Murder of Crows Page 8

How do you mend a friendship? she wondered as she locked up her apartment and went down the stairs someone had swept clean of snow so she wouldn’t slip.

She deposited her bag of garbage in the big tote that had been placed next to the road, then retraced her steps and went to the garages behind the complex to get her BOW and drive to work.

Spending time with Simon had been so easy. Now just seeing him felt awkward. And yesterday, Earthday, had been downright uncomfortable because she hadn’t been invited to go for an afternoon romp with him and Sam. And when Simon invited her over to watch a movie with them in the evening, he had stayed in human form and sat on the other end of the sofa instead of curling up next to her as a Wolf—something he’d done every movie night since the first invitation.

It was Simon as Courtyard leader and business owner being friendly toward an employee rather than Simon spending time with a friend.

And that hurt. It surprised her how much feelings could translate into physical hurt.

“You started this,” she muttered as she drove to the office. “You’re the one who made a big deal out of … something.”

But Simon hadn’t tried hard—hadn’t tried at all, really—to convince her that his being in her bed as a na**d human had been totally innocent. If fact, he’d seemed relieved to have an excuse to back away from being friends with her.

“Think of something else.” She parked the BOW in the garage behind the office, checking the vehicle’s power bar before shutting it off. Didn’t need to charge it, so that was one less task to do before she could go inside and open the office in time for the morning deliveries.

Not many deliveries since the storm earlier in the month. Lots of stores were claiming to be out of stock of any item ordered by someone in the Courtyard. Seeing those same items listed on sale in the Lakeside News wasn’t easing the tension between humans and Others. If human businesses claimed goods were in short supply in order to avoid selling to the terra indigene, how long before the terra indigene cut off the resources to make those items and turned the short supply into a reality?

If that happened, everyone would be picking through the garbage for anything still usable.

The pins-and-needles feeling filled her arms so suddenly, she dropped her carry bag and purse in order to scrub at her skin through all the layers of clothes. That prickling under her skin used to happen just before she was cut for a prophecy. Now that she was living in the Courtyard, it happened a lot. Sometimes it was a light prickling that went away after a minute. Sometimes it acted like a detector, easing or disappearing altogether when she went into a different room or stepped away from a particular person.

And sometimes the pins-and-needles feeling became a painful buzz that told her something was going to happen. And the only way to find out was to cut her skin to see the visions and speak the prophecy.

She stood outside waiting to see if the feeling would fade or intensify.

Then she heard the Crows cawing nearby. Jenni and her sisters, heading out to …

She cried out as the prickling became the painful buzz.

“Meg?”

She looked up and saw Vlad leaning out the open window of HGR’s upstairs business office. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Nathan racing around the corner of the Liaison’s Office.

“Meg?” Smoke flowed out of HGR’s window and down the side of the building. Vlad in his other form.

Meg closed her eyes, doing her best to ignore Vlad, who was now flowing toward her, and the Wolf who was crowding her.

In another moment or two, they would both shift to human form and demand to know what was wrong. Before she could tell them, she had to figure out what was wrong.

She’d been thinking about garbage, so she began recalling every training image that was related to garbage or collecting garbage or the containers for garbage and recycling. Something about metal garbage cans buried in snow or shiny in the sun? No. The black, wheeled totes like they had in the Courtyard? No, but … Garbage truck. The clang of cans, the sound of the brakes or hydraulics or whatever it was that made that distinctive sound you could hear a block away. Feathers and blood in the snow and …

“Jenni!” Meg screamed. When Vlad, now in human form, grabbed her arms, she grabbed fistfuls of his black turtleneck. “That was the sound. In the dream. The garbage trucks. That was the sound. The Crows have to stay away from the garbage cans, the trucks, all of it. If they go near them, they’ll die, Vlad. They’ll die!”

She jolted as Nathan suddenly howled. Moments later, he was answered from the Utilities Complex, from the Wolfgard Complex, from wherever the Wolves were taking care of business in the Courtyard.

“I’ll deal with this,” Vlad said. “Can you get into the office by yourself?”

“Yes, I—”

“No cutting, Meg. Promise you won’t use the razor. Promise.”

“I promise. For now.”

Not good enough. She saw that in his dark eyes even before he pointed at Nathan and said, “Don’t let her out of your sight.” Then Vlad ran to A Little Bite’s back door. Moments after that, she saw a Hawk flying away from the Courtyard and realized Vlad must have sent Julia Hawkgard to find Jenni.

Nathan bumped his head against her hip. When she didn’t move, he clamped his teeth on the sleeve of her coat and started pulling her toward the office.

“All right, all right, let me get my purse,” she said. “We can’t get inside without keys.”

He let her go but didn’t stop crowding her until she had unlocked the back door and they were both inside. Even then he stayed close enough to grab an arm or leg if she did anything he considered suspicious.

The prickling remained a torment as she unlocked the office’s front door and set up her clipboard for the day’s deliveries.

She’d given the warning. The prickling should be fading by now. The fact that it wasn’t fading made her wonder if the dream a few nights ago had been a real prophecy. After all, the skin that split along the curve of her nose hadn’t bled, and prophecies came from a cut that bled.

And she wondered if, by making that promise to Vlad not to cut her skin, the next warning would come too late.

After dropping Sam and some other pups at the Courtyard school, Simon drove toward HGR. When he heard the howling, he stopped the BOW and rolled down the window to listen as other Wolves took up the song. That first warning howl had come from the direction of the business district. Wasn’t likely to be John, so that left the Wolf on guard at the Liaison’s Office.

<Nathan?> he called.

<Meg warning! Meg warning!> Nathan howled. <Crows in danger!>

Simon shoved the door open and got out. Smarter to stay in the vehicle if he needed to move quickly, but he couldn’t stand being closed in until he understood what they were facing, especially since Wolves all over the Courtyard continued answering Nathan’s howl.

<An attack?> he asked.

Before Nathan could reply, Vlad cut in. <Meg says the Crowgard are in danger and have to return to the Courtyard now. But it’s collection day, and the damn Crows aren’t listening! I sent Julia after Jenni and her sisters.>

<How are they in danger?>

<Something about the garbage trucks.>

A chill went through Simon. The Crows who were killed in Walnut Grove had been picking around the garbage when the dogs attacked.

<Jenni!> he shouted. <Get back to the Courtyard now!>

<It’s collection day,> she replied in a greedy tone that said she would ignore him for as long as possible. <The humans on this street throw out a lot of good things. And Starr spotted some shiny in one of the cans at the curb.>

No, he thought. No. Every week the Crows checked out the neighborhood streets around the Courtyard to see what humans had left at the curb that might strike their fancy. Anyone planning an attack would know where to find them—and what to put out for bait.

Just like someone in Walnut Grove had known what to put out in order to attract the birds.

<Jenni …>

<And Crystal found a picture frame she can carry and Jake says there’s a box that might have pieces of the building set we—>

<Jenni!> Simon shouted. <Meg says you’re in danger! All the Crowgard are in danger! You promised to listen, Jenni. You promised!> She’d agreed to pay attention, which wasn’t the same thing. Right now, he was hoping she didn’t remember that.

<Our Meg says? But … shinies, Simon.>

<It’s bait.> And he was going to find out who had baited those trash cans. <Do you understand, Jenni? It’s a trap!> He swore silently and viciously. If he wasn’t getting through to Jenni, he wouldn’t get through to the rest of the Crowgard. So he’d stop trying to reason with them.

<I am the leader of this Courtyard,> he snarled, sending his words to every terra indigene within range. <And I say that any Crow who doesn’t return to the Courtyard in the next fifteen minutes will be driven out of Lakeside forever.>

<Simon!> Multiple cries now because the Crows knew he meant it. Give up the shinies and other treasures today, or be sent to terra indigene settlements in the wild country, where the pickings would be slim. And they knew him well enough to understand that he wouldn’t just ban them from Lakeside. If they disobeyed him, he would use his influence with every Courtyard leader in the Northeast Region to ban the Lakeside Crows from every human city in this part of Thaisia.

He didn’t respond to the arguments or pleas coming from various Crows. He got back in the BOW and drove as fast as he could to HGR. That’s where the Crows would expect to find him.

<Julia?> he called.

<Most of the Crows are heading back to the Courtyard,> she replied. <They aren’t happy, but they’re heading back. I’m in the air, circling. I don’t see any danger.>

<Can you see Jenni? Is she heading back with the rest of the Crows?> Shinies and a toy in plain view. How many building sets had the Crowgard ordered from the nearby toy stores in the past month or so? Meg would know, but he suspected there had been enough for humans to guess that at least some of the Crows would be drawn to the box if it was sitting in the open.

After Julia told him which street had drawn more Crows than usual, she added, <Jake was pecking at something near the garbage cans just before you gave your orders and now he isn’t flying right. Crystal is helping him get back. Jenni and Starr want to stay and watch. They promised to perch in the trees. All right?>

He hesitated. Was this a challenge to his authority, an excuse to stay in order to snatch some coveted item, or the Crowgard’s need to have a report from one of their own? <As long as they stay in the trees—and you can vouch for them—they can keep watch.>

Besides, he was going to be there too.

As soon as he reached the Courtyard’s business district, he parked his BOW near HGR’s back door just as Vlad stepped outside. He raised a finger to indicate the vampire should wait, then said, <Blair? I need the passenger van.>

<You need any guards coming with you?> Blair asked.

<Just you. Vlad will come with us.> Satisfied that the Courtyard’s dominant enforcer was on the way, Simon turned to the next Wolf on his list. <Nathan? How is Meg?>

<Itchy,> the Wolf replied. <Restless. She tried to step on my foot. On purpose!>

“Did you tell Nathan to stick close to Meg?” he asked Vlad.

“I did.”

Since he didn’t think Vlad had intended for the Wolf to be underfoot, he said, <Keep out of reach,> then nodded to Tess when she came out of A Little Bite, shoving her arms into her coat. Moments later, Henry opened the wooden gate at the back of his studio’s yard and joined them.

Simon told them about the Crows’ resistance to giving up this collection day and repeated his ultimatum even though they would have heard that part.

“What do you need?” Henry asked.

Simon looked at Vlad. “I’d like you to come with Blair and me. As a Sanguinati, you might notice something we miss.”

“All right,” Vlad said. “What about Meg?”

“I’ll close A Little Bite and help Nathan watch Meg,” Tess said.

Simon shook his head. “Better for you to stay open. If humans are watching to see what we do, let them think we’re not aware of the baited street and the trap yet.” He thought for a moment. Did Nathan really need someone else in the Liaison’s Office to help him watch Meg? Or would having Tess and Henry nearby be enough?

“Henry, I need you to handle the Crows and make sure they all return,” Simon said. “I gave Jenni and Starr permission to stay and watch the street. Something is wrong with Jake. Crystal is helping him get back to the Crows’ complex. Talk to their bodywalker. See if anyone can figure out what happened to him.” He looked over his shoulder as Blair pulled up in the small passenger van they used when they needed to travel on human roads.

Blair got out of the van and slipped inside the Liaison’s Office. He returned a minute later with an armful of clothes, which he tossed inside the van.

Good idea, Simon thought. That way Jenni, Starr, and Julia could pull on some clothes if they needed to shift and talk to any humans.

Like Lieutenant Crispin James Montgomery? For a moment, Simon wondered if he should call Montgomery and tell him about the baited street.

No. The lieutenant wasn’t a hairless gibbering monkey like so many humans were, and he had helped protect Meg when she was in the hospital, but that didn’t make the man part of the Courtyard. Besides, the Crows had followed orders, so nothing had happened that required the police.

He would go to the baited street first. If he saw something pertinent, then he would call Montgomery.

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