“Is that so?” Emma said. “Excuse us just a moment.”
She took me aside to whisper in my ear.
“If he doesn’t start talking, I’m going to get really angry.”
“Don’t do anything reckless,” I whispered back.
“Why? You believe that humbug about skulls and sea creatures?”
“Yes, actually. I know he’s a slimebag, but—”
“Slimebag? He’s practically admitted to doing business with wights! He might even be one!”
“—but he’s a useful slimebag. I have a feeling he knows exactly where our friends were taken. It’s just a matter of asking the right questions.”
“Then have at it,” she said crossly.
I turned to Sharon and said with a smile, “What can you tell me about your tours?”
He brightened immediately. “Finally, a subject I can speak freely about. I just happen to have some information right here …” He turned snappily and went to a nearby pylon. A shelf had been nailed onto it, and upon the shelf was displayed a skull dressed in old-time aviator garb—leather cap, goggles, a jaunty scarf. Gripped between its teeth were several pamphlets, and Sharon pulled one out and handed it to me. It was a cheesy tourist brochure that looked like it had been printed when my grandfather was a boy. I leafed through its pages as Sharon cleared his throat and spoke.
“Let’s see now. Families enjoy the Famine ’n’ Flames package … in the morning we go upriver to watch Viking siege engines catapult diseased sheep over the city walls, then have a nice boxed lunch and return in the evening via the Great Fire of 1666, which is a real treat after dark, with the flames reflecting on the water, very nice. Or if you’ve only a few hours to spare, we have a lovely gibbetting ’round Execution Dock—right at sunset, popular with honeymooners—in which some excellently foul-tongued pirates give colorful speeches before being put to the rope. For a small fee you can even have your photo taken with them!”
Inside the brochure were illustrations of smiling tourists enjoying the sights he’d described. The final page was a photo of one of Sharon’s guests posing with a gang of surly pirates wielding knives and guns.
“Peculiars do this stuff for fun?” I marveled.
“This is a waste of time,” Emma whispered, checking behind us anxiously. “I’ll bet he’s just running out the clock until the next patrol of wights arrives.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Just wait …”
Sharon was plowing on as if he hadn’t heard us. “… and you can see all the lunatics’ heads arranged on pikes as we float beneath London Bridge! Lastly, there’s our most requested excursion, which is a personal favorite of mine. But oh—never mind,” he said coyly, waving his hand, “come to think of it, I doubt you’d be interested in Devil’s Acre.”
“Why not?” Emma said. “Too nice and pleasant?”
“Actually, it’s rather a rough spot. Certainly no place for children …”
Emma stamped her foot and shook the whole rotting dock. “That’s where our friends were taken, isn’t it?” she shouted. “Isn’t it!”
“Don’t lose your temper, miss. Your safety is my highest concern.”
“Quit winding us up and tell us what’s there!”
“Well, if you insist …” Sharon made a sound like he was slipping into a warm bath and began rubbing his leathery hands together, as if just thinking about it brought him pleasure. “Nasty things,” he said. “Dreadful things. Vile things. Anything you like, so long as what you like is nasty, dreadful, and vile. I’ve often dreamed of hanging up my oar pole and retiring there one day, perhaps to run the little abattoir on Oozing Street …”
“What name did you call it again?” said Addison.
“Devil’s Acre,” the boatman said wistfully.
Addison shuddered from tip to tail. “I know it,” he said gravely. “It’s a terrible place—the most depraved and dangerous slum in the whole long history of London. I’ve heard stories of peculiar animals brought there in cages and made to fight in blood-sport games. Grimbears pitted against emu-raffes, chimpnoceri against flaming-goats … parents against their own children! Forced to maim and kill one another for the entertainment of a few sick peculiars.”
“Disgusting,” Emma said. “What peculiar would participate in such a thing?”
Addison shook his head ruefully. “Outlaws … mercenaries … exiles …”
“But there are no outlaws in peculiardom!” said Emma. “Any peculiar convicted of a crime is brought by the home guard to a punishment loop!”
“How little you know of your own world,” the boatman said.
“Criminals can’t be jailed if they’re never caught,” Addison explained. “Not if they escape to a loop like that first—lawless, ungovernable.”
“It sounds like Hell,” I said. “Why would anyone go there voluntarily?”
“What’s Hell for some,” said the boatman, “is paradise for others. It’s the last truly free place. Somewhere you can buy anything, sell anything …” He leaned toward me and lowered his voice. “Or hide anything.”
“Like kidnapped ymbrynes and peculiar children?” I said. “Is that what you’re getting at?”