“What rigging?” said Emma.
Before he could answer, the men had resumed work, singing loudly as they swung their hammers: “Hark to the clinking of hammers! Hark to the driving of nails! What fun to build a gallows, the cure for all that ails!”
If I hadn’t been so horrified, I might’ve broken out laughing.
* * *
We coursed steadily down Fever Ditch. Like hands closing around us, it seemed to narrow with every stroke of Sharon’s staff, sometimes so dramatically that the footbridges crossing it became unnecessary; you could practically leap across the water from roof to roof, the gray sky but a crack between them, suffocating all below in gloom. All the while, Sharon nattered on like a textbook come to life. In just a few minutes he’d managed to cover fashion trends in Devil’s Acre (stolen wigs hung from belt loops were popular), its gross domestic product (firmly in the negative), and the history of its settlement (by enterprising maggot farmers in the early twelfth century). He was just launching into the highlights of its architecture when Addison, who’d been squirming next to me through it all, finally interrupted him.
“You seem to know every last fact about this hellhole with the exception of anything that would be remotely useful to us.”
“Such as?” Sharon said, his patience thinning.
“Whom can we trust here?”
“Absolutely no one.”
“How can we find the peculiars who live in this loop?” said Emma.
“You don’t want to.”
“Where are the wights holding our friends?” I asked.
“It’s bad for business to know things like that,” Sharon replied evenly.
“Then let us off this accursed boat and we’ll set about finding them ourselves!” said Addison. “We’re wasting precious time, and your endless monologuing is putting me to sleep. We hired a boatman, not a schoolmarm!”
Sharon harrumphed. “I should dump you into the Ditch for being so rude, but if I did, I’d never get the gold coins you owe me.”
“Gold coins!” said Emma, fairly spitting with disgust. “What about the well-being of your fellow peculiars? What about loyalty?”
Sharon chuckled. “If I cared about things like that, I’d have been dead long ago.”
“And wouldn’t we all be better off,” Emma muttered and looked away.
As we were talking, tendrils of fog had begun to curl around us. It was nothing like the gray mists of Cairnholm—this was greasy and yellow-brown, the color and consistency of squash soup. Its sudden appearance seemed to make Sharon uneasy, and as the view ahead dimmed, his head turned quickly from side to side, as if he were on the lookout for trouble—or searching for a spot to dump us.
“Drat, drat, drat,” he muttered. “This is a bad sign.”
“It’s only fog,” said Emma. “We’re not afraid of fog.”
“Neither am I,” said Sharon, “but this isn’t fog. It’s murk, and it’s man-made. Nasty things happen in the murk, and we must get out of it as quickly as we can.”
He hissed at us to cover ourselves, and we did. I retreated to my peeking hole. Moments later a boat emerged from the murk and passed close-by going the opposite direction. A man was at the oars and a woman sat in the seat, and though Sharon said good morning they only stared back—and continued staring until they were well past us, and the murk had swallowed them up again. Grumbling under his breath, Sharon maneuvered us toward the left bank and a small dock I could just barely make out. But when we heard footsteps on the wooden planks and a low murmur of voices, Sharon leaned on his pole to turn us sharply away.
We zigzagged from bank to bank, looking for a place to land, but each time we got close, Sharon would see something he didn’t like and turn away again. “Vultures,” he muttered. “Vultures everywhere …”
I didn’t see any myself until we passed beneath a sagging footbridge and a man crossing above us. As we drifted under him, the man stopped and looked down. He opened his mouth and drew a deep breath—about to yell for help, I thought—but rather than a voice, what came out of his mouth was a jet of heavy yellow smoke that shot toward us like water from a firehose.
I panicked and held my breath. What if it was poison gas? But Sharon wasn’t covering his face or reaching for a mask—he was just muttering “Drat, drat, drat” while the man’s breath swirled around us, merging with the murk and reducing our visibility to nothing. Within a few seconds the man, the bridge he stood on, and the banks on either side of us had all been blotted out.
I uncovered my head (no one could see us now anyway) and said quietly, “When you said this stuff was man-made, I thought you meant by smokestacks, not literally—”
“Oh, wow,” Emma said, uncovering herself. “What’s it for?”
“The vultures will murk an area to cloak their activities,” Sharon said, “and to blind their prey. Fortunately for you, I am not easily preyed upon.” And he drew his long staff from the water, passed it over our heads, and used it to tap the wooden eyeball at the bow of his boat. The eyeball began to glow like a fog lamp, piercing the murk before us. Then he returned his staff to the water and, leaning heavily on it, spun the boat in a slow circle, sweeping the water around us with his light.
“But if they’re making this,” said Emma, “then they’re peculiar, aren’t they? And if they’re peculiar, perhaps they’re friendly.”