Murder of Crows Page 44

“And yet you let her stay.”

“My choice,” Simon said in a tone that would have warned anyone else that the conversation was done.

“Did you know they’re called Plague Riders in some parts of the world?” Charlie said.

He did know. In contrast, calling them Harvesters made them sound more benign—until you saw what they could do.

“You would be wise to keep that information to yourself,” Simon said. “Especially while you’re here.”

A beat of silence. “Wasn’t intending to share it with anyone but you.”

They walked into the office. The girls had taped maps on the walls and then pinned notes on the maps. Spread out on the table were photos of trains and buses and pictures Theral must have printed off the computer of signs that read WELCOME TO … some town or other.

Seeing the images, Charlie grinned, then said in a conductor’s voice, “All aboard! Next stop, Wheatfield!”

Meg spun around so fast she stumbled into the sorting table. “What did you say?”

Charlie backed up. “I don’t know. I was just—”

Merri Lee leaped at Charlie and held up a list. “Say the names of these towns, just like you did that other one.”

When Charlie looked at him for some explanation, Simon just shrugged, too busy trying to keep his ears from shifting. His human ears hadn’t heard whatever Merri Lee and Meg had heard, but the Wolf ears wouldn’t do any better because it was the tone that had significance. Human ears could hear that just fine. His brain understood but his instincts weren’t convinced.

Charlie obliged, saying the town names the way a conductor would. Meg shook her head or nodded. Merri Lee wrote in that damn notebook while Ruthie made notations on the map. When Charlie called out the last name, the girls sagged, and Simon realized Tess was right—they needed to rest.

“That’s it,” Merri Lee said.

“What’s it?” Simon asked.

“That’s what I remember of the journey to Lakeside,” Meg said, sounding too weary. “It’s broken up, and there are too many possibilities of how I got to the first town name I remember hearing. I’m sorry, Simon. I don’t think I can get closer than that.”

He looked at the map. “Nothing to be sorry about. We started with the whole continent this morning. You’ve narrowed it down to a region.”

“That’s still a lot of towns and cities,” Ruthie said, sounding uneasy.

“It’s fine.” He tried a smile. When Ruthie and Merri Lee paled, he ran his tongue over his canines. Damn. Those were definitely not human anymore.

“We should take a break,” Meg said. “Get some air. And I could use another sandwich.”

There was something too deliberate about the way the girls set their notebooks on the sorting table before heading out.

“Can we look at these?” Charlie asked, reaching for Merri Lee’s notebook.

“I don’t know,” Simon replied, wishing he knew either more or less about human females. <Henry? Gather our guests and bring them to the Liaison’s Office.>

While they waited, Simon studied the map. Either Meg had been scared witless or she’d been attempting to hide her trail from a hunter. She’d been right to assume the Controller had sent men after her, but he’d seen rabbits with a Wolf on their tails zigzag less than she had. And since the bus station and the train depot were both in the downtown part of Lakeside and south of the Courtyard, how had she ended up north of the Courtyard in order to head back down until she reached the Liaison’s Office and Howling Good Reads the night she applied for the job?

She may have been a brainless female for being out in a storm that night, and she probably arrived on the last bus or train that had reached Lakeside, but she’d gained enough time to escape capture and find the terra indigene.

The room usually felt like it had plenty of space, but with so many earth natives crowding around the map, he was glad he didn’t have a tail right now that could get stepped on.

“So, the enemy is in the Midwest,” Joe Wolfgard said. “That’s confirmation enough for us. We know what we need to do.”

“That can be the last choice,” Simon said. “First, we’ll try to narrow the search for the prey.”

They didn’t want it to be a last choice. He saw that truth in the eyes of the Midwest leaders. Humans were causing too much trouble. It was time to seriously thin the herds. He wasn’t opposed to thinning if it needed to be done, but that would mean abandoning everything humans made in that part of Thaisia or asking terra indigene to take up those tasks. Which meant more of the Others staying in human form for hours a day in order to do the work.

Maybe the Midwest leaders were also considering what they would have to ask of their own because Cheryl Hawkgard finally said, “How do we narrow the search?”

He bared his teeth in a smile. “Now we get the police to help us.”

CHAPTER 25

When Simon walked into A Little Bite the next morning, he found Meg, Merri Lee, Ruthie, and Theral sitting at a table scribbling in notebooks and talking in voices so low he’d have to shift his ears to hear them.

But it was Tess who caught his attention. Her hair was solid red and curling wildly—a sign her temper had turned savage but not yet lethal.

“Something wrong?” he asked, going behind the counter to stand beside her.

“The bakery truck didn’t make a delivery this morning, and when I called to find out why …” Tess stopped speaking. Black threads appeared in her hair.

Simon resisted the urge to take a step back. As leader, he couldn’t. As a sensible Wolf who now knew what kind of predator he faced, he wanted something more than air between him and her.

“Call that bakery in Ferryman’s Landing,” he suggested. “See what they can provide.”

“Having some baked goods to sell here is not the point and you know it,” Tess snapped. But she kept her voice low enough not to attract the girls’ attention. “If humans aren’t going to keep their side of the agreements, they shouldn’t be allowed to live in Lakeside.”

They shouldn’t be allowed to live is what you really mean, Simon thought.

It was a sentiment he’d heard too many times yesterday as the leaders from other regions talked about their increasingly unsuccessful dealings with humans. Was Lieutenant Montgomery’s arrival in Lakeside Namid’s way of maintaining balance? If the lieutenant wasn’t making an effort to work with him and keep relations between humans and the Courtyard as cordial as possible, would the businesses who refused to provide goods or services have tipped the scales sufficiently that he would have been voicing the same anger and hostility as the other leaders? Probably.

Unlike those other leaders, he did have humans like Montgomery making an effort to understand how their kind fit into the world. And he had employees like Merri Lee, Lorne, and Ruthie. Even Heather hadn’t given him anything to snarl about. All of them had, in fact, given him reason to feel obliged to protect them as he did his own kind.

And then there was Meg with her strange skin and underlying sweet nature that made her not prey.

Could a few humans keep a city balanced enough to avoid a serious fight when the rest of the humans seemed to want to start trouble that would end with many of them dying? Or would these ordinary humans who wanted to live in harmony with the terra indigene become the next group who was persecuted by the rest of their kind? Would the Wolf lovers become like the Intuits and form their own small communities in order to survive?

Did those prejudiced humans understand what would happen if they drove out the very people who were making their presence tolerable?

Can’t do anything about other cities, but maybe, with our pack of humans helping, Lakeside can survive.

“I’ll give them one more chance,” Tess said, sounding reluctant to do that much. “I’ll call the bakery, give them my order, and tell them if they don’t deliver—or deliver inferior goods—I’ll take my business elsewhere. And if I have to take my business elsewhere, I’ll send a letter to the Lakeside authorities, informing them of a breach of the agreements between the city and the Courtyard.”

“Not as satisfying as biting the bakers on the leg—or in the ass—but that kind of letter will scare them just as much,” Simon said.

Tess huffed out a laugh. Half her hair turned green. “You win, Wolf. Aren’t you meeting with the police?”

“They’ll be arriving any minute now. Montgomery and Captain Burke. And Dr. Lorenzo.”

“Then go away so I can go back to eavesdropping.”

Simon eyed the girls. “I thought they finished yesterday.”

“They’re trying to figure out what kind of building or buildings make up the compound where Meg was kept,” Tess said, glancing over her shoulder. “I don’t think they’ve succeeded in doing anything except becoming upset and angry, but they might come up with something useful.”

The girls had noticed him, so it was time to retreat. He raised a hand in greeting. Meg smiled at him; Ruthie and Merri Lee looked at him warily. And a little guiltily? He wasn’t concerned about Officers Kowalski and Debany knowing what the girls had worked on yesterday. He was hoping the men knew—and had told Montgomery. That would make this meeting with the police easier, especially since a handful of the Midwest leaders would be there along with Alan Wolfgard and Charlie Crowgard. Being a writer, Alan was more articulate with human speech and understood more of their odd phrases than most terra indigene did. And Charlie had a knack for looking curious and harmless. Charlie was always curious. Being a Crow didn’t make him harmless.

As Simon stepped out of the back door of the coffee shop, a black sedan drove down the access way toward the employee parking lot.

<Two humans,> Jake said from his spot on the brick wall that divided the delivery area from Henry’s yard. <We know their faces. The Montgomery and the Burke.>

<Good,> Simon replied.

Then Nathan reported, <The human bodywalker is here.>

<Let him in. Tell him to park in the employee lot.> Simon watched a white car drive past, then walked to the back door of the Liaison’s Office to wait for the three men.

Until Meg began working for them, the Others hadn’t allowed any humans but the Liaison to have access to the sorting room. But Meg was so efficient in delivering the mail and packages, there really wasn’t anything for other humans to see if they were trying to spy on the Courtyard. And he and the rest of the Business Association had adjusted the “no other humans” rule so that Meg’s human pack could be there with her without penalty. So letting police and the doctor into the sorting room wasn’t that much of a step beyond the new rules.

Besides, he had a feeling the girls would strip some fur off him if he moved their maps and any of their notes fell off.

When they went inside, Simon indicated that Burke, Montgomery, and Lorenzo should stand closest to the map of Thaisia that had been pinned over the pigeonholes that filled half of the sorting room’s back wall. While the three men frowned at the map, the terra indigene came into the room, spreading out so they blocked every exit.

Simon wasn’t sure if Lorenzo realized the humans were trapped, but Montgomery and Burke knew.

“A man called the Controller runs a compound where he keeps cassandra sangue and sells the cuts he makes on their skin to humans who want to know about the future,” Simon said. “We believe he is responsible for the drugs called gone over wolf and feel-good, as well as the bad meat that caused so much trouble in one of your Midwest towns. We’re also convinced that much, if not all, of the trouble in the Midwest that resulted in the deaths of terra indigene, as well as the attack in Jerzy, was instigated by this man.”

Burke’s face revealed nothing, although there was a hint of fear in his scent now that hadn’t been there when he walked into the room. Lorenzo looked puzzled, but he was on his way home after his shift at the hospital, so maybe he was too tired to be smart right now. Montgomery, on the other hand, couldn’t quite hide his alarm.

“The terra indigene have decided that this human is our enemy.” Simon looked each man in the eyes. “We’re going to put him down.” A human phrase for killing what they didn’t want.

He watched them. Listened to the catch in Lorenzo’s breath. Saw the way Monty flinched—an indication that the man understood what was coming. Only Burke gave no outward response to the words.

He pointed at the map. “As you can see, we put a great deal of work into figuring out where this Controller lives. We’ve narrowed it down to the Midwest. Now you’re going to help us find him.”

Lorenzo sputtered, “Why would we do that?”

Joe Wolfgard stepped forward, drawing the humans’ attention. “Because we’ll tear apart every human town, village, city, and settlement in the Midwest if that’s what it takes to find him. And if we have to do that, every human in those places will be considered an enemy and, therefore, prey—even if we have to dig them out of their dens in order to kill them.”

Shocked, the three men looked at the map.

“There are dozens of cities in the Midwest Region,” Burke finally said.

“And thousands of humans,” Simon said. “Today, anyway. Tomorrow?” He shrugged. “That depends on your people. The terra indigene are going to hunt down this enemy. If you don’t want us to attack all of those cities in order to find one man, give us a smaller target.”

Montgomery’s dark skin had lost enough color to make him look ill. Lorenzo, too, looked ill. Only Burke’s face didn’t change.

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