“The pure of heart don’t end up as ditch pirates,” said Sharon, and then he stopped the turning boat as our light fixed upon another approaching vessel. “Speak of the devil.”
We could see them clearly enough, but for now all they would see of us was a glary bloom of light. It wasn’t much of an advantage, but at least it allowed us to size them up before we had to retreat beneath the tarp. They were two men in a boat about twice the size of our own. The first man was operating a nearly silent outboard motor, and the second held a club.
“If they’re so dangerous,” I whispered, “why are we just waiting for them?”
“We’re too deep inside the Acre to escape them now, and I can most likely talk us out of this.”
“And if you can’t?” said Emma.
“You may have to swim for it.”
Emma glanced at the oily black water and said, “I’d rather die.”
“That’s your choice. Now, I recommend you disappear, children, and don’t move a muscle under there.”
We drew the tarp over our heads again. A moment later, a hearty voice called out, “Ho, there, boatman!”
“Ho, there,” replied Sharon.
I heard oars drag the water, and then felt a jolt as the other boat knocked against ours.
“What’s your business here?”
“Merely out for a pleasure cruise,” Sharon said lightly.
“And a fine day for it!” the man replied, laughing.
The second man wasn’t in the mood for jokes. “Wot’s undah the rag?” he growled, his accent nearly impenetrable.
“What I carry on my boat is my own business.”
“Innithin passes through Fever Ditch s’our business.”
“Old ropes and bric-a-brac, if you must know,” said Sharon. “Nothing of interest.”
“Then you won’t mind us having a look,” said the first man.
“What about our arrangement? Haven’t I paid you this month?”
“Hen’t no arrangement nummore,” said the second. “Wights are payin’ five times the goin’ rate fer nice plump feeders. Any as lets a feeder slip away … it’s the pit, or worse.”
“What could be worse than the pit?” said the first.
“I dun inten’ t’fineout.”
“Now gentlemen, be reasonable,” said Sharon. “Perhaps it’s time to renegotiate. I can offer terms competitive with anyone …”
Feeders. I shivered despite a clammy warmth building under the tarp from Emma’s quickly heating hands. I hoped she wouldn’t need to use them, but the men weren’t budging, and I feared the boatman’s blabber would stall them only so long. A fight would mean disaster, though. Even if we could take out the men in the boat, the vultures, as Sharon had said, were everywhere. I imagined a mob forming—coming after us in boats, firing on us from the banks, jumping onto us from the footbridges—and I began to freeze up with fear. I really, really did not want to find out what feeders meant.
But then I heard a hopeful sound—the clink of coins being exchanged, and the second man was saying, “Wy, ’ees loaded! I could retire to Spain wi’ dis …”
But just as my hopes were rising, my stomach began to sink. A familiar old feeling crept into my belly, and I realized it had been building, slowly and gradually, for some time. It started as an itch, then become a dull ache, and now that ache was sharpening—the telltale tug of a nearby hollowgast.
But not just any hollow. My hollow.
The word popped into my head without warning or precedent. Mine. Or maybe I had it backward. Maybe I belonged to it.
Neither arrangement was any guarantee of safety. I expected it wanted to kill me just as badly as any hollow would, only something had temporarily plugged the urge. It was the same mysterious thing that had magnetized the hollow to me and tuned the compass needle inside me to it—and it was this needle that told me the hollow was close now and getting closer.
Just in time to get us caught, or killed, or kill us itself. I resolved then that should we make it safely to shore, my first order of business would be to get rid of it once and for all.
But where was it? If it was as close as it seemed to be, it would’ve been swimming toward us in the Ditch, and I definitely would’ve heard a creature with seven limbs doing the breaststroke. Then the needle shifted and dipped, and I knew—could see, almost—that it was under the water. Hollows did not, apparently, need to breathe often. A moment later there came a gentle thunk as it attached itself to the bottom of our boat. We all jumped at the sound, but only I knew what it was. I wished I could warn my friends, but I had to lie motionless, its body just inches away on the other side of the wooden boards we lay upon.
“What was that?” I heard the first man say.
“I didn’t hear anything,” Sharon lied.
Let go, I mouthed silently, hoping the hollow could hear. Go away and leave us alone. Instead, it began to make a grinding sound against the wood; I pictured it gnawing at the bottom of the boat with its long teeth.
“I heard’at plain as day,” said the second man. “Boatman’s tryin’ to make us look like fools, Reg!”
“I think he is at that,” said the first.
“I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth,” said Sharon. “It’s this damned defective boat of mine. Past due for a tune-up.”