Three – Snoutface
“Well, Hunter? Spit it out,” demands Park. Xav cuts him a swift warning glance and the younger boy shuts up.
Hunter’s lounging in the garbage king’s “palace” – the only simple club member allowed to do so. The palace is actually a hollowed out cave in a wall of odds and ends, held up by metal poles and slabs of sheetrock and bedded with just about every stained and ragged cushion in the dump. Some blinking Christmas lights are strung from the ceiling, sending the whole room into a parody of Yuletide cheer. Ho-ho-ho.
Park and I stand in the entrance, listening while Hunter gives his report. “I decided we’d been doing too much of our business on the east end, and that we needed to move downwind a little, at least for a few weeks until our scent blows off and the authorities cool down.”
“Smart enough,” Xav offers, tearing open a bag of dried fruit and nuts from his own personal stash. After throwing his head back to down a few swallows, he tosses it to Hunter, who picks through it with two long pincer-fingers.
Park and I elbow each other, straight faces barely holding. Xav sharing food with another was like one stray telling another where its bone stash was hidden. Either Xav and Hunter were better friends than we figured, or Xav – barrel chest and all – was scared stiff of our hunger-gatherer, who was all of four and a half feet and as skinny as a stick. Either theory merited the howls of laughter we were trying so hard to hold back.
“So,” Hunter removes a walnut from the bag with the tips of his fingers. It looks a moldy white color – but that could be the lighting. “I was scouting out the west end and I come across this old brownstone – really rundown. But the door was locked and there was a newspaper on the stoop so I figured it was lived-in.” He hands the bag back to Xav as politely as anything. “Thanks. Anyway, I gave it the once-over – there was no one there, but the TV set was on and I smelled food cooking, so go figure – and it looks pretty good.”
“We don’t rob homes, Hunter,” frowns Xav.
“I know,” Hunter leans back in a leaky beanbag chair and unslings his pistol. He polishes the barrel with his sleeve and aims at the far wall, making clicking noises with his tongue. I don’t know if he was intimidating Xav because he was angry at his judgment being questioned or if he was just fiddling with the weapon distractedly, but it gets a nervous fidget out of Xav.
“I suppose we could always try it,” he offers quickly. “If the resources are right.”
“It’s not a private home,” Hunter corrects. “There’s a shop in the back. No idea what they sell, but it’s chock full of scraps of stuff. Not food, but looks like there’s all kinds of weapons and gadgets and tools that’d be useful.”
I can picture Savvy drooling at the thought of getting his greasy paws all over that loot. I’m not that dry-mouthed myself; I’d been running out of warding material, and had been making due with placing the hexes at maximum distance from each other. It would work for human intruders and the smaller dragon cats, but a big one would be able to walk right through, in between two hexes where the signal was weakest. If I could get more stuff, I’d be able to place double the number of hexes, maybe even create a double line . . . I am distracted from my daze by shouting from outside.
Deep men’s voices, more than one. Three or four, from what I can make out. Savvy appears behind us, reporting calmly, “Snoutface is here.”
Mr. Snoggs, the owner of the junkyard. He’s tried to eject us several times, once or twice he even called the authorities for a surprise raid, but we’d always had the jump on him. Savvy and me had concealed the palace and the Nest and everyone’d evacuated. By the time the authorities so much as blinked, we’d vanished without a trace and Snoutface Snoggs was left looking like the idiot he was. Of course, there are several ways he could have succeeded in trying to run us off – we’d theorized about it one night, Park and Hunter and me. But like I said, he’s an idiot. And we weren’t about to clue him in.
But he’d never given up, and constantly invaded our turf, threatening horrible endings for us if we didn’t clear off.
Xav’s face goes livid with anger as Hunter carefully slips his gun down the back of his waistband and pulls his big shirt over it. Park takes his glasses off and rubs them on his shoulder. I dart out toward the Nest, where the rest of the guys bunk. As fun as it would be to see Snoutface walk through a hex field and get blasted back a mile or two, but it wouldn’t improve his mood, and he’s dangerous when he’s angry.
Xav puts on his “king” expression and saunters out of his cave to greet Snoutface. I have to admit it, he may be abusive at times and sickeningly self-centered, but he makes an imposing figure, almost as tall as Snoutface and just as broad. Folding his arms, he leans back and looks over his arched nose at the junkyard owner. “What do you want, asshole?” he shouts at Snoutface and his backup. “Why don’t you just get a life and let us go on with ours?”
“Hear, hear,” Park whispers to me as I jog back from shutting off the wards.
Snoutface squints at us, gritting his teeth in his jowls. But he’s scared. You can’t shake a stick at five street guys and expect to walk away without consequences. Still, he braves our fury and pinches his fingers together. “You boys are this close to me setting the Dobermans on you.”
“I’d eat those pound rejects before they could slurp a rope of drool,” Xav parries as Snoutface comes chest-to-chest with him. “Actually, I’m getting pretty hungry right now.”
“You know junk food isn’t good for you, Xav,” Park hollers, cupping his hands around his mouth theatrically. Savvy gives him a congratulating punch on the shoulder. Points for us.
Snoutface growls threats. “I could drag you all off right now, take you down to headquarters.” He jabs a bulbous thumb over his shoulder at the two men behind him, who take a menacing step forward in sync – just like they rehearsed it. “I’ve got the manpower.”
“Well, we’ve got the firepower,” Hunter retorts, pulling the gun from his waistband and aiming it at Snoutface. “Who bets bullet takes man? Want to lay down some odds?”
Snoutface backs up, and his friends to the same.
“You’re going to leave now,” Xav tells them. “Hunter will show you to the door.”
Hunter winks in affirmation at Xav, then steps forward, cocking the weapon. “This way, gentlemen. You’ll find wings and halos in the front hall. Or pitchforks – whichever you prefer.”