The boat slowed so quickly, it was like someone had thrown the emergency brake; we were all tossed forward onto the floor. The bridge groaned and rocked, and the peculiar taking aim at us stumbled and dropped his gun. I thought that surely either the bridge would give or the hollow would—it was squealing like a stuck pig, as if it might rip down the middle—but as the peculiar bent to snatch his gun, it seemed the bridge would hold, which meant I’d traded all our momentum and speed for nothing. Now we weren’t even moving targets.
Let go! I screamed at the hollow, this time in its language.
It didn’t—the thing would never leave me of its own accord. So I rushed to the back of the boat and bellied over the stern. There was one of its tongues, knotted around the rudder. Remembering how Emma’s touch had once made a hollow’s tongue release her ankle, I pulled her over and told her to burn the rudder. She did—nearly falling over the side to make the reach—and the hollow squealed and let go.
It was like releasing a slingshot. The hollow flew away and slammed into the bridge with a splintering crash; the whole tottering contraption buckled and went tumbling into the water. At the same time, the back of our boat dropped, and the motor, once again submerged, flung us forward. The sudden acceleration toppled us like bowling pins. Sharon managed to hold on to the rudder, and righting himself, he steered us sharply away from a collision course with the canal wall. We flew down the spine of the Ditch, a black V of water shooting out behind us.
We hunched low should any more bullets fly. We seemed to be out of immediate danger. The vultures were somewhere behind us, and I couldn’t imagine how they’d catch us now.
Panting, Addison said, “That was the same creature we met in the Underground, wasn’t it?”
I realized I’d been holding my breath and so let it out, then nodded. Emma looked at me, waiting for more, but I was still processing, every nerve jangling with the strangeness of what had just happened. This much I knew: this time I’d nearly had him. It was as if, with each encounter, I dove a little deeper into the hollowgast’s nerve center. The words came easier, felt less foreign to my tongue, met less resistance from the hollow. Still, it was like a tiger onto which I’d managed to clap a dog leash. At any moment it might decide to turn and take a bite out of me, or any of us. And yet, for reasons beyond my understanding, it hadn’t.
Maybe, I thought, with another attempt or two, I could really get my hands around it. And then—and then. My God, what a thought.
Then we’d be unstoppable.
I gazed back at the ghost of a bridge, dust and wood pulp spiraling in the air where the structure had stood only moments ago. In the wreckage below, I watched for a limb to break the surface, but there was only a lifeless swirl of trash. I tried to feel for it, but my gut was useless now, wrung out and empty. Then the mud-colored mist closed behind us and painted away the view.
Just when I needed a monster, it had gotten itself killed.
* * *
The boat nodded as Sharon eased the throttle and banked right, through the slowly clearing murk, toward a block of ghastly tenements. They stood at the edge of the water in a vast unbroken wall, resembling not so much houses as the outermost boundary of a maze, scowling and fortresslike, with few points of entry. We drifted along at a crawl, searching for a way in. It was Emma who finally spotted one, though I had to squint to recognize it as more than just a trick of shadows.
To call it an alley would’ve been exaggerating. It was a slot canyon, narrow as a knife’s edge, a shoulder’s width from wall to wall and fifty times as high, its entrance marked by a moss-shagged ladder screwed flat to the bankside. I could see only a little distance in before the passage hid itself, curving away into sunless dark.
“Where does it go?” I asked.
“Where angels fear to tread,” Sharon replied. “This wasn’t the landing I’d have chosen for you, but our choices are limited now. Are you certain you wouldn’t rather leave the Acre altogether? There’s still time.”
“Quite certain,” Emma and Addison said simultaneously.
Me, I would’ve been happy to debate the matter—but it was too late to turn back now. Get them back or die trying was something I’d said in the past few days. Time to dive in.
“In that case, land ho,” Sharon said dryly. He retrieved the mooring rope from under his seat, tossed it over the ladder, and pulled us toward the bank. “Everyone out, please. Do watch your step. Wait, allow me.”
Sharon climbed the slippery, half-runged ladder with the nimbleness of someone who’d done it many times. Once at the top, he knelt on the bank and reached down to help each of us up in turn. Emma went first, then I handed up a nervous and wiggling Addison, and then, because I was proud and dumb, I climbed the ladder without taking Sharon’s hand and nearly slipped off.
The moment we were all safely on land, Sharon was climbing back down the ladder. He’d left the motor idling.
“Just a minute,” said Emma. “Where are you going?”
“Away from here!” Sharon replied, hopping from the ladder into his boat. “Would you mind tossing down that rope?”
“I will not! You must show us where to go first. We’ve no idea where we are!”
“I don’t do land tours. I’m strictly a boat guide.”
We exchanged looks of disbelief.
“Give us directions, at least!” I implored him.
“Or better yet, a map,” said Addison.