“Forget it, deal’s off. Show us what you got.”
“Or you could allow me to increase my offer,” said Sharon. “We’ll consider it a gratuity for all your kind understanding.”
The men conferred in an undertone.
“If we let ’im go an’ someone else catches ’im wi’ feeders, it’s the pit for us.”
Go away, go away, go AWAY, I begged the hollow in English.
Thud, thud, THUD, it answered, knocking against the hull.
“Pull back that rag!” demanded the first man.
“Sir, if you would wait just a moment—”
But the men were determined. Our boat rocked like someone was boarding it. There were shouts, then footfalls near our heads as a scuffle broke out.
There’s no point hiding now, I thought, and the others seemed to agree. I saw Emma’s glowing-hot fingers reach for the edge of the tarp.
“On three,” she whispered. “Ready?”
“As a racehorse,” Addison growled.
“Wait,” I said, “first, you should know—under the boat, there’s—”
And then the tarp was ripped away, and I never did finish that sentence.
* * *
What happened next happened fast. Addison bit the arm that had torn away the tarp and Emma made a swipe at its surprised owner, grazing the man’s face with scalding fingers. He stumbled back howling and fell into the water. Sharon had been knocked down in the scuffle, and the second man was standing above him with his club raised. Addison leapt at him and grabbed hold of his leg. The man turned to shake off the dog, giving Sharon time to regain his feet and hit him in the stomach. The man doubled over and Sharon disarmed him with a tricky whirl of his staff.
The man decided to quit while he could and leapt back into his boat. Sharon tore away the canvas covering the outboard motor, yanked its ignition cord, and our boat sputtered to life just as a third came speeding out of the murk alongside us. Inside were three more men, one armed with an old-fashioned pistol that was leveled right at Emma.
I shouted at her to get down and tackled her just as it cracked and sent up a puff of white smoke. Then the man pointed it at Sharon, who let go of the throttle and put his hands up. And that would’ve been it for us, I think, had not a throat-full of strange words come gushing up and pouring out of me, loud and sure and foreign to my ears.
Sink their boat! Use your tongues to sink their boat!
In the half second it took everyone to turn and stare at me, the hollow had pushed off from our hull and flung its tongues at the other boat. They fired out of the water, whipped around the lip of its stern, and flipped the boat up and backward in a reverse somersault that launched all three men out.
The boat crashed upside down on two of them.
Sharon might’ve taken the opportunity to hit the throttle and get us out of there, but he stood frozen in shock, his hands still raised.
Which was fine. I wasn’t done yet, anyhow.
That one, I said, looking at the gunman flailing in the water.
It seemed the hollow could hear me underwater because moments after I’d said it the man screamed, looked down, and was sucked under—gone, just like that—and immediately the water where he’d been bloomed red.
“I didn’t say eat him!” I said in English.
“What are you waiting for?” Emma shouted at Sharon. “Go!”
“Right, right,” the boatman stammered. Shaking off his stupor, he lowered his hands and leaned on the throttle. The motor whined and Sharon turned the rudder and spun us in a tight circle, tripping Emma, Addison, and me into a pile. The boat bucked and shot forward, and then we were speeding through whorls of murk, heading back the way we’d come.
Emma looked at me and I looked back, and though it was too loud to hear anything over the motor and the rush of blood in our ears, I thought I could read in her face both fear and exhilaration—a look that said, You, Jacob Portman, are amazing and terrifying. But when she finally spoke, I could make out only one word: Where?
Where, indeed. I’d hoped we could get away from the hollow while it was finishing off the Ditch pirate, but reading my gut now I knew it was still close, trailing behind us, most likely using one of its tongues as a towline.
Close, I mouthed back.
Her eyes brightened and she nodded once, sharply: Good.
I shook my head. Why wasn’t she afraid? Why couldn’t she see how dangerous it was? The hollow had tasted blood, and just left a meal half-finished behind us. Who knew what meanness still boiled inside it? But the way she looked at me. Just that crooked bit of smile gave me a surge, and I felt I could do anything.
We were coming up fast on the bridge and the murk-making peculiar. He was waiting for us, crouching and sighting us down the length of a rifle he’d rested on the bridge’s handrail.
We ducked. I heard two shots. Looking up again, I saw that no one had been hit.
We were going under the bridge. In a moment we’d be out the other side and he’d have another shot at us. I couldn’t let him take it.
I turned and shouted Bridge! in hollowspeak, and the creature seemed to know just what I meant. The two tongues that weren’t holding on to our boat whipped upward, and with a wet slap each one wrapped around the bridge’s flimsy supports. All three tongues unreeled triangularly until they were pulled taut, like elastic stretched to the limit. The hollow was forced up out of the water, tethered between boat and bridge like a starfish.