Murder of Crows Page 34

Mom always has excellent timing. “Could use some help here,” he said quickly, turning away so it would look like a personal call and not in some way connected to the stranger.

“Steve, I just had the strangest feeling.” A pause. “What kind of help?”

“Do you have pencil and paper handy?”

“Yes.”

Of course she did. “Write this down.” Keeping his voice low, Steve gave her the license plate number and the make and model of the car. “Hang on to that. I’ll call back.” He ended the call just as the man reached him and Roger.

Short. Dapper. Pale hair cut so short it almost wasn’t there. Little glasses. A sweet smile.

Steve hated him on sight, but he put on his “tell no secrets” expression and waited. He had a feeling the man really didn’t want to talk to him, and especially didn’t want to attract the notice of a cop. All the more reason to make sure this stranger did talk to them.

“You’re a long ways from home,” Steve said, making a passing gesture at the car.

The man looked back at the vehicle, then focused on Steve. “Ah. Yes, I am. A business trip to several cities in the Northeast Region. I was going to visit Talulah Falls—I’ve heard so much about the waterfalls there. But apparently there’s been some trouble, and no one but residents are allowed entrance?”

Light voice. Easy to dismiss and yet oddly mesmerizing. A voice that whispered trust me underneath the spoken words.

“Television news stations in the Midwest didn’t report on it?” Steve asked.

“I haven’t paid much attention. Sometimes such things distract one from what is important. I was hoping to speak to someone in authority. Could either of you gentlemen point me in the right direction?”

“No need to point.” The space between Steve’s shoulder blades twitched and twinged. “I am the mayor of this fine village, and my friend here is with the police.” He waited a beat. “And who might you be?”

“Phineas Jones.”

Wishing he were wearing gloves and wouldn’t have to touch that skin, Steve looked at the extended hand a moment too long before completing the handshake.

“What business are you in, Mr. Jones?” Roger asked.

“I’m more a representative of a philanthropic endeavor than a business,” Jones replied.

“There aren’t enough people in the Midwest interested in this philanthropic endeavor, so you have to drive all the way up here? That’s a lot of miles to travel and gas coupons to use for a might-be-maybe venture.” Roger scratched his head, then resettled his hat. “Of course, you might have a couple of interested parties lined up already that would make the expense worthwhile.”

A heavy silence. Jones’s sweet smile didn’t change, but it somehow seemed colder.

Right on target, Roger, Steve thought.

“I’m a specialist in a very particular field,” Jones finally said. “And while I had intended to visit the Falls and see this natural wonder for myself, I’m here in Ferryman’s Landing because … Well, to put it delicately, I had heard that a girl took her own life last year because of an addiction to cutting her skin. Some parents insist that girls will outgrow this behavior and don’t take steps to get their child the professional help she needs. Studies have shown that if one girl is discovered displaying this behavior, there are several more in the community who are still successfully hiding their addiction. Parents may see symptoms without fully understanding what they’re seeing. Until it’s too late.”

Steve didn’t think Phineas Jones missed much, but he hoped the man couldn’t detect his uneasiness.

“I think the incident was reported incorrectly,” Steve said.

Cold, sweet smile. “Oh? How so? A girl jumped into the river and drowned last year. What can be incorrect about that?”

“Nothing, as far as it goes. Except she didn’t jump into the river. She fell into the river. Fast current here. Lots of rapids farther up. Most people who live around the water know how to swim, but the river takes one or two a year. And at least one boat each year rides the falls down to the rocks. You may have heard on the news that some fools tried to go out during foggy weather a few days ago. There are rescue boats and volunteers still down there fishing out pieces of boats and bodies. It’s a tragedy when it happens, but it does happen.”

“Perhaps I should talk to the administrators of your schools. Sometimes school personnel—”

“Mr. Jones,” Steve said pleasantly. “I think you should get back in your car and drive away. It doesn’t matter what anyone else tells you. I’m telling you this is as close as you get to any child in Ferryman’s Landing.”

“The philanthropists I represent only want to help these girls,” Jones said. “Why are you so defensive? What are you afraid of?”

Trust me. How many parents had regretted trusting that voice?

“I’m afraid of the Beargard who rule the land around here as far as Lakeside,” Steve said, his own voice turning hard. “I’m afraid of them taking offense at a stranger poking his nose where it doesn’t belong and tossing a human into the river for sport. You should have paid more attention to what was happening in Talulah Falls, Mr. Jones. This is the wrong time for you to be doing business anywhere around the Great Lakes. You need any help finding your way out of the village?”

Another heavy silence. “No,” Jones said. “No, I think I have all the information I need. Good day, gentlemen.”

They watched him walk back to his car. They watched him drive away. And Steve watched the Crows fly off to start the relay of Crowgard, Hawkgard, and Eaglegard that would track Jones’s car for as long as they could.

Finally Steve said, “Officer Czerneda?”

“Mr. Ferryman?”

“Did Phineas Jones look like a smiling shark to you?”

“Yes, he did. He certainly did.”

Steve nodded grimly. “I’d better give Simon Wolfgard another call.”

Hearing the knock, Meg opened the back door of the Liaison’s Office and stared at Merri Lee.

As part of her training, she had seen videos of women being assaulted, had studied images of battered bodies and faces. She’d even seen one of the girls in the compound punched and slapped and kicked—a girl whose skin couldn’t earn enough to justify keeping her. The Controller had recorded that session and had shown it often enough that the real experience of seeing a girl beaten to death lost much of its impact.

Much, but not all.

Those images took on an additional meaning when superimposed over the face of a friend.

“Do you feel well enough to be out?” Meg asked, stepping aside.

“Dr. Lorenzo said to take it easy for the first couple of days and then use common sense,” Merri Lee replied as she entered the back room. “It’s been a week since … the assault. I lazed around, reading books and watching movies for the first few days. Even indulged in a couple of massages. Now I’m feeling restless and want to do something useful.” She hesitated. “With A Little Bite still closed to everyone but Courtyard residents, Tess doesn’t need me right now. I offered to help Heather fill out book orders, but she’s freaked about what happened to me, and I don’t think she’ll be comfortable being around me until the bruises completely heal.”

Meg understood why Heather would be upset. Merri Lee’s face was still healing, so the black eye and bruises must have been very bad. Heather’s life was in the human part of the city, and Merri Lee’s injuries were a harsh reminder of what could happen to someone labeled a Wolf lover.

Unlike Heather, Meg didn’t have any reason to avoid Merri Lee because she didn’t have to go beyond the Courtyard and its protection.

“Do you think Tess would let us wash these containers at A Little Bite?” Meg asked, pointing to six small containers. “I’m supposed to make up sample packages of Wolf cookies, but there’s just the bathroom sink here.”

“I could take them over and wash them for you,” Merri Lee said.

“Thanks.”

A yodeling arooeeooeeoo came from the front room.

“What is that?” Merri Lee asked, looking startled.

“That,” Meg sighed, “is Skippy.”

As soon as her friend left, Meg opened the large plastic containers. Blair didn’t say she couldn’t give the youngster a cookie. She reached for a cow, then thought for a moment before taking one of the people-shaped cookies.

She walked through the office until she reached the counter in the front room. Keeping the cookie out of sight, she patted the top of the counter. “Skippy. Front paws here.”

He rushed over and plopped his paws on the counter, aquiver with juvenile enthusiasm.

She held up a finger to get his attention. “Gently,” she ordered. Then she held up the cookie.

He wasn’t grown enough to leap on the counter or over it, and he couldn’t get his brains off the cookie long enough to think about backing up to get a running start. After three failed attempts to grab the cookie, the command Meg kept giving him finally got through. The fourth time she held up the cookie, he managed to take it from her with great care.

Of course, he also managed to step on his own foot in his haste to get back to the Wolf bed and devour his treat.

Meg sighed and returned to the back room to wait for Merri Lee. One chamomile cookie wouldn’t hurt Skippy. And, really, if it actually calmed him down, she’d be doing everyone a favor, because if she had to listen to another hour of that yodeling, she was going to find the heaviest box she could lift and beat Blair over the head with it.

If Skippy had nipped one of her fingers …

The pins-and-needles feeling suddenly filling her left hand was so fierce it burned under her skin.

Skippy … and teeth.

By the time Merri Lee returned, Meg had everything set up in the bathroom. Skippy was so engrossed in his cookie, he didn’t pay any attention when Meg closed the Private door and locked it. Maybe it was just as well that Nathan wasn’t the watch Wolf this afternoon. He’d have sounded the alarm the moment she locked the door because he would know why she was trying to lock him out.

“Put those down,” Meg said as soon as Merri Lee walked into the back room. “I need your help.”

“What’s wrong with your hand?” Merri Lee asked, putting the clean containers on the small round table that functioned as a dining area. “Why are you rubbing it?”

“I need to cut. I need you to write down the prophecy.”

Merri Lee took a step back. “Meg, this isn’t a good idea. I’m not qualified to—”

“Something is going to happen,” Meg cried.

“I’ll call Tess. Or Henry.”

“There’s no time!” Meg panted in an effort to stay focused. “I can’t explain how it works. Not now. But if I can’t warn them, someone will get hurt!”

“Gods above and below,” Merri Lee muttered. “Okay. All right. What do I need to do?”

“Everything is ready.” Meg rushed into the bathroom, sat on the closed toilet seat, and opened the silver razor. “Just write down everything I say. And once I make the cut, say, ‘Speak, prophet, and I will listen.’ I don’t remember the Controller saying that, but whenever Tess says it, it helps me focus.”

“Gods above and below,” Merri Lee muttered again.

Meg held the razor over her left hand, following the pins-and-needles feeling until it became a buzz centered in her little finger. Gritting her teeth and fighting the urge to slash the skin open, she made a precise cut. Still gritting her teeth, she set the razor on the sink and swallowed the need to scream as the agonizing pain that was the prelude of prophecy filled her. Then she heard the words that were a signal to speak, and pain changed to euphoria as she shared the visions that spilled from her mind as her blood dripped into the sink.

When she came back to herself, Merri Lee was staring at her.

“Wow,” Merri Lee said. “That’s fascinating to watch in a creepy sort of way.”

Meg looked away.

“Sorry. It’s just … Wow.” Merri Lee blew out a breath. “Meg, we have to call someone. Bandage up the finger first?”

“You don’t have to stay. Just give Henry the prophecy. He’ll pass it on to Simon.” It hadn’t occurred to her that a human would think watching a prophecy being spoken was creepy. Maybe all the Controller’s clients felt that way. Or was it different when you were paying lots of money to be told something about yourself?

“Of course I have to stay,” Merri Lee said briskly. She turned on the water taps, adjusting one then the other until she had the temperature she wanted. “Put your hand under the water.”

Meg let her friend wash the hand and pat it dry. Neither of them said anything while the ointment was applied and the little finger carefully bandaged.

“Call Henry or Tess,” Meg said as they left the bathroom. She would clean the razor in a minute. “Simon isn’t going to be happy about this.”

Merri Lee gave Meg an odd look. “You don’t remember anything you said, do you?”

She shook her head. “In order to remember it, the prophet has to swallow the prophecy. Not speak,” she clarified.

“And that hurts.”

“Yes.”

Merri Lee nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll call Henry.” She stopped at the doorway to the sorting room. “Meg? I’m sorry I said it was creepy to watch. It is, in a way, but I’d like to understand it better. And I’d like to help.” She paused. “I have an idea. I’ll see if Lorne sells index cards at the Three Ps.”

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