Murder of Crows Page 4

“You could inquire how she handles appointments. Maybe the Business Association would agree to hiring one administrative assistant for the two of you, someone to make appointments and handle the paperwork.”

“It’s a possibility,” Lorenzo said. “I’ll add that to my notes. I’m making a formal presentation to the Business Association and the consul tomorrow.”

Monty finally broached the main reason he’d wanted to see Lorenzo. “You’ve dealt with cassandra sangue before. As soon as you saw Ms. Corbyn’s scars, you knew what she was.”

“I’ve seen girls like her before.” Lorenzo gave Monty a long look. “Meg Corbyn is healthier and saner than the girls I treated when I was a resident. Wherever she was before she came here, they knew how to take care of girls like her.”

“From what I was told, that care included forced lessons, forced cutting, and no chance or choice to experience life. The girls were kept safe, yes, but they were used for someone else’s profit.”

“I was told pretty much the same thing when the Wolf allowed me to ask Ms. Corbyn a few questions while she was in the hospital,” Lorenzo replied. “But even the girls I saw before were in a controlled environment, a privately run house that was an annex to a school. I’m not sure cassandra sangue can survive without someone else controlling their lives. Even with supervision, too many of them cut themselves into death or madness.” He paused. “There is a group of humans out there who are a danger to themselves, and I want to help. With the kind of care these girls need, someone has to know how to handle them and their addiction to cutting. But there is too little information available.”

“The lack of information would help discourage people from establishing group homes and trying to cope with the girls,” Monty said. “I imagine several good-intentioned facilities have closed down over the years because of deaths caused from cutting.” That was something he could check when he returned to the station.

Lorenzo nodded. “Having a chance to interact with Meg Corbyn could be the first step in finding a way for all of these girls to have longer and healthier lives.”

After wishing Lorenzo good luck with the meeting tomorrow, Monty took his leave, pulled out his mobile phone, and called Kowalski. After confirming that the younger man would meet him, he headed for the coffee shop.

Using the back entrance, he walked in and greeted Tess, the terra indigene who ran A Little Bite. As he watched her arranging plates of cookies and pastries in the glass display case, he wondered if anyone would come in to buy them.

“What happens to the food that’s left at the end of the day?” he asked.

“Usually what can’t be kept for the next day is passed along,” Tess replied. “Meat-n-Greens gets some of it to include in the evening meals served there. The rest is divided among the gards and taken back to the complexes for anyone who wants the food.”

Footsteps coming from the back of the store.

Tess lowered her voice. “And on a residents-only day like today, terra indigene who have been curious about what it’s like to be in a coffee shop will venture in for the experience.”

How many of the Others living in the Courtyard wouldn’t come to the coffee shop because it was open to humans? Did they resent the human employees who worked in the Market Square and were allowed to shop there? Or was it a case of numbers? A handful of humans posed no danger and therefore could be tolerated, but a shop filled with humans was a place to avoid?

Did the terra indigene who lived and worked in the Courtyards feel the pressure of being surrounded by an enemy day after day? Or did they find relief in knowing at least some of their kind would always survive a conflict simply because they were so devastatingly lethal?

And what did that say about Simon Wolfgard’s unprecedented decision to allow even a few humans beyond the Human Liaison to interact with the Others living in the Courtyard?

He saw them enter the main part of the coffee shop—six males and two females. Based on general rules of coloring, three males had the amber eyes of the Wolves, one male and one female had the black hair and eyes of the Crows, and he couldn’t tell whether the rest were Hawks or Owls or a kind of earth native he hadn’t seen before.

“I won’t disturb your guests,” Monty said quietly. “I’ll wait for Officer Kowalski outside.”

“Stay,” Tess said. It was more command than request.

Monty hesitated a moment, then, with a nod to the group still huddled near the back hallway, he took a seat at a table close to the archway leading into Howling Good Reads.

Tess pointed at the other tables. “Sit.”

Wary, always watching him, they split up and sat at tables that were the farthest they could get from him. And all of them chose chairs that kept him in sight.

Kowalski opened the front door and came in. He gave the Others a startled glance, confirming Monty’s suspicion that these terra indigene weren’t usually seen by the humans who were allowed in the Courtyard. Giving them all a nod, Kowalski joined his lieutenant.

Tess brought a tray to their table. She set out two mugs of coffee, along with a small bowl of sugar and a little pitcher of cream. She also gave them silverware and napkins. Then she handed them both a sheet of heavy paper that had a printed menu.

No doubt intending to make a comment about being given a menu, Kowalski opened his mouth, took one look at Tess’s hair, which suddenly had green streaks and started curling, and said nothing.

“Our sandwiches today are sliced beef or chicken. I also have a quiche with a side of fresh fruit,” Tess said. “Those are in addition to our usual menu.”

We’re a demonstration, Monty realized. A live training film showing what to do in a particular situation. That’s why Tess wanted us to stay. “I’ll have the quiche and fresh fruit.”

When Tess looked at Kowalski, Karl said, “I’d like the beef sandwich.”

“Would you like a side of fresh fruit with that?” Tess asked.

“Yes, please.”

Merri Lee came out of the back and slipped behind the counter. The human woman looked a little bruised around the eyes. Could be nothing more than lack of sleep. Like Heather Houghton, Merri Lee was a student at Lakeside University, and Monty remembered the late nights of studying for a test or writing a paper that was due the next day.

So it could be nothing more than lack of sleep. Or it could be something else. Since Karl was making an effort not to notice, he would find out later if his officer had heard something.

Tess took the orders from the terra indigene, then helped Merri Lee get everyone served.

They watched him, those Wolves and Crows and the rest. They watched how he spread a napkin on his lap, then, after a moment’s hesitation, did the same thing. They watched what utensil he used and what, like Karl’s sandwich, could be eaten with hands. They watched Merri Lee walking around the tables, refilling coffee mugs and water glasses.

They watched, and as he listened to Karl chatting about the workout equipment at Run & Thump and the new book his fiancée, Ruth, was waiting for, Monty slowly realized these terra indigene weren’t from the Courtyard. At least, not this Courtyard. Maybe they’d made some of the deliveries of meat and produce and had decided to stop in the coffee shop before heading home. Maybe they were here for a meeting with Simon Wolfgard. Maybe they had come in from a settlement in the wild country that had little or no contact with humans.

Whoever they were and wherever they came from, it wasn’t just the coffee shop that was a new experience for them. Just being around a human was something they’d never done before. At least, it wasn’t something they’d done when they weren’t intending to kill and eat the human. Now here they were, drinking coffee and consuming pastries and sandwiches while responding to Merri Lee’s friendly comments with stiff, precise words, like travelers who used a foreign-language phrase book to communicate.

Would they go to Howling Good Reads next and purchase books to learn how to use human money?

For the first time since he started coming into A Little Bite, Tess gave them a bill. Feeling more and more like an actor in a play, Monty pulled out his wallet, refusing Kowalski’s offer to pay for half. Tess brought back the change, and he and Karl discussed the correct percentage for a tip. They didn’t raise their voices. In fact, he spoke more softly than usual. But he knew every one of the terra indigene heard what they said and filed it away.

It was a relief to leave and get into the patrol car. Kowalski started the car but didn’t put it in gear.

“That was weird,” Kowalski said. “I remember my dad taking a bunch of us kids to an ice-cream parlor and doing much the same thing, talking about tips and reminding us of the correct behavior we’d discussed on the way to the shop. Only, none of the kids he was teaching could have bitten his arms off if they didn’t like what he said.”

“Have you ever wondered how the Others choose the teachers who show them how to be human?” Monty asked.

Karl gave him a wary look. “They’re never human, Lieutenant. They just mimic us to get what they want.”

Monty nodded. “Yes. They mimic. And you’re right. They will never be human. But it occurred to me that who the Others choose as a template determines if they mimic the best or the worst of what it means to be human.”

Karl sighed. “I guess that makes us templates.”

“Yes, it does,” Monty agreed. “And that makes me hopeful for all of us.”

As they pulled out of the parking lot and drove toward the Chestnut Street station, Monty wondered if the visitors at the Courtyard were somehow connected to the deaths in Walnut Grove.

Meg gathered the rags, dustpan and broom, and spray bottle of cleaner she needed to tidy up the Liaison’s Office. The novelty of cleaning had worn off after the first couple of times she’d done it on her own, but she liked the end result. Besides, a clean office equaled a mouse-free office.

The Liaison’s Office was a rectangular building divided into three big rooms. The back room had the bathroom as well as a storage room with bins full of clothes that the Others used when they shifted from fur or feathers to human. It also had a kitchen area and a small round table and two chairs. The middle room was the sorting room. It held the large rectangular table where she sorted the mail and packages that came for the businesses and residents of the Lakeside Courtyard. The front room had a three-sided counter where she talked to deliverymen and accepted packages. It also had two handcarts parked by the delivery door that opened between the front room and the sorting room. And it held Nathan Wolfgard, sprawled on the large dog bed—now called a Wolf bed—that she’d purchased as a friendly gesture toward the Wolf who had been assigned to guard her during working hours.

Meg opened the door marked PRIVATE, which gave her easy access to the front counter when she was working in the sorting room. Setting the broom and dustpan beside the door, she said brightly, “Since I’m not expecting any deliveries this morning, it’s a good time to tidy up. Maybe you’d like to take the Wolf bed outside and give it a good shake.”

Nathan raised his head just enough to give her a Wolfish stare. Then he yawned and flopped back down on the bed.

He’d do it eventually. And if she didn’t nag him about it, he might pull on some pants before he stood in the delivery area and shook out the bed in plain view of anyone walking or driving by. She didn’t think anyone actually saw much from the front—at least, Lieutenant Montgomery hadn’t called to ask about a na**d man—but since the front of the office had two large windows and a glass door, she’d once seen plenty of the back of Nathan’s human form.

Based on the training images that had been her reference for the world outside the compound, Nathan had a very nice human form.

And even though she’d had only a quick look before he dove under the covers, Simon felt like he had a very nice human form.

Clean, Meg told herself. Let the hands work while the mind ponders. That’s what Merri Lee said.

She sprayed the front counter and wiped it down.

Maybe she shouldn’t have said anything about Simon being in human form this morning. Well, she hadn’t said anything. More like babbled for a minute when she dashed into A Little Bite for her morning coffee and a muffin. She wasn’t even sure she’d been coherent, but Merri Lee had gotten the gist of it. Hence the suggestion to do some chores while thoughts and feelings sorted themselves out.

She hoped her feelings sorted themselves out. And she hoped when they did, she would still have Simon for a friend even if she decided she didn’t want a lover.

And she didn’t want any kind of a lover right now. Did she?

She rubbed the side of her nose and sucked in a breath at the unexpected pain. Rushing into the bathroom, she studied her face … and the split in the skin on the outside of her left nostril.

An hour later, Meg leaned against the sorting room table and flipped through a magazine. When she realized she kept rubbing her arms, she closed the magazine.

Too many images. Too many new things to think about and sort out today. And she was scared that this damage to her skin was a sign of something being terribly wrong. After all, she didn’t have any real assurance that cassandra sangue could survive outside compounds like the one where she’d been kept for most of her life. Maybe girls like her couldn’t survive for long.

Don’t think about that, she scolded herself, glancing toward the Private door. Nathan had been suspiciously quiet ever since she dabbed some antiseptic ointment on the split skin and returned to the sorting room. If he’d caught a whiff of the medicine, wouldn’t he have howled about it? Wouldn’t he have barged into the sorting room to give her a sniff and find out what was wrong? Or had he chosen to be subtle for this hunt?

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