Murder of Crows Page 36

“The Others are making free use of your property.”

“Are you sure?”

“Not only using the property for themselves, but providing samples to other interested parties. I had an excellent lead and should have been able to acquire some new merchandise, but the deal was soured before I arrived. They were expecting me.”

“Where was this? Lakeside?”

“No, a place called Ferryman’s Landing. I’m in Lakeside now. I’ll wait a couple of days and let things settle. Then I’ll see what I can do about extracting your property.”

CHAPTER 20

“Mr. Smith is on the line for you.”

The Controller picked up the phone. “What is it?”

“The scrap girls I sold you. I’d like to get them back.”

“We agreed at the time of the sale that there would be no returns.”

“Yes, I know, but all my best girls are suffering from breakdowns. No matter what my clients ask, all the girls talk about is a killer, a destroyer, blood and fire and death. Clients are demanding refunds since they aren’t getting what they paid for.”

“Prophecy is about interpretation, Mr. Smith. It’s your job to interpret what the prophet sees. And we all know how fluid interpretation can be if one looks beyond the literal.”

A pause. “What if the girls are saying what they’re really seeing for my clients?”

“It’s unlikely.”

Another pause. “About the girls …”

“The scraps you sold me have already been used and are no longer available. Good day, Mr. Smith.”

The Controller hung up and stared at the phone. Then he pressed the office buzzer and waited for his assistant’s response.

“Sir?”

“Prepare cs747 for the chair.”

“Today’s top story. A town in the Midwest is under quarantine after an outbreak of violence. There are rumors that a shipment of tainted ground beef was the cause of a series of violent attacks that ended in several deaths. Officials believe this is an isolated outbreak, but they advise caution and are recommending that citizens dispose of any ground beef bought in the past three days.”

Emotionally battered and physically queasy, Monty turned off the radio and locked his apartment before hurrying to reach the bus stop. He needed to hear whatever Burke had to say to all the men this morning—and whatever Burke was willing to say in private.

He didn’t think any other humans besides himself, Dominic Lorenzo, and Captain Burke were aware of what Meg Corbyn had revealed when she experienced that odd secondary prophecy from the reopened cut. So they were the only ones who had a good idea what the officials investigating the violence in the Midwest town were going to find.

The beef had been tainted with a particular kind of human flesh.

The Controller watched the attendants check the straps that secured a girl to the chair and prevented her from struggling just as the cut was made, since an imperfect cut spoiled both skin and prophecy. Like other men in his line of business, he’d lost a few valued clients recently—men who had regular appointments and were now making excuses for not wanting another prophecy.

Not want another prophecy? His clients weren’t the kind of men who would leave their fortunes to chance. No, they’d gone to West Coast compounds or to one of those “charitable homes” in the Southeast and paid for a cut on an inferior girl.

If that was the depth of their loyalty for the guidance he had provided, then f**k them all. Prophecies could be read in so many ways, as he’d told that fool Smith. Until recently, his girls and his interpretations had been superior to those of anyone else in the business.

Now it was time to utilize his own resources and find out why things were going wrong. Had been going wrong since that bitch cs759 managed to escape. If she couldn’t be reacquired, she had to be destroyed.

But he wasn’t here to find out about Meg Corbyn. He was here strictly for himself.

He snapped his fingers and waited until cs747’s eyes focused on him. “Tell me about my future. What do you see around me? Speak. Tell me what you see.”

He’d ordered a cut on prime skin. Not much good skin left on this one, but the only girl superior to cs747 when it came to prophecy was cs759.

“Tell me about my future. Tell me what you see,” he said again when the cut was made and the blood started to flow.

She resisted. Despite the agonizing pain that flooded a prophet’s body before she began to speak, this bitch always resisted for a few seconds, and he couldn’t be sure she revealed everything she saw before the euphoria clouded her memory.

“A map,” she said dreamily. “You’re holding a map of Thaisia. It’s bleeding. All the cities are bleeding. Drip, drip, drip on the floor, splashing your shoes.” She paused. “They know your name.”

The Controller’s breath caught in his throat. No one knew his real name. “What do they call me?” he asked harshly.

“Killer.” She smiled and looked right at him with clear eyes. “Destroyer.” Then she laughed, and the sound held no sanity.

He rose, furious. “Clean her up and take her back to her cell.”

The next time he needed scraps for the grinder, the bitch would be on the truck.

Jean lay on her narrow bed, drifting on the last bit of euphoria. Had the Walking Names who brought her back to her cell raped her? Or was she too scarred by the cuts and the beatings for them to keep it up long enough to get off?

Had to hold on for those moments before the pain forced her to speak. She could hold out longer, but then the Controller might start to wonder, might have the Walking Names do a more thorough check of her cell. They might find out about the little secret cuts and start wondering what she’d seen.

She’d seen enough to know she had to hold on a little while longer.

All the cities bleeding because of the Controller. That was the future for the humans in Thaisia. There was only one person who might be able to change that future, and it wasn’t the Controller. It was Meg Corbyn.

“Meg,” Jean whispered, smiling.

As she drifted to sleep, she wondered why, in all the recent visions, she kept seeing her scarred hand holding a jar of honey.

Meg drove her BOW to the Wolfgard Complex. The Green Complex, where she lived, was the only one where humans were tolerated because it was the multispecies complex. The rest were segregated by kind, and even when she made deliveries, she was careful not to intrude, going only to the area used for the delivery of mail and packages.

But today she wanted to see Sam before she started work, so she drove to the Wolfgard Complex with her container of treats—cookies she’d broken into puppy-size pieces, as well as a few cookies for the adults.

The pups were playing in front of the complex when she pulled up. Most of them remained focused on each other and the game. One stopped and watched as she got out of the BOW. Then he ran toward her, his feet still too big for the rest of him.

“Sam!” she cried happily, crouching with her arms open in welcome.

The other pups, hearing the cry and seeing Sam racing toward her, joined in the chase.

Alarmed, Meg shot upright, realizing too late that Sam might remember he had to be gentle with her but none of the other pups knew she couldn’t be nipped or scraped with claws. Even if they didn’t intend to hurt her, an accident could have terrible consequences for all of them.

A sharp arrrooooo! had them all skidding to a halt before they rammed into her.

The female striding toward her and the pups was mostly human in form but couldn’t pass for human. For one thing, she had fur instead of hair and her ears were still Wolf.

“Hello,” Meg said. She smiled at the female before crouching to hug Sam. He wiggled and licked and talked at her in Wolf, which started the other pups vocalizing.

Laughing, she stood up. “Sorry, I can’t speak Wolf.”

The female said sternly, “No shifting outside. It’s still too cold to be out here in human skin without any clothes.”

And it spares me from looking at a pack of na**d little boys—and girls? Meg thought as she opened the passenger door. She wasn’t about to look closely enough to figure out gender.

The puppy pack, spotting the containers, surged around her legs, almost knocking her off her feet.

Before the female could react, Meg said, “Enough! Polite puppies get a treat. Pushy puppies don’t get anything but rocks.”

There was some jostling and nipping as the pups sorted themselves out, but in short order they lined up behind Sam and looked at her expectantly. The female simply watched her.

It still amazed her that a demand for polite behavior actually got results. In their pony form, the Elementals’ steeds were the Courtyard’s mail carriers, coming up to the office so she could pack their baskets with mail for each complex. She also gave them treats every workday morning—carrots or apples or, on Moonsday, sugar lumps. Whenever they started pushing each other in order to be first for the treat, a reminder that only polite ponies carried mail and received treats was usually sufficient to convince them to settle down. Since they had names like Tornado and Avalanche and could easily knock the building down around her, her insistence on good behavior was as much about safety as manners.

“These are fresh-made cookies,” Meg said opening the container. “So they’re a special treat.” She held out a piece of cookie.

Sam approached her, his exaggerated care in taking the cookie from her acting as a demonstration for the other pups. As soon as the last pup had his cookie, they all ran off to munch on the treats.

Meg focused her attention on the female again. “I’m Meg, the Human Liaison.” Not that any terra indigene in the Courtyard didn’t know that. She was not only an employee of the Courtyard; she was a major source of entertainment for the Others.

Now she hoped this female’s curiosity would last long enough for Meg to carry out the other reason she’d driven to the complex.

“You’re not a dominant female, but they still obeyed you,” the Wolf finally said.

“They weren’t going to get the cookies if they weren’t polite.”

The Wolf shook her head. “They’re still young, but the pack of them could have taken the cookies if obeying you wasn’t important to them in some way. Not dominant, but not prey. This is interesting. I’m Jane, the Wolfgard bodywalker.” She lightly touched one furry ear. “You aren’t frightened by this?”

Meg considered the question. She’d seen Simon when he was a mixture of human and Wolf. It usually happened when he had a strong emotional response to a situation and instinctively took what he needed from both forms. Having seen him in full human form and full Wolf, seeing him between was more disturbing—or, at the very least, more distracting.

“You look balanced,” Meg said honestly. She didn’t know if Jane couldn’t shift the rest of the way and look fully human or if this was a personal choice. Either way, she suddenly understood why Howling Good Reads and A Little Bite were sometimes open only to residents of the Courtyard. Humans and Others were an uneasy mix most of the time. Seeing reminders that the ones who ruled Thaisia—and most of the rest of the world—had never been and never would be human could do nothing but add more fuel to an already combustible relationship.

“I’m glad you’re here.” Meg reached into the BOW and brought out the other container. “Mr. Wolfgard wanted most of the cookies in this delivery for his big meeting, but I wanted some of the adult Wolves to try these. If they want to. I need to get some idea of whether it’s worth ordering them from the bakery at Ferryman’s Landing.” She opened the container and held it out. “The cow-shaped cookies have a beef flavoring, the turkey-shaped cookies have a poultry flavoring, and …”

Jane held up one of the cookies. “Human-flavored?”

Meg stifled a sigh. That would be the first thing on her feedback list: don’t make people-shaped cookies. The Wolves were way too interested and all of them leaped to a logical, if disturbing, expectation about the taste.

“No, those have chamomile,” Meg said. “It’s an herb that makes a soothing tea. I gave one of these to Skippy and he … Well, he went to sleep for several hours.”

“I heard about that.” Jane sniffed the cookie.

“I think it might be too hard for people teeth,” Meg said quickly when it looked like Jane was going to take a bite. Then she wondered what a human-shaped mouth full of wolf teeth would look like and decided she didn’t want to know. “Anyway, I thought you might have a use for the chamomile cookies. The instructions said the cookies can be frozen and then thawed when you need them.”

“Yes, these would be useful,” Jane said thoughtfully.

“The other cookies are just treats. The ones cut into bars have honey.”

Jane wrinkled her nose, confirming Meg’s suspicion that the Wolves weren’t going to be interested in the honey bars. But Henry had taken a couple, and Jenni Crowgard had taken one to share with her sisters.

“I’d better go, or I’ll be late opening the office.” Meg closed the passenger door and walked around to the driver’s side. “Let me know how you like the cookies.”

As she got in the BOW, she saw the puppies racing toward her until they realized Jane now held the container of treats. But there was one pup who let out a mournful, squeaky-door howl as he watched her drive away.

When Monty reached Howling Good Reads, the sign on the door said RESIDENTS ONLY. He rapped on the door anyway and kept rapping until Simon turned the lock, pulling the door open but blocking entrance into the store.

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