His voice echoed away. We waited, listening.
Somewhere two people were arguing.
A hacking cough.
Something heavy was dragged down steps.
“Well, it was a nice speech,” Emma sighed.
“Forget him, then,” I said, peering into the passages that branched away left, right, and straight ahead. “Which way?”
We chose a passage at random—straight on—and started down it. We’d gone only ten paces when we heard a voice say, “I wouldn’t go that way, if I were you. That’s Cannibals’ Alley, and it isn’t just a cute nickname.”
There was Sharon behind us, hands on his hips like a fitness coach. “My heart must be getting soft in my old age,” he said. “Either that or my head.”
“Does that mean you’ll help us?” said Emma.
A light rain had begun to fall. Sharon looked up, letting a little splash his hidden face. “I know a lawyer here. First I want you to sign a contract laying out what you owe me.”
“Fine, fine,” said Emma. “But you’ll help us?”
“Then I’ve got to see about getting my boat fixed.”
“Then I’ll help you, yes. Though I can’t promise any results, and I want to state at the outset that I think you’re all fools.”
We couldn’t quite bring ourselves to thank him, given what he’d put us through.
“Now stay close, and follow every instruction I give you to the letter. You killed two vultures today, and they’ll be hunting you, mark my words.”
We readily agreed.
“If they catch you, you don’t know me. Never saw me.”
We nodded like bobbleheads.
“And whatever you do, never, never touch so much as a drop of ambrosia, or on my eyes, you’ll never leave this place.”
“I don’t know what that is,” I said, and from their expressions I saw that Emma and Addison were likewise in the dark.
“You’ll find out,” Sharon said ominously, and with a swish of his cloak he turned and plunged into the maze.
Just before a cow is put to the hammer in a modern slaughterhouse, it is prodded through a winding maze. The tight curves and blind corners prevent the animal from seeing more than a short distance ahead, so it doesn’t realize until the last few steps, when the maze abruptly narrows and a metal collar clamps tight around its neck, where the journey has taken it. But as the three of us hurried after Sharon into the heart of Devil’s Acre, I felt sure I knew what was coming, if not when nor how. With each step and each turn, we threaded deeper inside a knot, one I feared we’d never work apart.
The fetid air did not move, its only outlet an uneven crack of sky high above our heads. The bulged and slumping walls were so narrow that we had to go shoulder-first in places, the tight spots greased black by the clothes of those who’d gone before. There was nothing natural here, nothing green, nothing living at all save scurrying vermin and the bloodshot-eyed revenants who lurked behind doorways and under grates in the street, and who surely would’ve jumped at us if not for our towering, black-clad guide. We were chasing Death himself into the pit of Hell.
We turned and turned again. Every passage looked just like the one before it. There were no signs, no markers. Either Sharon was navigating by some brilliant feat of memory, or completely at random, trying to throw off any Ditch pirates who might’ve been pursuing us.
“Do you really know where we’re going?” Emma asked him.
“Of course I do!” Sharon barked, bombing around a corner without looking back. Then he stopped, doubled back, and stepped down through a doorway sunk half below street level. Inside was a dank cellar, just five feet high and lit by the merest breath of sallow gray light. We ran hunched along a subterranean corridor, discarded animal bones underfoot, the ceiling brushing our heads, past things I tried not to see—a slumped figure in a corner, sleepers shivering on miserable mats of straw, a boy in rags lying on the ground with a beggar’s pail bangled around one arm. At its far end the passage widened into a room, and in the light of a few grimed windows there knelt a pair of miserable washerwomen, scrubbing laundry in a stinking pool of Ditch water.
Then we mounted more steps and went out, thank God, into a walled courtyard common to the backs of several buildings. In some other reality it might’ve contained a happy patch of grass or a little gazebo, but this was Devil’s Acre, and it was a dump and a pigsty. Waves of fly-blown trash tossed from windows crested against the walls, and in the center, staked crookedly in the mud, was a wooden pen in which a skinny boy stood guarding an even skinnier pig—just one. By a mud-brick wall a woman sat smoking and reading a newspaper while a young girl stood behind her, picking nits from her hair. The woman and girl took no notice as we trooped past, but the boy leaned the tines of a pitchfork at us. When it was clear we had no designs on his pig, he sank into an exhausted squat.
Emma stopped in the middle of the yard to look up at lines of laundry strung between roof gutters. She pointed out again that our bloodstained clothes made us look like participants in a murder, and suggested we should change. Sharon replied that murderers were hardly outlandish here and urged her on, but she hung back, arguing that a wight in the Underground had seen our bloodstained clothes and radioed his comrades about us; they made us too easy to pick out of a crowd. Really, I think it was more that she felt uncomfortable in a blouse now stiff with another person’s blood. I did, too—and if we found our friends again, I didn’t want them to see us like this.