Murder of Crows Page 6

He repeated the words over and over while the Cutter selected a spot on the left thigh and used the girl’s personal razor to slice the fresh skin exactly one-quarter inch from the scar made by a previous cut.

Her face twisted with the terrible pain that came before the first words of prophecy were spoken. Then the girl began to speak, and pain changed to the addictive euphoria that appeared similar to sexual arousal and orgasm.

“Man looking in a mirror. Little bits of paper on his face, spotted red. Fluffy cat clawing a chair cushion. Letters H, F, L.” She moaned, her pelvis tipping up in invitation despite the straps holding her to the chair.

So little for a thigh cut, he thought angrily. “Take her back to her cell and prepare the second girl. I’ll return in a few minutes.”

He went to his office and turned on his computer. While he waited, he made a list of words that were associated with those images. “Cut, scrape, nick” for the first image. “Claw” and “scratch” for the second. Once he got online, he used a search program and played with combinations of the words. Nothing and nothing. Then he typed in “nick,” “scratch,” and “HFL.”

And there it was. Nicholas Scratch. Recently arrived from the Cel-Romano Alliance of Nations. Currently staying in the city of Toland to give several talks about the Humans First and Last movement.

The Controller smiled. Nicholas Scratch wouldn’t be easy to reach, but he would reach the man. No matter what face they put on the movement publicly, Humans First and Last was the spearhead for the fight to wrest the world away from the terra indigene’s control, and he was the only person who could supply them with ingenious weapons that could make that possible.

For the trial runs, feel-good and gone over wolf were dirty street drugs. But he wouldn’t be selling the HFL movement drugs for their armies. No, he would provide them with pharmaceutical enhancements that would, on the one hand, soften the enemy and, on the other hand, create a berserk army that wouldn’t hesitate to face the terra indigene for the glory of the human race.

Yes, contacting Nicholas Scratch was the next step for his new business.

Pleased, the Controller returned to the room for the second prophecy. While technically also a business question, it felt personal because cs759, the bitch who called herself Meg Corbyn, was still free. And even though every cut brought them one step closer to dying, blood prophets in the wild could be powerful enemies. That she was speaking prophecies for the Others made her, and them, too dangerous. Especially now. So he needed to reacquire her—or kill her—before she saw a prophecy that exposed his new business and his intended association with the HFL movement.

“Tell me about the Wolf at Lakeside,” he said. “What happens to the leader of the Lakeside Courtyard?”

The blood flowed, and the prophecy flowed with it. But this time, instead of speaking, the girl struggled to free herself from the straps and the chair.

“What happens to the Wolf?” the Controller said in a commanding voice. “Tell me about the Wolf!”

The girl looked at him and never stopped screaming.

“That’s enough from this one. Patch her up.”

“Why are we collecting the nose blood? It’s got snot in it.”

Sharp, hard laugh. “Who cares? The ones who are going to buy it and swallow a slug of it won’t know that. He wants everything from this one. She’s the most potent producer we’ve got. Guess being crazy makes the product even better.”

She listened to them talk about her, but the words didn’t matter any more than the few pumps it took for them to ejaculate inside her. Sometimes they slapped her, taunted her, pushed her into anger. Other times, they used fists to draw blood from the injuries as well as the cuts. They were cutting her too close to previous scars or cutting across old scars. Either way, whatever she screamed had no meaning to anyone.

Except her.

She didn’t fight them when they sealed up the cuts and dealt with the bleeding nose. She was passive now, drained of strength and prophecy.

“See you soon, cs747,” one of the Walking Names said, giving her an evil leer. “You’re still worth a bit of cash, so don’t die on us.”

I’m not the one who’s going to die, she thought as she heard the door of her cell close, heard the key turn in the lock. I’ve seen … so many things. A white coat who is more than a Walking Name, a man with salt-and-pepper hair. A dark-skinned man riding in a police car. And the Wolf. I’ve seen Meg’s Wolf.

So many things were going to happen because of Meg and her Wolf.

“I’m not cs747,” she whispered defiantly as she shifted on her cot in order to lean back against the wall. “My name is Jean.”

CHAPTER 5

Late Firesday morning, Vlad looked up from the stack of invoices on the desk, saw Heather and Merri Lee standing in the office doorway, and silently cursed Simon for taking the morning off to sulk or brood or whatever damn thing the Wolf was doing that had left him stuck with the bookstore’s paperwork and whatever problem these females were about to dump on him. Because it was clear by the look in Merri Lee’s eyes and the way she grabbed Heather’s wrist and pulled the other girl into the office and up to the desk that at least one of them had something on her mind.

They were good employees. Therefore, they were not edible.

And if they had been considered edible, he suspected even a hungry vampire would find their blood a little too sour this morning.

“What?” he said, trying not to sound wary. Two months ago, there had been no need to be wary. They were humans. If they became troublesome, they were replaceable. Then Merri Lee, Heather, and a few others had befriended Meg Corbyn and morphed into the Courtyard’s human pack, and the Business Association was still trying to figure out exactly how that had happened and what it meant and how to explain it to the rest of the terra indigene living in the Courtyard, not to mention the rest of the terra indigene period.

The Lakeside Courtyard was starting to get visitors coming in for the sole purpose of seeing this strange, inedible human pack. He didn’t want to be in the office on the day one of the girls realized the visiting terra indigene thought of them as a kind of tourist attraction—not as impressive as Talulah Falls, but more mysterious.

“What?” he said again when they continued to stare at him.

“Nathan needs to leave the Liaison’s Office during Meg’s midday break,” Merri Lee said.

“He usually does leave during the break,” Vlad replied.

“But not if Meg stays in. And we’re going to have lunch with Meg. In the office.”

“So why does he need to leave?”

“It’s an intervention,” Merri Lee said at the same time Heather mumbled, “It’s just girl talk.”

“About …?” he prompted when they didn’t say anything else.

“Sex,” Merri Lee said.

“Maybe sex,” Heather said, taking a step away from the desk and giving him what Simon called her bunny look. “I heard Mr. Wolfgard say it wasn’t about sex.”

“But Meg thinks it is,” Merri Lee argued. “Or it might be. Whatever it is, Meg and Simon are acting weird around each other, and they need to sort it out before other people get really upset.”

That one isn’t a bunny, Vlad thought as he studied the fire in Merri Lee’s eyes. She’s got some Wolf in her attitude. Maybe even a touch of Bear. “If they need to sort it out, why is Meg talking to you? And who are these other people?” And why hadn’t he heard about this until now?

“To figure out what she should say!” Merri Lee sounded exasperated by his inability to grasp a simple concept. “As for the other people, someone named Air came into the coffee shop this morning with one of the ponies and told Tess that Spring thought Meg seemed unhappy, and all the girls at the lake want to know why. I got the impression that Tess was concerned about them being interested, and about Air bringing a pony into A Little Bite, so it’s time for us girls”—she wagged a finger between herself and Heather—”to help Meg figure this out.”

“Which pony?” Vlad asked.

“I don’t know. A brown one.”

Could have been Earthshaker, Tornado, or Twister. Winter had visited the bookstore’s office once, so Vlad appreciated why Tess had been concerned about one of the girls paying a visit to the coffee shop for reasons that didn’t involve coffee.

He wanted to talk to Nyx, wanted the simplicity of dealing with a female who was a lethal predator and one of his own kind, because these two inedible fluffballs were making him nervous—especially the one who looked about to explode.

Everyone who lived in the Green Complex knew that Meg hadn’t spent any time last evening with her Wolf neighbor, which was unusual, and had driven to work by herself today. Also unusual. Even Jester Coyotegard said he didn’t want to poke his nose into that emotional porcupine, so the rest of the residents had decided to follow his example, and Vlad would have happily continued to do just that.

On the other hand, it had come to the attention of Grandfather Erebus that the Liaison wasn’t exactly speaking to the Wolfgard, and if Grandfather became unhappy because Meg was unhappy, living in the Courtyard could become uncomfortable. If the Elementals were also paying attention now, an uncomfortable situation could change into a dangerous one for all of them.

So maybe the fluffballs had the right idea and could help fix … whatever this was.

“Since he guards Meg and not the building, I can get Nathan out of the office but not away from the office,” Vlad said. “Why can’t he stay in the front room if you’re going to be in the back?”

“Because Wolves have excellent hearing,” Merri Lee said.

So do the Sanguinati, he thought as he sent out a call. <Nyx? I need to see you at the bookstore.> The Sanguinati’s other form was smoke, and smoke could slip into a room through the crack under a door or through a keyhole. Smoke could hide in the shadows of a room. Smoke could listen without anyone realizing someone was there.

“All right,” he said. “Nathan will stay outside.” He would clear that order with Blair Wolfgard, the Courtyard’s main enforcer. And if Blair wouldn’t help, he’d call Henry.

He just hoped neither of them asked what a girl-talk intervention involved.

“Go away,” he said. “I have work to do.”

They hustled out the door in a way that made him think he’d agreed to a lot more than he’d intended.

Heather brought pizza for lunch. Merri Lee brought chocolate and a book called The Dimwit’s Guide to Dating.

“Thank you.” Meg stared at the book for a moment before setting it aside where it wouldn’t end up smeared with pizza sauce. “Did you get this at HGR?”

Merri Lee snorted out a laugh. “Gods, no. Yesterday I went to a bookstore near Lakeside University to get that for you. Not that I think you’re a dimwit; that’s just the name of a whole series of books about various subjects. But I figured this is totally new ground for you, so even basic information might be useful.”

“Even if we stocked that book in HGR, which we don’t, none of us could have bought it without Mr. Wolfgard being told,” Heather said.

Meg’s arms began to prickle. She felt like she was hearing one conversation while another one was going on underneath, and it was the one she couldn’t hear that held some kind of danger.

“Tess said the order of creams and lotions should come in tomorrow,” Merri Lee said as Heather dished out slices of pizza. “And the first supply is free for all of us to try.”

“Free?” Heather said. “When I bought the face cream as a gift last year, it cost me half a week’s pay! We’re getting it free?”

“First supply,” Merri Lee said. “As a trial run.”

Meg’s skin buzzed at the words “trial run.” Then the feeling faded.

“Why is it so expensive?” she asked.

“Supply and demand,” Merri Lee replied. “The terra indigene make this line of products mostly for themselves and sell some of it to human stores. Limited supply means it’s expensive. There are plenty of the same kind of products being sold, but most have scents added—something most humans don’t mind and the Others do.”

Meg suddenly remembered a training video of a person being asked a question about one subject and then talking and talking about something else entirely. Like Merri Lee talking about the creams and body lotions, which wasn’t why she and Heather were here having lunch.

“You’re stalling,” Meg said, remembering how the video identified this behavior.

“I guess,” Merri Lee admitted. She waited until Heather dished out a second piece for each of them. “So what happened between you and Simon?”

“I don’t know what happened,” Meg replied. “I don’t even know if something did happen.”

Merri Lee smiled. “Then let’s try to figure it out.”

They talked for more than an hour while they devoured pizza before switching to chocolate.

“The terra indigene shift without thinking about it,” Merri Lee said. “At least that’s the impression I’ve had—shifting from one form to the other is no more significant to them than us changing from work clothes to casual, comfy clothes. So maybe it didn’t even register with Simon that he had shifted except that he felt cold. You did say he’s been sleeping with you since you got home from the hospital.”

“Yes, but as a wolf-shaped Wolf,” Meg said. “A furry Wolf is warm and cuddly. A people-shaped Wolf is … a man.” The memories of what happened after a cut were vague, but her body had reacted as if there was a reason to be afraid.

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