Murder of Crows Page 38

Then Meg screamed, and the terror in that sound had him flinging the door open and running through the back room and into the sorting room with Vlad, Henry, Charlie, and the rest of the Others slamming in behind him. And then they all stopped, stumbling into each other as they stared at Meg, cowering on top of the sorting table, with envelopes and catalogs scattered on the floor around her. And Skippy, holding a mouse by the tail, his hindquarters bunched for a leap onto the table.

“Skippy!” Simon growled the word, barely able to make human sounds.

Wolf and woman turned toward his voice. Taking in the audience staring at her, Meg’s fair skin turned a deep rose color, which probably looked appealing with her natural black hair but made the weird orange look weirder.

Skippy, finally realizing he might be in trouble, lowered his head to drop the mouse.

Meg shrieked, “Don’t let go of it!”

Despite being in human form, Simon’s ears flattened at the sound. He felt empty space at his back as everyone except Vlad and Henry took a step away from the table. And he noticed that the mouse was still alive, since it began flailing its little legs when it sensed a chance at freedom.

No longer sure he could speak, Simon switched to the terra indigene way of communicating. <Skippy.>

Skippy gave Simon a woeful look. <Meg wouldn’t play with me.>

Vlad made a choking sound.

Henry opened the sorting room’s outer delivery doors and said, “Skippy, take the mouse outside. Leave it on the grass past the Market Square.”

Being a skippy meant the youngster sometimes had gaps in his thinking, but this time the juvenile Wolf knew exactly what to do. He took his mouse and fled.

Henry closed the outer doors. Charlie stepped forward and picked up some of the mail scattered on the floor. After a moment’s hesitation, other terra indigene picked up the mail close to them and gingerly set it on the table.

Henry looked around. “Meg? Where’s the step stool? How did you get on the table?”

“I don’t remember,” Meg said, shifting to sit on the edge. “One moment Skippy was chasing me with that … rodent … and the next I was up on the table.”

Before Simon could go to her, Henry hooked his big hands under her arms, lifted her off the table, and set her down.

Looking flustered, Meg linked her fingers together and tried smiling. “Hello. I’m Meg, the Human Liaison for the Lakeside Courtyard.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Charlie said, returning the smile.

Everyone else mumbled niceties before retreating out the back door, where they all gathered except the Grizzly.

<Henry?> Simon called.

<I’ll take a sniff around the rooms and make sure Skippy didn’t bring in anything else to play with,> Henry said.

<We had a nest of mice in the office before.>

<I think it’s better if Meg believes the mouse came from outside, don’t you?>

Oh, yeah. If it occurred to her that Skippy had found the mouse in the office, Nathan would have to do a mouse check every morning, regardless of his actual assignment.

But right now, Simon was surrounded by leaders who had come to discuss the trouble and deaths that had been happening in Thaisia. He understood the confusion he saw in their eyes. They had been prepared to meet a dangerous predator, an adversary equal to themselves, not a short female with weird hair and a fear of mice.

“Simon?” Charlie finally said. “It was just a mouse.”

“I know,” he replied.

“A small mouse.”

He sighed. “I know.”

“So,” Alan said after a long pause. “That’s Namid’s terrible creation?”

“Yeah. That’s Meg.”

Another long pause. Then Bobbie said, “Why is her fur that strange color?”

“It was a disguise.”

Bobbie made a sound that was half laugh, half disbelief. “What was she pretending to be? One of those traffic cones humans put on the street when they’re making repairs?”

Simon growled softly, offended on Meg’s behalf. Then he noticed how they were all looking at one another, and he had an idea. “Why don’t you ask some of the Courtyard residents about Meg?”

“She’s known to more than the Business Association?” Jackson Wolfgard asked, sounding startled.

Vlad laughed. “I think everyone in the Lakeside Courtyard can tell you a story about Meg.”

“We’ll meet back in the library in a couple of hours?” Alan said, looking at everyone.

“Might as well leave the clothing there,” Bobbie Beargard said. “Any chance of something to eat when we get back?”

Simon nodded. “Tess said she’ll have coffee and breakfast foods available, and Meat-n-Greens is serving a variety of food throughout the day.”

“Will we have a chance to observe the Courtyard’s other human employees?” Bobbie asked.

“Yes.”

All the guests ambled back to the library to discard their clothes and shift, leaving Simon and Vlad standing behind the Liaison’s Office.

“You have enough to think about,” Vlad said. “You should let Blair explain the ‘no live toys’ rule to Skippy.”

“Let’s hope he didn’t find that toy in the office,” Simon grumbled.

“It could have been worse.”

Simon snorted. “How?”

Vlad grinned. “Skippy could have found a rat.”

The guests returned to the library a couple of hours later. Most gave Simon and Vlad wary looks. Alan looked intrigued, and Charlie was clearly amused, especially when Joe and Jackson returned with their fur encrusted with snow and chunks of ice clinging to their tails.

The Elementals or the ponies must have heard those two expressing an unfavorable opinion about Meg, Simon thought.

“We all have a lot to think about,” Cheryl Hawkgard said. She hesitated. “These blood prophets. They can’t all be like your Meg.”

“No, they can’t,” he replied. “But I don’t think we should blame them for being a weapon when no one is giving them a choice.”

CHAPTER 22

On Watersday, Meg took the broom and dustpan out of the storage area while Merri Lee began cleaning the kitchen area in the office’s back room.

“It was kind of strange this morning,” Merri Lee said. “All these terra indigene leaders filling up the tables at A Little Bite, with Ruth, Theral, Lawrence, and Michael sitting at one table playing the part of human customers. And Lorne coming in to buy coffee and pastry to take back to the Three Ps. And Jenni Crowgard and her sisters sitting at a table, all flustered and giggling.”

Meg stopped sweeping. “Why would Jenni be flustered? She has a high standing with the Crowgard here. Doesn’t she?”

Merri Lee grinned. “I got the impression that Charlie Crowgard is a celebrity among the Crows. I think Jenni … Well, it would be like me sitting near a human film star I had a crush on.”

Meg nodded. She didn’t understand the feeling, but she turned the words into a kind of image that she could recall later.

“Anyway, a couple of things struck me. This was the terra indigene elite who deal with humans, and I don’t think most of them had ever been in a coffee shop or had a meal in a restaurant like Meat-n-Greens.”

Meg frowned but continued sweeping. Merri Lee’s words had layers. She wanted to stop and concentrate, but she had the impression Merri was talking in order to understand, and Meg didn’t want anything to shut off the words.

“For instance, they were all going to take a spoonful of honey and eat it off the spoon instead of drizzling it on the warm scones Tess provided.” Merri Lee went into the bathroom to rinse off the cleaning cloth.

“Would just eating the honey be bad?” Meg asked, raising her voice to be heard over the running water. She felt a tingle in her left arm. Why would mentioning jars of honey start the pins-and-needles feeling?

Merri Lee returned to the back room. “Not bad in itself.” She opened the wave cooker and wiped out the inside. “But it would be something snobs would point to as proof the Others weren’t really equal to humans. After all, they don’t even know how to properly eat honey.” Her voice took on a condescending tone. Then she stopped working and looked at Meg. “I thought it was kind of strange that Mr. Wolfgard was hiring Ruth to teach terra indigene how to do human things—simple things like placing an order in a restaurant or when to use a fork and when to use a spoon. But we learn those things at home, don’t we? And if you don’t know those things, other people think less of you.”

Do they? Meg wondered. Do you think less of me because of all the things I don’t know? She didn’t think that was true of the girls who worked in the Courtyard, but it revealed how vulnerable she would have been outside the compound if she had landed anywhere but here.

“It made me realize how progressive this Courtyard is compared to the other ones that keep watch over human cities.” Merri Lee pushed her hair back, then picked up the electric teakettle. “And it made me wonder how many times a human said, ‘This is how it’s done,’ and misled the terra indigene so they would look foolish in their dealings with other humans. I began to understand how things could have gone wrong in Talulah Falls and other towns. If the Others can’t trust us to be honest about something simple like when to use a fork or a spoon, why would they trust what we say about anything important?” She turned and stared at Meg. “Why are you rubbing your arm? What’s wrong? Should I call Tess?”

“What?” Meg looked down and watched her right hand rub her left forearm, trying to ease the prickling. “No. Don’t call Tess.”

“Meg?” Merri Lee sounded alarmed.

She stared back at her friend. Merri Lee was holding a teakettle. She was holding a broom.

“Teakettle and broom,” she whispered. She had seen a broom and teakettle in the prophecy about sharks and poison.

“Oh, gods,” Merri Lee said. “The last two images we couldn’t place.”

“I don’t want Skippy in the front room by himself.” The prickling under Meg’s skin increased. She set the broom aside and went to the front room.

Skippy was tossing a ball and chasing after it. Since the ball left a wet mark every time it bounced, Meg figured he’d been at it long enough that she wouldn’t want to pick up something with that much slobber on it.

“Skippy, come into the sorting room.” Meg pulled back the slide bolt on the go-through’s wide top, allowing him to come behind the counter and enter the sorting room through the Private door.

Skippy looked at her for a moment before tossing the ball again.

She didn’t know if he was deliberately ignoring her or if this was one of those times when his brain skipped and what she’d said was forgotten so fast it left no impression.

“Want a cookie?”

That made an impression. She stepped out of the way to avoid being knocked down by his rush to find the cookie.

With Skippy safely in the sorting room, Meg closed the go-through, sliding the top bolt into place. Then, gritting her teeth as the prickling in her arm increased, she slid the two hidden bolts into place.

Returning to the back room with Skippy dancing beside her, she opened the container that held the cookies she’d set aside for him. It was tempting to give him a piece of the chamomile, but just reaching for it made her hands buzz. So she gave him a cow cookie and watched him settle on the floor near the small table and chairs.

She didn’t protest when Merri Lee took her arm and led her back into the sorting room.

“What’s going on?” Merri Lee said. “The broom and teakettle were clues. What does that mean?”

“Pins and needles,” Meg replied.

“That’s bad, right? Shouldn’t we call someone?”

Meg tried to steady her breathing. “It’s fading. That feeling usually means something bad is going to happen, but when it fades then the bad thing won’t happen.”

The pins-and-needles feeling returned with such ferocity, Meg stifled a cry. When Merri Lee turned toward the phone on the counter, Meg grabbed her arm and whispered, “No. Stay near the Private door, but stay out of sight.”

“Meg, you’re scaring me.”

“Me too.” But she stepped into the front room and stood behind the counter just as a small, dapper man pulled the door open.

Not a deliveryman. For one thing, he wasn’t dressed like a deliveryman. For another, he wasn’t carrying any packages.

Every scar on Meg’s body began to burn as the man walked toward her. Every scar except the ones she’d acquired since coming to the Courtyard.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“Oh, my dear,” he replied in a voice ripe with kindness. “I’m here to help you.”

Trust me.

She didn’t hear the words, but she would have sworn he said them. “I don’t need help.”

His smile was sweet, but the eyes behind the glasses were oddly blank of any emotion. “You do need help. I can see it, feel it. You’re overwhelmed by the outside world, and it will chew you up. But I can take you to a safe place, a good place where you’ll be looked after. Wouldn’t you like that?”

Of course she would like that. Who wouldn’t like to feel safe? And if the scars weren’t filling her with so much burning pain, she would put her hand in the one he was holding out and follow that soft, compelling voice to …

A soft hiss from Merri Lee, barely heard. But it was enough to conjure the training image of a snake rising out of a basket and a man playing some kind of instrument. Snake charmer.

Prev Next