“I said nothing of the sort,” shrugged the boatman, busying himself with a rat plucked from the hem of his cloak. “Shoo there, Percy, Daddy’s working.”
While he placed the rat gently aside, I gathered Emma and Addison in a tight huddle. “What do you think?” I whispered. “Could this … devil place … really be where our friends were taken?”
“Well, they have to be keeping their prisoners inside a loop, and a pretty old one,” said Emma. “Otherwise most of us would age forward and die after a day or two …”
“But what do the wights care if we die?” I said. “They just want to steal our souls.”
“Maybe, but they can’t let the ymbrynes die. They need them to re-create the 1908 event. Remember the wights’ crazy plan?”
“All that stuff Golan was raving about. Immortality and ruling the world …”
“Yeah. So they’ve been kidnapping ymbrynes for months and need a place to hold them where they won’t turn into dried fruit leather, right? Which means a pretty old loop. Eighty, a hundred years at least. And if Devil’s Acre is really a lawless jungle of depravity …”
“It is,” said Addison.
“… then it sounds like a perfect spot for wights to secret away their captives.”
“Right in the heart of peculiar London, too,” said Addison. “Right under everyone’s noses. Clever little blighters …”
“Guess that settles it,” I said.
Emma stepped smartly toward Sharon. “We’ll take three tickets to that disgusting, horrible place you described, please.”
“Be very, very certain that’s what you want,” said the boatman. “Innocent lambs like yourselves don’t always return from Devil’s Acre.”
“We’re sure,” I said.
“Very good, then. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Only thing is, we don’t have three gold pieces,” said Emma.
“Is that right?” Sharon tented his long fingers and let out a sigh that smelled like an opened tomb. “Normally I insist on payment up front, but I’m feeling generous this morning. I find your plucky optimism charming. You can owe me.” And then he laughed, as if he knew we’d never live to repay him, and stepping aside he raised a cloaked arm toward his boat.
“Welcome aboard, children.”
Sharon made a big show of plucking six wriggling rats from his boat before we boarded—as if a pestilence-free journey were a luxury afforded only to Very Important Peculiars—and then he offered Emma his arm and helped her step from the dock. We were seated three abreast on a simple wooden bench. While Sharon was busy untying the mooring rope, I wondered whether trusting him was merely unwise or if it crossed the line into recklessness, like lying down for a nap in the middle of a road.
The trouble with the merely unwise/deeply stupid line is that you often don’t know which side you’re on until it’s too late. By the time things have settled down enough for you to reflect, the button’s been pushed, the plane’s left the hangar, or in our case, the boat’s left the dock—and as I watched Sharon shove us away from it with his foot, which was bare, and I noticed that his bare foot was not quite human-looking, with toes as long as mini hotdogs and thick yellow nails that curled like claws, I realized with sinking certainty which side of the line we were on, and also that it was too late to do much about it.
Sharon yanked the ignition cord on a dinky outboard motor and it coughed awake in a cloud of blue fumes. Tucking his considerable legs beneath him, he lowered into the puddle of black fabric his cloak made in the boat. He revved the puttering engine, then steered us out of the underjetty, through a forest of looming wood pylons and into warm sunlight. Then we were in a canal, a man-made tributary of the Thames walled on both sides by glassy buildings and bobbing with more boats than a toddler’s tub at bath time—candy-red tugs and wide, flat barges and tour boats whose upper decks teemed with sightseers taking the air. Strangely, none of them trained their cameras at, nor seemed to even notice, the unusual craft that burbled past them, with an angel of death at the tiller, two blood-spattered children in the seat, and a dog in glasses peering over the side. Which was just as well. Had Sharon charmed his boat somehow so that only peculiars could see it? I decided to believe it was so, because there was nowhere to hide in it anyway, should we have needed to.
Looking it over in the full light of day, I noticed that the boat was extremely simple but for an intricately carved figurehead rising from its bow. The carving was shaped like a fat, scaly snake that curved upward in a gentle S, but where a head should’ve been was a giant eyeball, lidless and large as a melon, staring forever out before us.
“What is it?” I asked, running my hand over its polished surface.
“Yew wood,” Sharon called over the motor’s growl.
“I would what?”
“That’s what it’s made from.”
“But what’s it for?”
“To see with!” he replied testily.
Sharon pushed the motor harder—possibly just to drown out my questions—and as we picked up speed the bow lifted gently from the water. I took a deep breath, enjoying the sun and wind on my face, and Addison let his tongue hang out as he leaned over the side with his paws, looking as happy as I’d ever seen him.
What a beautiful day to go to Hell.