“Are you peeking?” Emma whispered, poking me.
“Maybe,” I said, still doing it.
The boatman shushed us. Drawing his pole from the water, he uncapped the handle to expose a short blade, then held it out to sever the boys’ rope as we drifted by. The dog splashed into the water and paddled gratefully away, and howling with rage, the boys began to improvise projectiles to throw at us. Sharon pushed on, ignoring them as he had the ladies until a flying apple core missed his head by inches. Then he sighed, turned, and calmly pulled back the hood of his cloak—just enough so that the boys could see him, but I couldn’t.
Whatever they saw must’ve scared them half to death, because all ran screaming from the bridge, one so fast he tripped and fell into the fetid water. Chuckling to himself, Sharon readjusted his hood before facing forward again.
“What’s happened?” Emma said, alarmed. “What was that?”
“A Devil’s Acre welcome,” replied Sharon. “Now, if you care to see where we are, you may uncover your faces a bit, and I’ll attempt to give you your gold coin’s worth of tour-guiding with the time we have left.”
We pulled the edge of the tarp down to our chins, and both Emma and Addison gasped—Emma, I think, at the sight, and Addison, judging from his wrinkled his nose, at the smell. It was unreal, like a stew of raw sewage simmering all around us.
“You get used to it,” Sharon said, reading my puckered face.
Emma gripped my hand and moaned, “Oh, it’s awful …”
And it was. Now that I could see it with both eyes, the place looked even more hellish. The foundations of every house were decomposing into mush. Crazy wooden footbridges, some no wider than a board, crisscrossed the canal like a cat’s cradle, and its stinking banks were heaped with trash and crawling with spectral forms at work sifting through it. The only colors were shades of black, yellow, and green, the flag of filth and decay, but black most of all. Black stained every surface, smeared every face, and striped the air in columns that rose from chimneys all around us—and, more ominously, from the smokestacks of factories in the distance, which announced themselves on the minute with industrial booms, deep and primal like war drums, so powerful they shook every window yet unbroken.
“This, friends, is Devil’s Acre,” Sharon began, his slithering voice just loud enough for us to hear. “Actual population seven thousand two hundred and six, official population zero. The city fathers, in their wisdom, refuse even to acknowledge its existence. The charming body of water in whose current we’re currently drifting is called Fever Ditch, and the factory waste, night soil, and animal carcasses which flow perpetually into it are the source not only of its bewitching odor but also of disease outbreaks so regular you could set your watch to them and so spectacular that this entire area has been dubbed ‘the Capital of Cholera.’
“And yet …” He raised a black-draped arm toward a young girl lowering a bucket into the water. “For many of these unfortunate souls, it serves as both sewer and spring.”
“She isn’t going to drink that!” Emma said, horrified.
“In a few days, once the heavy particles settle, she’ll skim the clearest liquid from the top.”
Emma recoiled. “No …”
“Yes. Terrible shame,” Sharon said casually, then continued rattling off facts as if reciting from a book. “The citizenry’s primary occupations are rubbish picking and luring strangers into the Acre to cosh them on the head and rob them. For amusement, they ingest whatever flammable liquids are at hand and sing badly at the top of their lungs. The area’s main exports are smelted iron slag, bone meal, and misery. Notable landmarks include—”
“It isn’t funny,” Emma interrupted.
“I said, it isn’t funny! These people are suffering, and you’re making jokes about it!”
I am not making jokes,” Sharon replied imperiously. “I’m providing you with valuable information that may save your life. But if you’d rather plunge into this jungle cocooned in ignorance …”
“We wouldn’t,” I said. “She’s very sorry. Please keep going.”
Emma shot me a disapproving look, and I disapproved right back at her. This was no time to take a stand on political correctness, even if Sharon sounded a bit heartless.
“Keep your voices down, for Hades’ sake,” Sharon said irritably. “Now, as I was saying. Notable landmarks include St. Rutledge’s Foundlings’ Prison, a forward-thinking institution which jails orphans before they’ve had the opportunity to commit any crimes, thereby saving society enormous cost and trouble; St. Barnabus’s Asylum for Lunatics, Mountebanks, and the Criminally Mischievous, which operates on a voluntary, outpatient basis and is nearly always empty; and Smoking Street, which has been in flames for eighty-seven years due to an underground fire no one’s bothered to extinguish. Ah,” he said, pointing to a blackened clearing between houses on the bank. “Here’s one end of it, which, as you can see, is burnt to a crisp.”
Several men were at work in the clearing, hammering on a wooden frame—rebuilding one of the houses, I assumed—and when they saw us passing they stopped to shout hello to Sharon, who gave just a token wave back, as if slightly embarrassed.
“Friends of yours?” I asked.
“Distant relations,” he muttered. “Gallows rigging is our family trade …”