Murder of Crows Page 25

Burke followed, pulling out his badge and pushing his coat aside so that no one would miss the gun.

Personally, seeing the expression on Burke’s face, Monty didn’t think anyone was going to notice the gun, but he and Louis followed the captain inside. Plenty of customers filling the tables to grab bites to eat after work or waiting for their orders so they could take pizza home for family dinners.

“May I have your attention.” Burke’s voice boomed, cutting through the chatter. “And someone shut off that damn music!”

Silence.

He held up his badge in one hand and pointed at the customers with the other. “All of you. Out. Now. Hot Crust is closed for the next hour. They’ll box up your food so you can take it with you. You’ve got four minutes. And you.” Now he pointed to the deliveryman. “You sit over there.”

“You can’t do that.” A man wearing a manager’s name tag came out from behind the service counter. “He has deliveries to make.”

“I was told Hot Crust no longer makes deliveries. Therefore, you will not be making any deliveries. Three minutes, people. With or without the food.”

Some hurried up to the counter for take-out boxes. Most simply fled.

Burke waited until the customers were gone and all the owners or managers from the other stores in the Bird Park Plaza were crowded among the tables.

“If you don’t know why you’re here, you should,” Burke said. “I know for a fact that every business in this plaza was sent a warning about the penalties for not making deliveries—if you provide delivery service—and for refusing to sell merchandise to the terra indigene. You were told to remove the Humans Only signs from your stores and to sell and deliver merchandise in accordance with the agreements made between the city of Lakeside and the terra indigene. Many of you are now in violation of those agreements. As of this moment, you are all being held accountable. If you’re obeying orders and not willfully breaking the law, you will provide the name of the store owner, and he or she will be the individual looking at jail time and a hefty fine.”

“We have rights too,” said a man wearing a shirt with a Pet Palace logo on the pocket. “We’ve got the right to refuse service.”

“Any of you been paying attention to what’s happening in Talulah Falls?” Burke asked, giving them all his fierce-friendly smile. “I’ve been talking to police officers in the Falls all day, so I can tell you some things the news reports aren’t saying.”

Monty felt his stomach lurch. He’d heard plenty in the past few hours. He wasn’t sure he wanted to hear what else Burke, with all his various sources, could have discovered.

“The Talulah Falls Courtyard has been abandoned.” Burke ignored the few defiant cheers. “That means that, unlike us, there is no one the government or police can talk to, no one who will sit down with them now to try to work things out. Do you understand what that means? The town of Talulah Falls is cut off. The roads are barricaded or destroyed. Hundreds of vehicles clogged all the routes before people realized they were stranded. So nothing goes out and nothing comes in. No coal, no wood, no gasoline, no food, no medicines, no supplies of any kind. Whatever the town had before the explosion yesterday morning is all they have.”

“What about the tourists?” one of the managers asked. “Even this early in the year, there are tourists.”

“Now, that the town has in good supply. Lots of extra people using up what’s available.”

Mutters and uneasy shifting of feet.

“You think it’s a coincidence that the phone lines still work and the radio and television stations are still able to broadcast?” Burke asked. “Are you hearing the message, people? Because this is the message: You humans killed some of the terra indigene, and now you’re going to pay.”

“Killing a vampire is a favor to everyone,” another man said.

“Tell that to the families of people who will never be found,” Burke said coldly. “Tell that to the families of the four people—four humans—who were chopped up by the maniac who managed to kill one of the Sanguinati. Think about being locked in a town with someone running loose who has already chopped up a sixty-year-old woman and an eleven-year-old boy and filled canning jars with the pieces.”

A woman and two of the men rammed their way through the crowd to reach the restrooms. The rest of the people looked like they weren’t going to hold on to their stomachs much longer.

“You want more?” Burke asked. They all shook their heads, but he continued anyway. “A tornado swept through Talulah Falls University this afternoon during a Humans First and Last rally. The dormitories weren’t touched. Everything else? Piles of rubble. For all intents and purposes, the university is gone. And fires swept through the other college in the Falls. Again, the dormitories weren’t touched, but the rest of the buildings are gutted.”

Burke stared at all of them. He suddenly looked tired. “Ladies and gentlemen, all roads travel through the woods. What is happening in Talulah Falls is a harsh lesson. We need to learn from it. Bad things are happening right now in a lot of towns and villages across Thaisia, and those bad things have the terra indigene wondering if they want to tolerate our existence anymore. Our ancestors traded merchandise for land and skills for resources. That exchange is no different now than it was centuries ago. So if the merchants stop providing goods that are of interest to the Others, don’t be surprised if the resources we need to survive also dry up.”

Uneasy looks.

“Any business that still has a Humans Only sign in the window tomorrow will be fined. The owner will go to jail. If the sign is still there the following day, the next sign on the door will be Out of Business, and the owner will be put in the back of a patrol car and taken for a long ride.”

Monty glanced at Louis, who stared at Burke in shock.

“The Lakeside government won’t do that,” the Pet Palace manager said nervously.

“No, it won’t,” Burke agreed with frightening congeniality. Monty felt the floor dip and rise. People who committed heinous crimes were taken for a long ride into the wild country and left without food, water, or shoes. It was a death sentence.

Looking at Burke, Monty wondered about the man’s early years as a police officer. What had he seen that made him this committed to keeping the peace, to making his own kind of law to the point where he would take a business owner for a long ride? What was it about Burke that made his superiors yield when he wanted something that in some way affected the Others?

“We’re done here,” Burke said. “Go back to your stores.”

The first steps were hesitant, as if the owners and managers didn’t think he’d really let them go. Then the rush for the door.

“Lieutenant.” Burke opened his wallet and pulled out two fifties.

“Sir?”

“Order four sheet pizzas for the Courtyard. You and Kowalski can take them with you. I’m sure they’ll be ready in time for you to make your meeting with the Courtyard’s Business Association.”

“Of course,” Hot Crust’s manager stammered. “What would you like on them?”

Monty put in the order.

“Can we make our deliveries?” the manager asked.

“I don’t know,” Burke replied with a fierce smile. “Can you?”

“Yes. There won’t be any trouble with deliveries from now on.”

Burke wagged a finger at Monty and Louis. “Another moment of your time, gentlemen.”

They went outside. Monty drew in air that held a hint of exhaust but was a lot cleaner than the fear-laden air in the pizza place.

“We’re clear here,” Burke said with a nod to the officers still waiting for further orders.

The officers returned to their patrol cars and drove off. Monty noticed Kowalski waiting for him beside their car.

“Something else on your mind, Captain?” Louis asked.

“Four people were butchered along with a Sanguinati,” Burke said quietly.

“The older woman and the boy,” Monty said.

“And two women. Late teens or early twenties. Along with the tornado and fires, there were several very localized earthquakes—quakes just violent enough to shake the jars off pantry shelves.

Monty felt his stomach rise.

“The sick bastard who killed them had just started on the women. Have to figure he ran when his jars of specimens started breaking.”

Queer look in Burke’s eyes now.

“What about the women?” Monty asked.

“One of them was a resident of Talulah Falls and a student at the university. The other was a cassandra sangue. An investigating officer in the Falls e-mailed a photo of her. It’s in my car. If the opportunity arises, Lieutenant, find out if Ms. Corbyn knows the girl.”

Meg took a bite out of her second piece of pizza and chewed slowly, savoring the flavors and texture. She wasn’t really hungry enough for another piece, but the combination of sauce, cheese, and thick crust eased the hollowness in her belly in a way the steak and spinach salads couldn’t.

Not that she wasn’t grateful for the choice pieces of meat that had been cooked for her throughout the day or the salads that had been made. And she was grateful for the vitamins Dr. Lorenzo had given her and the careful way he’d used the butterfly bandages to close the long cut after he’d examined the wound and put on the ointment that would keep the wound from becoming infected.

When he’d commented about the cleanliness of the wound and looked at her with a question in his eyes, she claimed she didn’t know why the wound was so clean.

She had lied, and he knew it. They all knew it.

She had made a mistake out of desperation. She should have realized the addiction to the euphoria wouldn’t be shaken so easily.

No wonder so many girls died when the cutting wasn’t controlled by someone else. A blood prophet didn’t just want a cut; she needed a cut. And if you tried to ignore that essential truth about being a cassandra sangue, sooner or later something would act as the trigger that turned the need into a mindless compulsion—and that was when a girl would grab anything sharp enough to cut skin.

That was when girls made fatal mistakes.

She should have set up a schedule for cutting, should have arranged it so that someone could monitor her properly and make a record of whatever she saw. If she had done that …

None of the Others would tell her what happened to Simon. Was he all right? Something had gone wrong. She had cut across twice as much skin as she should have even for a long cut, and she had cut too deep. The prophecies raged through her like water rushing to embrace the emptiness before the fall. She had tried to hold in the prophecies, tried not to speak so that she could see the visions since there was no one to listen. But she saw glimpses of things so terrible and terrifying, she had to speak, had to experience the euphoria that would veil what was revealed.

Then Simon appeared, pushing at the bathroom door, banging it against her legs hard enough to bruise her. She hadn’t known about the bruises and wouldn’t have cared. All that mattered was having a listener.

But he had licked the cut, cleaned off some of the blood, and something happened. Simon wasn’t really Simon anymore. He wasn’t the leader; he wasn’t the Wolf with snarling intelligence. He was … taffy. All soft and gooey.

But the feel of his tongue on her skin, licking her as if she was the most wonderful thing in the world. Combined with the euphoria that flowed with her words, his tongue pleased her and pleasured her and made her want …

“Meg?” Jester urgently whispered in her ear. “Meg? Please stop thinking about whatever you’re thinking about.”

Blinking, she pulled her thoughts back to her surroundings.

The Coyote eased away from her while also leaning toward her and sniffing. When Nathan growled a warning, Jester moved as far away from her as he could without falling off the sofa.

Puzzled, Meg looked at Nathan—who blushed and whined softly before looking away. He shifted in his chair as if he couldn’t get comfortable.

Jake Crowgard, the only other individual in Henry’s living room, watched her with bright-eyed intensity.

Her panties were damp. She’d been thinking about Simon, and now her panties were damp.

And at least two of the males in the room could smell the arousal and need.

“Sorry,” she mumbled.

“It’s all right.” Jester gave her shoulder a cautious pat. “It’s just … confusing.”

Her appetite gone, Meg set the rest of the pizza slice on her plate and wiped her fingers on a napkin. In Wolf form, Simon would have licked her fingers clean.

Can’t think about Simon.

Nothing else she could think about right now. He’d been fine when he entered her bathroom. Then he wasn’t fine. Wasn’t Simon. Simon would have understood the importance of remembering the prophecy. Simon would have listened, wouldn’t have gotten distracted.

She had seen words written on the bathroom mirror when Henry carried her out. Was that all she’d said? So little for so much skin used? Or had there been more that was now lost?

Tess, Henry, and Vlad had told her Simon was all right, but she didn’t believe them. They wanted Simon to be all right. That wasn’t the same thing.

“Jester?” She chose her questions carefully. The Coyote was friendly but inclined toward dosing helpfulness with mischief. “Where is Simon?”

“He’s in that meeting with Lieutenant Montgomery,” Jester replied, glancing at Nathan. “The police came to the meeting. They brought the pizza.”

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