Murder of Crows Page 11

He crouched to take a look. She’d smeared her ankle with the stinky ointment humans used when they got hurt. To him, that medicine smell meant wound. But the scrape above her ankle bone? She could have done that brushing against a branch or a stone. Definitely not a bite. Just a layer or two of skin stripped off by a tooth. Just enough for blood to replace the missing skin.

Is she really that fragile? Simon thought as he studied the scrape. Can it take so little to damage her? Then again, her skin had split just because the winter air was dry.

How could she live among them? How could she play with Sam—or with him? No matter how careful they were, there would be bumps, scrapes, nicks. How long could she survive? It was said the cassandra sangue’s body had a thousand cuts. Was that just the cuts with the razor, or did every little scrape count as well?

As soon as he stood, she pulled up her sock and moved away from the step stool.

“It wasn’t Nathan’s fault,” she said. “If it was anyone’s fault, it was mine. I needed to cut. Something was going to burst inside me if I couldn’t get it out.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “Did something happen to one of the Sanguinati?”

“No.” But it could have. Vlad had gone off alone without telling anyone anything, not even the direction he was heading. If he hadn’t been called back … “No, all the Sanguinati are back in the Courtyard.” He took a step toward her, immediately stopping when she tensed. “Meg, this isn’t good for you. Twice in one day? There has to be something you can do, that we can do.”

“What? Put me in a cage?”

He flinched. “I’ve had enough of cages.” He’d kept his nephew Sam in a cage for two years after Daphne was killed. It had been the only way to keep the pup safe. That had been a strain on all the Wolfgard living in the Courtyard. He wasn’t going to do it again—even if it meant letting Meg die young. “If you cut when you’re out of control, you could kill yourself.” He might have to let it happen, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t fight against it.

“I know.” She hesitated. “I want to think about this for a little bit.”

She sounded dismissive. Resentment swelled up inside him.

“Why are you shutting me out?” he shouted.

She jolted, looking as skittish as a lame rabbit. Then her gray eyes lit with anger. “I’m shutting you out? I tell you I’m not ready to have sex, and you treat me like I’m diseased!”

“What?” Shit, f**k, damn. Females! “I thought we settled this. And I wasn’t treating you like you were diseased. That’s ridiculous.”

“On Earthday, you didn’t invite me to take a walk with you and Sam. And when I came over for movie night, you were so distant, like you didn’t want to be bothered with me anymore.” Her eyes filled with tears.

Not fair, Meg. That is so not fair! “I wasn’t being distant. I was trying to be polite!” He paced for a minute, snarling under his breath. “There are always rules and more rules when it comes to dealing with humans. But I don’t know the rules for this because I’ve never had a human friend. I like spending time with you and playing with you. I like the way the three of us cuddle together on the sofa when we watch a movie. Those things are important to me.”

“They’re important to me too,” Meg said, sniffling as she wiped a tear off her cheek.

“Then why can’t we do that?” he asked, trying not to whine.

She looked away, her brow furrowed like she was thinking hard. “The other morning, why did you shift to human and get into bed with me?”

They were back to that? Really? “To talk to you. To find out what had scared you so much that you kicked me off the bed.” He growled in frustration. “All I wanted was my share of the covers.”

“But you have fur.”

“Not in this form.” He waved a hand to indicate his body. “Humans get upset when they see terra indigene in between forms, and you were already upset. I keep trying to be polite, and you keep slamming my tail in the door. Not my actual tail but … you know.” Did she know? With Meg it was hard to tell.

He huffed out a breath. “I just wanted to talk.” Human females were supposed to like talking. But Meg hadn’t been raised like a typical human female, so maybe this talking wasn’t any more natural to her than it was to him.

“You can’t communicate the way terra indigene can with each other, so I couldn’t talk to you in Wolf form,” he continued. “That’s the only reason I shifted. And I didn’t think cuddling for warmth would be a problem when you were okay with it when I was Wolf.”

He waited, giving her time to absorb what he’d said. That’s what Meg did. She absorbed images, sounds, experiences, and those things became the touchstones she used to convey what she saw in prophecies. But more than that, right now he wanted her to understand for herself why her friendship was important to him.

“A leader needs to look beyond his own kind, needs the obedience of everyone in the Courtyard because we’re surrounded by the enemy.”

“Who are, in turn, surrounded by the rest of the terra indigene,” Meg replied thoughtfully.

Simon nodded. “We’re here to watch the humans and to acquire the things humans make that we want to have. We may all be earth natives, but we aren’t the same kind of earth natives. And although we’ll stand together against the common enemy, not all Courtyards are … pleasant … places to live. When a leader spends too much time with his own kind, he’s not always trusted by the rest of the terra indigene living in that Courtyard.”

Meg said nothing. Then, “You’re lonely, aren’t you? But you have friends here, Simon.”

“I don’t want to cuddle up to Henry. Or Vlad.”

He could see her taking that in. Leader. Lonely. But not as lonely since Meg had come to the Courtyard.

“You want to be friends again?” she asked, studying him.

“Being friends isn’t a small thing, Meg.”

“No, it’s not a small thing.” She gave him a tentative smile. “But maybe we could have a friend rule to avoid confusion if you need to talk to me.”

He hadn’t been confused until she started acting weird about his shifting to human the morning she dreamed about the Crows, but he said, “All right. Like what?”

A genuine smile this time. “I don’t know. I’ll think about that too.” The smile faded. “Can Nathan come back and be watch Wolf?”

“Is that what you want?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll tell him he can come back. But, Meg? I want some rules too about you using the razor when you’re too upset to think straight.”

She hesitated. “It’s important for me to have the razor, to be the one who chooses.”

“I know that.” He hadn’t forgotten her telling him she could use anything to cut her skin. At the time it had been a threat to force him to return the razor that had her designation, cs759, engraved on one side of the handle. Now, realizing how many things she could use to violate her skin, he saw the razor as a necessary evil—a thin, precise blade honed so sharp it did the least amount of damage.

But every cut brought her closer to the one that would kill her.

<Simon, Lieutenant Montgomery is here,> Vlad said.

“I have to go. The police want to talk to Jenni, Starr, and Julia. I’ll send Nathan over.”

As he turned to leave, Meg said, “Simon? Nyx didn’t mean to hurt me either. Just so you know now and don’t get mad about it later.”

He turned back and saw her push up her sleeves. He stared at the dark bruises on both of her wrists. Sanguinati were strong. So were Wolves. But Nyx wouldn’t have held on with more force than necessary. How hard had Meg struggled to get those kinds of bruises?

“You think hard about why things went out of control today,” he said softly. “You think real hard.”

And so will I.

CHAPTER 7

“Can you think of anything else?” Monty asked, keeping his eyes focused on his notes to avoid looking at the three females sitting on the other side of the table in the Courtyard’s meeting room. What he’d mistaken for oddly styled bangs were actually small feathers that formed a crown at the top of each forehead, rising and flattening in response to his questions.

If anyone needed proof that the Others weren’t human, that mix of feathers and hair would do it. And it was an indication of how a loss of composure could affect the terra indigene’s ability to hold a human shape.

The two Crows, Jenni and Starr, held hands and huddled as close together as the chairs allowed. The Hawk, Julia, looked like she needed a cuddle but wouldn’t ask for one from anyone in the room.

Simon Wolfgard, Blair Wolfgard, Vladimir Sanguinati, and Henry Beargard were in the room as observers. So was Monty’s partner, Officer Kowalski.

He’d gone over the Crows’ movements. Added to the information he’d received from the trash collectors and the residents on the street, it formed a picture that gave him a feeling of icy sickness. The Crowgard regularly went out on collection day, paying special attention to the upscale neighborhood near Lakeside Park. The heavy-plastic container used for food debris wasn’t usually of interest to them because they had plenty of food in the Courtyard, although they often let the crows in the neighborhood know about any available food they spotted. No, the Crowgard were mostly interested in the open metal cans that held all kinds of potential treasures—things the humans were discarding as used up or broken. If a third of the Crows each found one item of interest, they all considered it a successful “hunt.”

This morning, several cans had bits and baubles that were sure to catch the eye of a Crow. Much more than usual, Jenni said, even for that street. In fact, the pickings had been so good, Jenni and her sisters had called to the rest of the Crowgard to come over and help them with the bounty. Regular crows were also flocking to that street because of food spilled around the cans.

Jake Crowgard had found an unsoiled piece of pizza between the cans of one house. After consuming a couple of bites, he spotted the box of a building set he liked and left the food for the regular crows.

And then Meg Corbyn became hysterical and Simon threatened all the Crows with expulsion from the Courtyard if they didn’t return immediately. So they abandoned their prizes and were heading home when the garbage truck turned the corner.

As the truck came down the street, the crows who had been eating the food dumped around the cans tried to leave. But they kept fluttering and pitching forward, unable to fly away. That’s when Jenni and Starr, who had stayed to watch the street, realized there was a real danger. And then two cars came roaring down the street. One of the cars hit a man from the truck and kept going, swerving this way and that in order to run over the most crows—and the birds didn’t even try to get out of the way.

“It could have been us,” Jenni said, trembling. “Without our Meg giving the warning, it would have been us.”

Yes, it would have been, Monty thought grimly. “What about Jake? Is he all right?”

“He will be,” Simon said.

Wolfgard’s amber eyes had flickers of red, a sign of temper.

“The people who live on that street didn’t do this,” Monty said. “When questioned, they all thought the food dumped around the cans had been caused by teenagers doing a bit of mischief. But when they saw the items that had been left in their cans as bait, they insisted those weren’t things that they had put out.”

“Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” Blair said.

“They’re afraid of reprisals. I won’t deny that,” Monty replied. “And many of them admitted that they put the ‘almost usable’ discards on top of the rest of the debris because some people who run flea market stalls drive by at night to look for items they can resell. But the items that were left as bait didn’t have enough value to be worth the effort of cleaning them up or repairing in order to sell again.”

Jenni sniffed. “There were shinies.”

Which only proved that whoever had planned this had known what would draw the Crows and keep them around long enough to poke in the cans and eat some of the food so conveniently available.

“I think that’s all the questions I have for the ladies,” Monty said as he closed his notebook and tucked it in his pocket. “But I would like a word with you, Mr. Wolfgard, if you can spare the time.”

“That’s fine,” Simon said. “I have something to discuss with you too.”

Henry Beargard looked at Simon and nodded. Then the Grizzly led the rest of the terra indigene out of the room. When Monty made a subtle gesture, Kowalski said, “I’ll warm up the car,” and left.

Alone with the Wolf, Monty sat back in his chair. “Why would someone target the Crows?”

Simon cocked his head, clearing surprised by the question. “What?”

“Out of all the different kinds of terra indigene, why go after the Crows? In Jerzy, the attack took place on a night when the Crowgard were using the house the Others owned in the village. In Walnut Grove, food was used to lure the birds into position to be attacked by the dogs—and the main target was the Crows. And now here, a baited street.” Monty leaned forward. “So I’m asking you: What is it about the Crowgard that would make someone feel the need to get them out of the way?”

He had the Wolf’s attention. The terra indigene must know that Crows died each time there was an attack, but he’d wondered if the more formidable kinds of earth natives had considered that the Crows were the primary target.

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