“That was unbelievable!”
“You got lucky, kid.”
“You sure you didn’t take ambro?”
All the while I was chanting under my breath for the hollow to stay down and stay dead, because I could feel it beginning to squirm, like a little kid who’d sat still for too long. It was antsy and hurt, and it required every spare ounce of my concentration to keep it from leaping up and filling its jaws with all the tempting peculiar flesh that surrounded it.
I’d finally reached the hollow’s chain and was looking for the padlock when the ambro dealer accosted me. I turned to see his creepy bearded mask just inches from my face.
“You think I don’t know what you’re doing?” he said. He was flanked by his two armed guards. “You think I’m blind?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. For a queasy second I thought he was on to me and knew the hollow wasn’t really dead. But his men weren’t even looking at it.
He grabbed me by my jacket collar. “No one hustles me!” he said. “This is my place!”
People were starting to back away. This guy clearly had a bad reputation.
“No one’s hustling anyone,” I heard Sharon say behind me. “Just calm down.”
“You can’t trick a trickster,” the dealer said. “You come in here claiming he’s fresh meat, never fought so much as a grim cub before, and then this?” He swept his arm toward the fallen hollow. “Not in a million years!”
“He’s dead,” I said. “Check for yourself if you want to.”
The dealer let go of my jacket and put his hands around my throat instead.
“HEY!” I heard Emma say.
The guards pointed their guns at her.
“My only question,” said the dealer, “is what are you selling?”
He began to squeeze.
“Selling?” I croaked.
He sighed, irritated at being forced to explain. “You come into my place, kill my hollow, and convince my customers they don’t need to buy my product?”
He thought I was a rival drug dealer, there to steal his business. Madness.
He squeezed harder.
“Let the boy go,” Sharon pleaded.
“If you’re not on ambro, then what is it? What are you selling?”
I tried to respond but couldn’t. I looked down at his hands. He took my hint and loosened his grip slightly.
“Speak,” he said magnanimously.
What I said next probably sounded to him like a choked cough.
The one on the left, I said in hollowspeak. And then the hollow sat up stiff and straight like Frankenstein’s monster come to life, and the few peculiars still nearby screamed and ran. The dealer turned to look and I punched him in the mask; the guards didn’t know who to shoot first, me or the hollow.
That split second of indecision was their undoing. In the time it took for them to turn their heads, the hollow had flung all three of its tongues at the closest guard. One disarmed him while the remaining two grabbed him by the waist, picked him up, and used him like a battering ram to knock down the other.
Then it was just the dealer and me. It seemed to dawn on him that I was the one controlling the hollow. He dropped to his knees and began to beg.
“This might be your place,” I said to him, “but that’s my hollow.”
I made it wrap a tongue around the dealer’s neck. I told him we would be leaving with the hollowgast, and the only way he would survive is if we were allowed to go in peace.
“Yes, yes,” he agreed, his voice shaking. “Yes, of course …”
I unlocked the padlock and unchained the hollow. With the crowd looking on, Emma, Sharon, and I led the limping hollow toward the open cage door, the dealer in front of us saying, “Don’t shoot! No one shoot!” as best he could with a hollowgast’s tongue collared around his neck.
We locked the cage behind us with most of the spectators still inside, then walked out through the ambro den, back the way we’d come, and onto the street. I was tempted to make a pit stop to destroy the dealer’s ambro supply but decided it wasn’t worth the risk. Let them choke on it. Besides, maybe it was better not to waste the stuff, if there was even a tiny chance that those stolen souls could one day be reunited with their owners.
We left the dealer on his hands and knees in the gutter, gasping for air, his mask dangling from one ear. We were about to put the whole filthy scene behind us when I heard a tiny growl and remembered the grimcubs.
I looked back at them, torn. They were at the end of their chains, straining to come with us.
“We can’t,” Sharon said, urging me on.
I might’ve left them if Emma hadn’t caught my eye. Do it, she mouthed.
“It’ll just take a second,” I said.
It took fifteen, in the end, to make the hollow uproot the post the cubs were chained to, and by then a gang of angry addicts had gathered outside the ambro den. It seemed worth it, though, when we left with those cubs trailing after, chains and post dragging behind them—slow and encumbered until my hollow, in a gesture all its own, scooped them into its arms and whisked them along.
* * *
It quickly became obvious that we had a problem. We’d walked only a few blocks, but already people on the street had noticed the hollow. To anyone but me it was just a half-visible collection of paint splotches, but it still attracted attention. And because we didn’t want anyone to see where we were going, we had to figure out a subtler way to get it back to Bentham’s.