“Oh, pretty often,” said Millard. “Arranging the hollows’ meals is what wights spend most of their time doing. They look for peculiars when they can, but a gobsmacking portion of their energy and effort is spent tracking down common victims for the hollows, animal and human, and then hiding the mess.” His tone was academic, as if discussing the breeding patterns of a mildly interesting species of rodent.
“But don’t the wights get caught?” I said. “I mean, if they’re helping murder people, you’d think—”
“Some do,” Emma said. “Wager you’ve heard of a few, if you follow the news. There was one fellow, they found him with human heads in the icebox and gibletty goodies in a stock pot over a low boil, like he was making Christmas dinner. In your time this wouldn’t have been so very long ago.”
I remembered—vaguely—a sensationalized late-night TV special about a cannibalistic serial killer from Milwaukee who’d been apprehended in similarly gruesome circumstances.
“You mean … Jeffrey Dahmer?”
“I believe that was the gentleman’s name, yes,” said Millard. “Fascinating case. Seems he never lost his taste for the fresh stuff, though he’d not been a hollow for many years.”
“I thought you guys weren’t supposed to know about the future,” I said.
Emma flashed a canny smile. “The bird only keeps good things about the future to herself, but you can bet we hear all the brown-trouser bits.”
Then Miss Peregrine returned, pulling Enoch and Horace behind her by their shirtsleeves. Everyone came to attention.
“We’ve just had word of a new threat,” she announced, giving me an appreciative nod. “A man outside our loop has died under suspicious circumstances. We can’t be certain of the cause or whether it represents a true threat to our security, but we must conduct ourselves as if it did. Until further notice, no one may leave the house, not even to collect vegetables or bring in a goose for the evening meal.”
A collective groan arose, over which Miss Peregrine raised her voice. “This has been a challenging few days for us all. I beg your continued patience.”
Hands shot up around the room, but she rebuffed all questions and marched off to secure the doors. I ran after her in a panic. If there really was something dangerous on the island, it might kill me the minute I set foot outside the loop. But if I stayed here, I’d be leaving my father defenseless, not to mention worried sick about me. Somehow, that seemed even worse.
“I need to go,” I said, catching up to Miss Peregrine.
She pulled me into an empty room and closed the door. “You will keep your voice down,” she commanded, “and you will respect my rules. What I said applies to you as well. No one leaves this house.”
“Thus far I have allowed you an unprecedented measure of autonomy to come and go as you please, out of respect for your unique position. But you may have already been followed here, and that puts my wards’ lives in jeopardy. I will not permit you to endanger them—or yourself—any further.”
“Don’t you understand?” I said angrily. “Boats aren’t running. Those people in town are stuck. My father is stuck. If there really is a wight, and it’s who I think it is, he and my dad have almost gotten into one fight already. If he just fed a total stranger to a hollow, who do you think he’s going after next?”
Her face was like stone. “The welfare of the townspeople is none of my concern,” she said. “I won’t endanger my wards. Not for anyone.”
“It isn’t just townspeople. It’s my father. Do you really think a couple of locked doors will stop me from going?”
“Perhaps not. But if you insist on leaving here, then I insist you never return.”
I was so shocked I had to laugh. “But you need me,” I said.
“Yes, we do,” she replied. “We do very much.”
* * *
I stormed upstairs to Emma’s room. Inside was a tableau of frustration that might’ve been straight out of Norman Rockwell, if Norman Rockwell had painted people doing hard time in jail. Bronwyn stared woodenly out the window. Enoch sat on the floor, whittling a piece of hard clay. Emma was perched on the edge of her bed, elbows on knees, tearing sheets of paper from a notebook and igniting them between her fingers.
“You’re back!” she said when I came in.
“I never left,” I replied. “Miss Peregrine wouldn’t let me.” Everyone listened as I explained my dilemma. “I’m banished if I try to leave.”
Emma’s entire notebook ignited. “She can’t do that!” she cried, oblivious to the flames licking her hand.
“She can do what she likes,” said Bronwyn. “She’s the Bird.”
Emma threw down her book and stamped out the fire.
“I just came to tell you I’m going, whether she wants me to or not. I won’t be held prisoner, and I won’t bury my head in the sand while my own father might be in real danger.”
“Then I’m coming with you,” Emma said.
“You ain’t serious,” replied Bronwyn.
“What you are is three-quarters stupid,” said Enoch. “You’ll turn into a wrinkled old prune, and for what? Him?”
“I won’t,” said Emma. “You’ve got to be out of the loop for hours and hours before time starts to catch up with you, and it won’t take nearly that long, will it, Jacob?”
“It’s a bad idea,” I said.
“What’s a bad idea?” said Enoch. “She don’t even know what she’s risking her life to do.”
“Headmistress won’t like it,” said Bronwyn, stating the obvious. “She’ll kill us, Em.”
Emma stood up and shut the door. “She won’t kill us,” she said, “those things will. And if they don’t, living like this might just be worse than dying. The Bird’s got us cooped up so tight we can hardly breathe, and all because she doesn’t have the spleen to face whatever’s out there!”
“Or not out there,” said Millard, who I hadn’t realized was in the room with us.
“But she won’t like it,” Bronwyn repeated.
Emma took a combative step toward her friend. “How long can you hide under the hem of that woman’s skirt?”
“Have you already forgotten what happened to Miss Avocet?” said Millard. “It was only when her wards left the loop that they were killed and Miss Bunting kidnapped. If they’d only stayed put, nothing bad would’ve happened.”
“Nothing bad?” Emma said dubiously. “Yes, it’s true that hollows can’t go through loops. But wights can, which is just how those kids were tricked into leaving. Should we sit on our bums and wait for them to come through our front door? What if rather than clever disguises, this time they bring guns?”
“That’s what I’d do,” Enoch said. “Wait till everyone’s asleep and then slide down the chimney like Santa Claus and BLAM!” He fired an imaginary pistol at Emma’s pillow. “Brains on the wall.”
“Thank you for that,” Millard said, sighing.
“We’ve got to hit them before they know we know they’re there,” said Emma, “while we’ve still got the element of surprise.”
“But we don’t know they’re there!” said Millard.
“We’ll find out.”
“And how do you propose to do that? Wander around until you see a hollow? What then? ‘Excuse me, we were wondering what your intentions might be, vis à vis eating us.’ ”
“We’ve got Jacob,” said Bronwyn. “He can see them.”
I felt my throat tighten, aware that if this hunting party formed, I would be in some way responsible for everyone’s safety.
“I’ve only ever seen one,” I warned them. “So I wouldn’t exactly call myself an expert.”
“And if he shouldn’t happen to see one?” said Millard. “It could either mean that there are none to be seen or that they’re hiding. You’d still be clueless, as you so clearly are now.”
Furrowed brows all around. Millard had a point.
“Well, it appears that logic has prevailed yet again,” he said. “I’m off to fetch some porridge for supper, if any of you would-be mutineers would like to join me.”
The bedsprings creaked as he got up and moved toward the door. But before he could leave, Enoch leapt to his feet and cried, “I’ve got it!”
Millard stopped. “Got what?”
Enoch turned to me. “The bloke who may or may not have been eaten by a hollow—do you know where they’re keeping him?”
“At the fishmonger’s.”
He rubbed his hands together. “Then I know how we can be sure.”
“And how’s that?” said Millard.
“We’ll ask him.”
* * *
An expeditionary team was assembled. Joining me would be Emma, who flatly refused to let me go alone, Bronwyn, who was loath to anger Miss Peregrine but insisted that we needed her protection, and Enoch, whose plan we were to carry out. Millard, whose invisibility might have come in handy, would have no part of it, and he had to be bribed just to keep from ratting us out.
“If we all go,” Emma reasoned, “the Bird won’t be able to banish Jacob. She’ll have to banish all four of us.”
“But I don’t want to be banished!” said Bronwyn.
“She’d never do it, Wyn. That’s the point. And if we can make it back before lights-out, she may not even realize we were gone.”
I had my doubts about that, but we all agreed it was worth a shot.
It went down like a jailbreak. After dinner, when the house was at its most chaotic and Miss Peregrine at her most distracted, Emma pretended to head for the sitting room and I for the study. We met a few minutes later at the end of the upstairs hallway, where a rectangle of ceiling pulled down to reveal a ladder. Emma climbed it and I followed, pulling it closed after us, and we found ourselves in a tiny, dark attic space. At one end was a vent, easily unscrewed, that led out onto a flat section of roof.
We stepped into the night air to find the others already waiting. Bronwyn gave us each a crushing hug and handed out black rain slickers she’d snagged, which I’d suggested we wear to provide some measure of protection from the storm raging outside the loop. I was about to ask how we were planning to reach the ground when I saw Olive float into view past the edge of the roof.
“Who’s keen for a game of parachute?” she said, smiling broadly. She was barefoot and wore a rope knotted around her waist. Curious what she was attached to, I peeked over the roof to see Fiona, rope in hand, hanging out a window and waving up at me. Apparently, we had accomplices.
“You first,” Enoch barked.
“Me?” I said, backing nervously away from the edge.
“Grab hold of Olive and jump,” Emma said.
“I don’t remember this plan involving me shattering my pelvis.”
“You won’t, dummy, if you just hang on to Olive. It’s great fun. We’ve done it loads of times.” She thought for a moment, “Well, one time.”
There seemed to be no alternative, so I steeled myself and approached the roof’s edge. “Don’t be frightened!” Olive said.
“Easy for you to say,” I replied. “You can’t fall.”
She reached out her arms and bear-hugged me and I hugged her back, and she whispered, “Okay, go.” I closed my eyes and stepped into the void. Instead of the drop I’d feared, we drifted slowly to the ground like a balloon leaking helium.
“That was fun,” Olive said. “Now let go!”
I did, and she went rocketing back up to the roof, saying “Wheeeee!” all the way. The others shushed her and then, one after another, they hugged her and floated down to join me. When we were all together we began sneaking toward the moon-capped woods, Fiona and Olive waving behind us. Maybe it was my imagination, but the breeze-blown topiary creatures seemed to wave at us, too, with Adam nodding a somber farewell.
* * *
When we stopped at the bog’s edge to catch our breath, Enoch reached into his bulging coat and handed out packages wrapped in cheesecloth. “Take these,” he said. “I ain’t carryin’ em all.”
“What are they?” asked Bronwyn, undoing the cloth to reveal a hunk of brownish meat with little tubes shunting out of it. “Ugh, it stinks!” she cried, holding it away from her.
“Calm down, it’s only a sheep heart,” he said, thrusting something of roughly the same dimensions into my hands. It stank of formaldehyde and, even through the cloth, felt unpleasantly moist.
“I’ll chuck my guts if I have to carry this,” Bronwyn said.
“I’d like to see that,” Enoch grumbled, sounding offended. “Stash it in your slicker and let’s get on with it.”
We followed the hidden ribbon of solid ground through the bog. I’d been over it so many times now, I’d almost forgotten how dangerous it could be, how many lives it had swallowed over the centuries. Stepping onto the cairn mound, I told everyone to button up their coats.
“What if we see someone?” asked Enoch.
“Just act normal,” I said. “I’ll tell them you’re my friends from America.”
“What if we see a wight?” asked Bronwyn.