Murder of Crows Page 43

Before the three of them became too frustrated, the first set of pictures was delivered for a review of region.

The pictures of alligators, panthers, and snakes fascinated her. Her training images of these creatures had been line drawings that weren’t the least bit scary. These images were of predators. Maybe even terra indigene. The trees and flowers were like nothing she’d seen before, not even in training images.

“Okay,” Merri Lee said, making notes. “You didn’t recognize the critters or the plants, so I’d say you didn’t live in the Southeast or come through there when you ran away.”

“It was dark a lot of the time,” Meg said. Or had that been her mind’s way of protecting itself from absorbing too many images as the train sped on? There had been daylight at least part of the time, but not bright. Winter light and gray sky.

“You were wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a denim jacket, and sneakers,” Ruthie said, making her own notes. “You didn’t have a winter coat, so you came from someplace warmer than here.”

Meg frowned. “No. The denim jacket was part of the outfit. The Walking Name was wearing the winter coat.”

They looked at her.

“They wore white uniforms and changed out of their regular clothes. She took the coat out of her locker because she went outside for something. She didn’t close the locker properly. That’s why I could take the clothes and the money in her wallet.”

“It was cold when you went outside?” Merri Lee asked.

Meg nodded. “Very cold. But I was so afraid. Maybe it felt cold because I was so afraid of what the Controller would do to me if I got caught. Jean … Jean and I were going to run away together. It was before the visions that helped me escape, so it was just talk, just wishful thinking about having a real life. But a Walking Name overheard us, and the Controller didn’t think I would run away by myself, so he … broke one of Jean’s feet. I still wanted both of us to run away, but she said if she went with me, we’d get caught. By myself, I would escape. And I did.” Meg didn’t realize she was crying until Merri Lee handed her a tissue. “But Jean is still there.”

She wiped her eyes and blew her nose. “I’ve never been in the Southeast. I’m sure of that much.”

They crossed off the High North next. Theral was using the library computer to check details for them, and she confirmed that the lake-effect storm that had touched Lakeside the evening Meg arrived had shut down rail and bus transportation in the High Northeast for the whole day.

Tess brought over coffee, sandwiches, and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, as well as another stack of pictures.

Meg, Merri Lee, and Ruthie drank the coffee, ate the sandwiches and cookies, and crossed the West Coast region off the list.

Midafternoon, Heather showed up with a handful of magazines and eyes that were puffy from crying.

“I don’t think I can do this anymore,” she said, setting the magazines on the sorting table. “They used to make more effort to stay human, and they don’t anymore. Have you noticed that?” Heather looked at Merri Lee, who had been working at A Little Bite for over a year. “And most of the customers were human, so it wasn’t too bad. And with the Market Square credit, I was making as much working part-time hours as I would make working full-time in another bookstore in the city.”

“Then why can’t you do this anymore?” Merri Lee asked.

“Last night my father told me he doesn’t want me setting foot in his house again while I’m working in the Courtyard. He said it was hard enough to find work in Lakeside, and being tarred as a Wolf lover was the first step toward losing a job and then sleeping in a homeless shelter and begging on the streets, and how that brush spread the muck over everyone in a family. And while he was saying those things, my mom just sat there and wouldn’t look at me. She didn’t say anything to me until I got up to leave. Then she stopped me at the door and told me if anything happened to my younger brother or sister because I was being a whore for the Others, it would be on my head.”

“That’s awful,” Ruthie said. “They had no right to say those things!”

“Like your family hasn’t said it to you?”

Ruthie took a step back.

“You lost your job because of this place.” Heather looked at Merri Lee. “And you were beaten up and can’t go back to school.”

“The Others didn’t do those things,” Merri Lee replied. “Humans did.”

“Because of them! And now we’re being asked … Do you even know what they’re going to do with the information we’re providing? What if we’re helping them do something terrible? What happens to us if we’re branded traitors to humankind?”

“I don’t think anything about working with the terra indigene is as black-and-white as that,” Ruthie said carefully. “Maybe it is that simple in places like Cel-Romano or Tokhar-Chin, where humans control a big chunk of land and only brush against the Others at the borders between human-controlled land and the wild country. But our ancestors settled on a continent that didn’t belong to humans, so it’s different for us. If we can’t work with them, they’ll turn against us.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that Heather has been given a choice: give up the job or lose her family,” Merri Lee said.

What will happen to Heather if she makes the wrong choice? Meg thought, knocking her hand against the underside of the sorting table as she reached for the magazines. She almost cried out at the sudden stab of pain, but she swallowed pain that turned into mild agony, too surprised to speak when the cover of a magazine kept shifting into a different picture. Only pieces, so she never saw the whole image, as if she was seeing bits of several pictures. Then, struggling to focus on the vision, she saw a date—and blood soaking the paper.

When she came back to herself, she realized no one had noticed anything had happened. Ruthie and Merri Lee were still talking, still trying to offer Heather some sympathy and encouragement. But their friend didn’t need sympathy and encouragement. She needed …

“Heather, you have to go,” Meg said quietly.

They all stopped talking and looked at her.

“I’d rather stay here and work with you,” Heather said. “There’s too much strange fur and fang in the library.”

“No.” Meg walked over to the counter, picked up the phone, and dialed. “You have to hand in your notice today and go.”

“Meg?” Merri Lee said. “What’s going on?”

She shook her head as Vlad answered the phone at HGR. “Vlad? Can you come to the office? We need to talk to you. No, just you.” She hung up before turning to look at her friends and the maps and the notebooks, but she didn’t see anything else, didn’t feel any warning prickles.

“Meg!” Vlad rushed into the sorting room moments later and jerked to a stop.

“Heather needs to leave,” Meg said. “She can’t work in the Courtyard anymore.”

“I hadn’t decided that!” Heather protested. Clearly frightened, she turned to Ruthie and Merri Lee for support. “I didn’t say that.”

“She didn’t say that,” Merri Lee said.

Vlad gave Heather a considering look, but Meg didn’t think the decision surprised him. Then he sniffed the air and walked around the table until he stood next to her and said gently, “Let me see your hands.”

“What?” Meg said.

“Your hands,” Vlad repeated.

“What’s going on?” Ruthie asked.

“Meg?” Merri Lee said.

She held out her hands. The gouge on the top of her right index finger was tiny, barely the size of a pinhead, but it was just enough lost skin for blood to rise in the wound.

“How did you do that?” Vlad asked.

“I hit my hand on the table when I reached for the magazines. I must have scraped something?”

“And you saw …?”

She saw Merri Lee scramble for a notebook and pen. Distracting. Another image. Not the answer to Vlad’s question. “I saw the cover of the magazine.” She tried to point but Vlad still held her hands, so she tipped her head to indicate the stack of magazines on the table. “But the one in the vision wasn’t the current issue. I saw blood. All the pages were soaked in blood.”

“What does that have to do with Heather?”

“Her family wants her to stop working here. When I reached for the magazines, I was thinking about what would happen if she made the wrong choice, and then I felt pain … and I saw …” She looked at Vlad. “She has to go.”

“Yes,” Vlad said, giving her hands a gentle squeeze before releasing them. “I’ll take care of it.” To Heather he added, “Gather your personal belongings, then meet me in the store’s office. I’ll give you your pay.”

Heather stumbled to the back room and out the door.

“I’ll make sure she has enough money to take care of her bills for a couple of months,” Vlad said. “That will give her time to find another job. And I’ll have Blair come by to sniff out the spot where you damaged your finger and repair it so you won’t get hurt again.”

“But I don’t even know how I did it!” Meg protested. “How can he find the exact spot?”

Vlad smiled. “He’s a Wolf with an excellent sense of smell. He’ll find it.” The smile faded as he waved a hand to indicate Merri Lee and Ruth. “What about the rest of the human pack?”

No pins-and-needles feeling in response to the question. No other vision. “They can stay,” Meg replied. Then she added silently, They’ll be safer here.

She couldn’t be certain of that, but the thought felt right.

“All right,” Vlad said. “I’ll have to tell Simon, so take care of that wound before he shows up howling about it.”

Once Vlad left the building, Ruthie turned to Meg, wide-eyed. “Okay, that was weird. What was that?”

“That,” Meg replied, “was prophecy.”

Simon wasn’t happy that Meg had called Vlad instead of him, but after he went off by himself for a few minutes to snarl about it, he thought he’d worked out the human logic. Since he’d summoned the terra indigene leaders to Lakeside, he was in charge of the big meeting, which left Vlad in charge of the bookstore. And Heather leaving and being paid was bookstore business.

Realizing Vlad would also be stuck with the employee-quitting paperwork cheered Simon up considerably. He hated filling out that paperwork.

Of course, finding new humans to work for them wasn’t going to be a romp in the woods.

We’ll make do, he thought as he checked the list of pictures he was supposed to look for. Most Courtyards don’t have any human employees except the Liaison. Even Lakeside didn’t have other humans working for us on a regular basis until I became leader and opened a couple of stores to human customers. Most Courtyards don’t have humans like Lorne running a little printing business that is strictly for us.

Now most of those humans were gone. Would the terra indigene who couldn’t pass for human feel more comfortable shopping in the Market Square now? Would the human employees who were left respond badly to Others who didn’t look like them?

No point in chewing on a bone that wasn’t there, so he focused on the task he could see.

He had found half of his list of images when he gathered up the books and magazines and headed for the Liaison’s Office. He just wanted to see Meg, make sure she was all right. He deserved a reward for politely calling the office instead of rushing over when Vlad told him about Meg’s vision. No reason to think Vlad would make light of anything that hurt Meg, so the injury really was nothing to howl about—just a puncture so tiny that Meg hadn’t realized why she’d seen the vision until Vlad had scented blood and checked her hands.

It probably would be considered bad manners to sniff her just to make sure the Sanguinati hadn’t missed another injury—especially if the other girls were still in the office.

Neither he nor Vlad understood why the prophecy meant Heather had to leave the Courtyard today, but they didn’t challenge Meg. For one thing, none of the other leaders had seen a cassandra sangue speak prophecy. When they did witness a cut, he wanted them to have no doubts about the accuracy of what was said.

Interpretation was something else. Meg wasn’t always right when it came to interpreting images. She’d thought she was going to die in the Courtyard because of the prophecy she’d seen about herself. And she had come close to dying. But she’d survived, which proved her wrong.

Not something he intended to mention.

Charlie caught up to him as he walked out of the library and headed for the Liaison’s Office.

“Tess the Scary says the girls should take a break. Get some food and fresh air,” Charlie said.

“That’s a good idea.” Too bad they couldn’t play prey. Meg was a fun squeaky toy when she was the pretend prey, but there was too much risk right now of her getting hurt by a Wolf who wouldn’t remember it was pretend. And seeing a human being chased might scare the other girls into resigning. Once all the guests went home and everyone settled down, there would be time to play again. “And don’t call Tess names.”

There was no one around them, but Charlie lowered his voice. “There are stories about her kind throughout the world, and those stories are very old.” He studied Simon. “You do know what she is?”

“I have some thoughts. Henry knows for sure.” He’d found and read some of those old stories, but he hadn’t told anyone what he knew about Tess’s kind of terra indigene. Not even Henry. Safer that way for all of them.

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