“Do I think I can? They don’t call me Addison the Astounding for nothing! Why, there isn’t an aroma, a redolence, a peculiar eau de toilette I couldn’t nose from a hundred meters—”
Addison was easily distracted by the topic of his own greatness, even when pressing matters were at hand, and his proud, booming voice had a tendency to carry.
“Okay, we get it,” I said, but he steamrolled on, walking now, following his nose.
“… I could find a peculiar in a hollow-stack, an ymbryne in an aviary …”
We chased him into the costumed crowd, between the legs of a dwarf on stilts, around a pack of undead princesses, and on a near-collision course with a Pikachu and an Edward Scissorhands, who were waltzing in the street. Of course our friends were brought this way, I thought. It was perfect camouflage—not only for us, who amidst all this looked downright normal, but also for wights abducting a herd of peculiar children. Even if some of them had dared cry out for help, who would’ve taken them seriously enough to intervene? People were play-acting all around us, improvising staged fights, growling in monstrous costumes, moaning like zombies. Some strange kids yelling about being kidnapped by people who wanted to steal their souls? Wouldn’t raise an eyebrow.
Addison walked a circle sniffing the ground, then sat down, perplexed. Subtly, because even in this crowd a talking dog would be shocking, I bent down and asked him what was the matter.
“It’s just … err,” he stammered, “that I seem to have—”
“Lost the trail?” Emma said. “I thought your nose was infallible.”
“I’ve merely mislaid the trail. But I don’t understand how … it leads quite clearly to this spot, then vanishes.”
“Tie your shoes,” Emma said suddenly. “Now.”
I looked down at them. “But they’re not—”
She grabbed my forearm and yanked me down. “Tie. Your. Shoes,” she repeated, then mouthed, wight!
We knelt there, hidden below the heads of the loose-knit crowd. Then came a burst of loud static and a strained voice through a walkie-talkie. “Code 141! All crews report to the acre immediately!”
The wight was close. We heard him reply in a gruff, oddly accented voice: “This is M. I’m tracking the escapees. Request permission to continue searching. Over.”
I exchanged a tense look with Emma.
“Denied, M. Cleaners will sweep the area later. Over.”
“The boy seems to have some influence over the cleaners. Sweep may not be effective.”
Cleaners. He must’ve been talking about the wights. And he was definitely talking about me.
“Denied!” said the crackling voice. “Report back immediately or you’ll spend tonight in the pit, over!”
The wight muttered “Acknowledged” into his walkie-talkie and stalked away.
“We’ve got to follow him,” Emma said. “He could lead us to the others!”
“And straight into the lion’s den,” Addison said. “Though I suppose that can’t be helped.”
I was still reeling. “They know who I am,” I said faintly. “They must’ve seen what I did.”
“That’s right,” Emma said. “And it scared the stuffing out of them!”
I unbent myself to watch the wight go. He marched through the crowd, hopped a traffic barricade, and jogged away toward a parked police car.
We followed him as far as the traffic barrier. I looked around, trying to imagine the kidnappers’ next move. Behind us was the crowd, and in front, beyond the traffic barrier, cars prowled the block for parking. “Maybe our friends came this far on foot,” I said, “then were put into a car.”
Brightening, Addison stood on hind legs to peek over the traffic barrier. “Yes! That must be it. Bright boy!”
“What are you so cheerful for?” said Emma. “If they were taken away in a car, they could be anywhere by now!”
“Then we’ll follow them anywhere,” Addison said pointedly. “Though I doubt they’re terribly far. My old master had a townhouse not far from here, and I know this part of the city well. There are no major ports nor obvious points of exit from London nearby—but there are a few loop entrances. It’s much more likely that they’ve been taken to one of those. Now lift me up!”
I did, and with my help he scrambled over the barrier and began to sniff around the other side. Within seconds he’d found our friends’ scent trail again. “This way!” he said, pointing down the street after the wight, who’d gotten into the police car and was driving away.
“Looks like we’re in for a walk,” I said to Emma. “Think you can make it?”
“I’ll manage,” she said, “so as long as we find another loop within a few hours. Otherwise I may start sprouting gray hairs and crow’s feet.” She smiled, as if this were something to joke about.
“I won’t let that happen,” I said.
We jumped the barricade. I took one last look at the Underground station behind us.
“Do you see the hollow?” said Emma.
“No. I don’t know where it is. And that worries me.”
“Let’s worry about one thing at a time,” she said.
* * *
We walked as fast as Emma could manage, keeping to the side of the street still sunk in morning shadow, watching for police and following Addison’s nose. We passed into an industrial area near the docks, the River Thames revealing itself darkly between the gaps in warehouses, then into a fancy shopping district where glittering stores were crowned with glassy townhouses. Over their roofs I caught glimpses of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, whole again, the sky around it clear and blue. The bombs had all been dropped and the bombers were long gone—shot down, scrapped, retired into museums where they gathered dust behind ropes, to be gawked at by schoolchildren for whom that war seemed as distant as the Crusades. To me it was, quite literally, yesterday. Hard to believe these were the same cratered, blacked-out streets through which we’d run for our lives only last night. They were unrecognizable now, shopping malls seemingly conjured from the ashes—and so were the people who walked them, heads down, glued to phones, clothed in logos. The present seemed suddenly strange to me, so trivial and distracted. I felt like one of those mythical heroes who fights his way back from the underworld only to realize that the world above is every bit as damned as the one below.