“You never told me that,” I said quietly.
“It’s not something I like to talk about.”
“I’m very sorry that happened to you,” said Addison. “Was that woman back there—was she the one who kidnapped you?”
Emma thought for a moment.
“It happened such a long time ago. I’ve blocked out the worst of it, including my abductor’s face. But I know this. If you’d left me alone with that woman, I’m not sure I could’ve stopped myself from taking her life.”
“We’ve all got demons to slay,” I said.
I leaned against a boarded window, a sudden wave of exhaustion breaking over me. How long had we been awake? How many hours since Caul had revealed himself? It seemed like days ago, though it couldn’t have been more than ten or twelve hours. Every moment since had been a war, a nightmare of struggle and terror without end. I could feel my body inching toward collapse. Panic was the only thing keeping me upright, and whenever it began to fade, I did, too.
For the merest fraction of a second, I allowed my eyes to close. Even in that slim black parenthesis, horrors awaited me. A specter of eternal death, crouched and feeding upon the body of my grandfather, its eyes weeping oil. Those same eyes planted with the twin stalks of garden shears, howling as it sank into a boggy grave. Its master’s face contorted in pain, tumbling backward into a void, gutshot, screaming. I had slain my demons already, but the victories were fleeting; others had risen up quickly to replace them.
My eyes flew open at the sound of footsteps behind me, on the other side of the boarded-up window. I hopped away and turned. Though the store looked abandoned, someone was inside, and they were coming out.
There it was: panic. I was awake again. The others had heard the noise, too. Acting on collective instinct, we ducked behind a stack of firewood nearby. Through the logs I peeked at the storefront, reading the faded sign that hung above the door.
Munday, Dyson and Strype, attnys at law. Hated and feared since 1666.
A bolt slid and slowly the door opened. A familiar black hood appeared: Sharon. He looked around, judged the coast clear, then slipped out and locked the door behind him. As he hurried away in the direction of Louche Lane, we consulted in whispers about whether to go after him. Did we need him anymore? Could he be trusted? Maybe and maybe. What had he been doing in that shuttered storefront? Was this the lawyer he’d talked about seeing? Why the sneaking?
Too many questions, too many uncertainties about him. We decided we could make it on our own. We stayed put and watched as he turned ghostly in the murk and was gone.
* * *
We set out to find Smoking Street and the wights’ bridge. Not wanting to risk another unpredictable encounter, we resolved to search without asking for directions. That became easier once we discovered the Acre’s street signs, which were concealed in the most inconvenient places—behind public benches at knee height, dangling from the tops of lampposts, inscribed into worn cobblestones underfoot—but even with their help, we took as many wrong turns as right. It seemed the Acre had been designed to drive those trapped inside it mad. There were streets that ended at blank walls only to begin again elsewhere. Streets that curved so sharply they spiraled back on themselves. Streets with no name—or two or three. None were as tidy or tended to as Louche Lane, where it was clear a special effort had been made to create a pleasing environment for shoppers in the market for peculiar flesh—the idea of which, now that I’d seen Lorraine’s wares and heard Emma’s story, turned my stomach.
As we wandered, I began to get a handle on the Acre’s unique geography, learning the blocks less by their names than by their character. Each street was distinct, the shops along them grouped according to type. Doleful Street boasted two undertakers, a medium, a carpenter who worked exclusively with “repurposed coffinwood,” a troupe of professional funeral-wailers who did weekend duty as a barbershop quartet, and a tax accountant. Oozing Street was oddly cheerful, with flower boxes hanging from windowsills and houses painted bright colors; even the slaughterhouse that anchored it was an inviting robin’s-egg blue, and I resisted an odd impulse to go inside and ask for a tour. Periwinkle Street, on the other hand, was a cesspit. There was an open sewer running down its center, a thriving population of aggressive flies, and sidewalks that overflowed with putrefying vegetables, the property of a cut-rate greengrocer whose sign claimed he could turn them fresh again with a kiss.
Attenuated Avenue was just fifty feet long and had only one business: two men selling snacks from a basket on a sled. Children crowded around, clamoring for handouts, and Addison veered off to snuffle around their feet for droppings. I was about to call after him when one of the men shouted, “Cat’s meat! Boiled cat’s meat here!” He came scurrying back on his own, tail tucked between his legs, whimpering, “I shall never eat again, never, never again …”
We approached Smoking Street from Upper Smudge. The closer we got, the more the block seemed to wither, its storefronts abandoned, its sidewalks emptying, the pavement blackening with currents of ash that blew around our feet, as if the street itself had been infected by some creeping death. At the end it curved sharply to the right, and just before the bend was an old wooden house with an equally old man guarding its stoop. He swept at the ash with a stubbly broom, but it piled up faster than he could ever hope to collect it.
I asked him why he bothered. He looked up suddenly, hugging the broom to his chest as if afraid I’d steal it. His feet were bare and black and his pants were sooty to the knee. “Someone’s got to,” he said. “Can’t let the place go to hell.”
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