. We probably stank, too.

“So sorry,” the clerk said. “The train is full.”

I looked around. Aside from a few people dozing on benches, the depot was empty.

“That’s absurd!” said Emma. “Sell us the tickets at once or I shall report you to the rail authority for child discrimination!”

I might’ve handled the clerk with a softer touch, but Emma had no patience for the self-important authority of petty bureaucrats.

“If there were any such statute,” the clerk replied, his nose rising disdainfully, “it would certainly not apply to you. There’s a war on, you know, and more important things to be hauled about her majesty’s countryside than children and animals!” He gave Miss Peregrine a hard look. “Which aren’t allowed in any case!”

A train hissed into the station and squealed to a stop. The conductor stuck his head out of one of its windows and shouted, “Eight-thirty to London! All aboard!” The bench-sleepers in the depot roused themselves and began to shuffle across the platform.

A man in a gray suit shoved past us to the window. He pushed money at the clerk, received a ticket in exchange, and hurried off toward the train.

“You said it was full!” Emma said, rapping hard on the glass. “You can’t do that!”

“That gentleman bought a first-class ticket,” the clerk said.

“Now be gone with you, pestilent little beggars! Go find pockets to pick somewhere else!”

Horace stepped to the ticket window and said, “Beggars, by definition, do not carry large sums of money,” and then he reached into his coat pocket and slapped a fat wad of bills down on the counter. “If it’s first-class tickets you’re selling, then that’s what we’ll have!”

The clerk sat up straight, gaping at the pile of money. The rest of us gaped too, baffled as to where Horace had gotten it. Riffling through the bills, the clerk said, “Why, this is enough to buy seats to an entire first-class car!”

“Then give us an entire car!” said Horace. “That way you can be sure we’ll pick no one’s pocket.”

The clerk turned red and stammered, “Y-yes sir—sorry, sir—and I hope you won’t take my previous comments as anything other than jest …”

“Just give us the blasted tickets so we can get on the train!”

“Right away, sir!”

The clerk slid a stack of first-class tickets toward us. “Enjoy your trip!” he said. “And please don’t tell anyone I said so, sirs and madams, but if I were you, I’d hide that bird out of sight. The conductors won’t like it, first-class tickets or not.”

As we strode away from the counter with tickets in hand, Horace’s chest puffed out like a peacock’s.

“Where on earth did you get all that money?” said Emma.

“I rescued it from Miss Peregrine’s dresser drawer before the house burned,” Horace replied. “Tailored a special pocket in my coat to keep it safe.”

“Horace, you’re a genius!” said Bronwyn.

“Would a real genius have given away every cent of our money like that?” said Enoch. “Did we really need an entire first-class car?”

“No,” said Horace, “but making that man look stupid felt good, didn’t it?”

“I suppose it did,” Enoch said.

“That’s because the true purpose of money is to manipulate others and make them feel lesser than you.”

“I’m not entirely sure about that,” Emma said.

“Only kidding!” said Horace. “It’s to buy clothes, of course.”

We were about to board the train when the conductor stopped us. “Let’s see your tickets!” he said, and he was reaching for the stack in Horace’s hand when he noticed Bronwyn stuffing something into her coat. “What’s that you’ve got there?” the conductor said, rounding on her suspiciously.

“What’s what I’ve got where?” Bronwyn replied, trying to seem casual while holding her coat closed over a wriggling lump.

“In your coat there!” the conductor said. “Don’t toy with me, girl.”

“It’s, ahhh …” Bronwyn tried to think fast and failed. “A bird?”

Emma’s head fell. Enoch put a hand over his eyes and groaned.

“No pets on the train!” the conductor barked.

“But you don’t understand,” said Bronwyn. “I’ve had her ever since I was a child … and we must get on this train … and we paid so much for our tickets!”

“Rules are rules!” the conductor said, his patience fraying.

“Do not toy with me!”

Emma’s head bopped up, her face brightening. “A toy!” she said.

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