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Crowbones

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Crowbones

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Author: Anne Bishop
Publisher: Ace Books, 2022
Series: The Others: Book 8
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

Deep in the territory controlled by the Others--shape-shifters, vampires, and even deadlier paranormal beings--Vicki DeVine has made a new life for herself running The Jumble, a rustic resort. When she decides to host a gathering of friends and guests for Trickster Night, at first everything is going well between the humans and the Others.

But then someone arrives dressed as Crowbones, the Crowgard bogeyman. When the impostor is killed along with a shape-shifting Crow, and the deaths are clearly connected, everyone fears that the real Crowbones may have come to The Jumble--and that could mean serious trouble.

To "encourage" humans to help them find some answers, the Elders and Elementals close all the roads, locking in suspects and victims alike. Now Vicki, human police chief Grimshaw, vampire lawyer Ilya Sanguinati, and the rest of their friends have to figure out who is manipulating events designed to pit humans against Others--and who may have put Vicki DeVine in the crosshairs of a powerful hunter.


Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Vicki

Leading up to Sunsday, Grau 30

It wasn't my fault.

Okay, it sort of was my fault because I should have realized that the Crowgard who worked for me would be wildly excited about a human celebration called Trickster Night and want to participate firsthand-firstwing?-in such an event. I also should have realized they would tell the rest of the Crows and other forms of terra indigene who lived in The Jumble about a human custom of dressing up and putting on masks to try to look scary. In the weeks prior to that actual night, Aggie, Jozi, and Eddie Crowgard pestered every human who visited The Jumble about how to "Trickster properly"-choice of costumes, choice of treats, what to say and what to do.

Wayne Grimshaw, Sproing's chief of police, was sparse with details whenever he dropped by to check up on me. Julian Farrow, who owned Lettuce Reed, the village's bookstore, was cautious with his explanations. Paige and Dominique Xavier, on the other hand, gleefully told the Crows about their childhood adventures and what they wore when they knocked on neighbors' doors and shouted, "Trick or treat!"

After receiving one of Grimshaw's patented grim looks, which turned his blue-gray eyes a steely gray, Paige and Dominique quickly emphasized that playing tricks was not the point of the evening.

"It won't be that bad," I had muttered to Ineke Xavier one afternoon as we waited by her car for Paige and Dominique to finish "explaining" a few more details about Trickster Night to my Crowgard employees. "My bookings for the lake cabins and the suites in the main house are all adult guests. No children."

"Have you bought enough bags of candy to hand out?" Ineke asked, sounding mildly curious.

"Mildly curious" coming from a woman who had a tattoo on one thigh that included the words "I Bury Trouble" was not to be mistaken for actual mild curiosity.

"Who is going to come out to The Jumble for a piece of hard candy?" I asked.

"Pops Davies mentioned that you hadn't come by the general store to pick up the bags of candy he'd set aside for you. Small chocolate bars."

I blinked. "Chocolate? Really?" Ever since the Great Predation-a terrifying time last year when the Elders and Elementals swept over the world and seriously thinned the human population as retaliation for the Humans First and Last movement starting a war and killing shifter forms of terra indigene-some things weren't as readily available as they used to be, and that included small bars of chocolate. I could put out some of the chocolate for my guests and keep a stash for myself for the times when I needed a reward for getting through a difficult day.

I made a mental note to call Pops and let him know I was interested in the chocolate so he wouldn't sell it to someone else.

"You're fully booked for the days before and after Trickster Night?" Ineke asked, still sounding mildly curious and calling me back from my distraction-by-chocolate.

"Yes." I had been fully booked for weeks, so I hadn't thought there was anything unusual about these reservations since we were just coming to the end of our peak tourist season and still required a three-day-minimum reservation-but I was catching on that maybe, just maybe, I had done something to earn the look Grimshaw had given me last night when he came over to play pool with Ilya Sanguinati, who was a very yummy-looking vampire and my attorney.

"So am I," Ineke said. "It's unusual to have people specifically booking a three-day stay midweek to make sure they are here for Trickster Night." She took pity on me. "The Jumble's residents are going to have the most amazing costumes."

"They don't need costumes. Most of them..."

I finally got it. Aggie, Jozi, and Eddie could pass for human unless they got excited and started sprouting black feathers. Robert "Call Me Cougar" Panthera and Conan Beargard could pass for human if you ignored Conan's excess body hair and the fact that the boys still had trouble with their teeth. They were getting those sorted out as they spent more time around humans, but the teeth were still an unnerving mix of human and large predator. As for the rest of The Jumble's terra indigene residents...

The between form isn't fully an individual's animal form and it isn't fully human, and it sure isn't whatever they look like in their true form, which is a form no human gets to see unless the human is the main course for that night's dinner. Maybe not even then, because the one time I asked Ilya why the Others' true forms were such a big deal, he said very, very quietly, "You don't want to know, and you should not ask anyone else."

I took the hint and never mentioned it again.

The days prior to Trickster Night, I juggled looking after my current guests, getting ready for my soon-to-arrive guests, and approving the "costumes" of The Jumble's full-time residents. After I persuaded Aggie, Jozi, and Eddie that a between form that mixed too much Crow with their human forms would be bad for business, they agreed to keep their shifting to a human-size Crow head and a few feathers on their hands, which would be startling enough but wouldn't freak out the guests. I hoped. It also meant they couldn't talk to the guests or convey any messages about what the guests might want, but I could live with that for one evening. As for the rest of the Others who wanted to mingle with the humans in order to study them during this celebration...

Female Fox with foxy ears, foxy tail showing through a slit in her capris, and foxy front paws with elongated digits that were necessary to hold her treat sack. Cute.

Male Bobcat who looked the way he usually did when he took guests on a donkey-cart tour of The Jumble-in other words, he looked more Bobcat than human but could converse with humans. More or less. His "costume" consisted of a short cape that might have come from the large cardboard lost-and-found box I had tucked away in one of the first-floor rooms I wasn't currently using. I was certain some guests left things behind on purpose-a book, a sweater, a hairbrush-so that the Others could use them. And some things were left behind because the guest was in too much of a hurry to leave to check the closet or drawers.

Interestingly enough, it was the guests who were rude, too demanding, or "handsy" with Aggie, Jozi, or me who were motivated to leave in a hurry. I never asked who did the motivating, since there were scarier forms of terra indigene living around Lake Silence than a Panther, a black Bear, and the Sanguinati, and I really didn't want to know for sure that they were studying my guests in the same way some of my guests studied the more... benign?... forms of Others.

Back to the costumes. There were other blends of human and animal that... Okay, the individual was going for scary, and that included Cougar and Conan, which forced me to explain that there were degrees of scary, and if they didn't want to pour a thick layer of sand-or kitty litter-in front of the door to soak up all the pee from terrified children and adults, they needed to adjust their Trickster Night look to something that wasn't too scary.

I sat through, including the boys, six individuals "adjusting" their look until I gave them thumbs-up, no-pee approval. Then I took the key to the liquor cabinet that held Grimshaw and Julian's private stash of sipping whiskey, chose the bottle that was open without looking at the label, and poured myself a hefty dose of courage, which got me through the rest of that day.

Check-in time is two p.m., and I was fully booked. Not that I had many available rooms. At this time of year, I didn't offer the "primitive" cabins. Out of the twelve cabins that were in The Jumble, three cabins located near the lake had been renovated and had updated electricity and indoor plumbing. Two were available for guests, since the three Crowgard who worked for me occupied the third cabin. I also had two suites with private bathrooms in the main house. Sleeping arrangements for the two renovated cabins were two single beds in one and a double bed in the other. The suites in the main building had a double bed and a sofa bed in each. The sofa beds were a recent purchase IÕd made for the guests who did bring a child or other relative to The Jumble, but it also worked for a variety of sleeping arrangements.

All of my Trickster Night guests arrived on Grau 30 shortly before check-in and spent the time making small talk while I got the registrations sorted out. All adults, which I'd expected. Fred and Wilma Cornley, an almost-newlywed couple, had reserved one of the suites in the main house. The other suite was reserved by Ben Malacki and David Shuman, who were professors at one of the universities in the Finger Lakes. I figured they would flip a coin to see who slept on the sofa bed and who got the double bed. Jenna McKay had the cabin with single beds because she'd originally booked a reservation for two people, but her friend had canceled at the last minute. When Jenna heard that Ian and Michael Stern, cousins who had ended up with the last cabin, were going to flip a coin to see who got the double bed and who would sleep on the air mattress and sleeping bag they'd packed as a "just in case" option, she offered to switch cabins with them so that they could have the two single beds. That worked well for everyone, and assisted by my Crowgard employees, three of my guests headed for their homes away from home in high spirits.

Who slept where wasn't any of my business as long as guests didn't create a mess or draw too much attention to themselves. But I had that part covered by the sign on the reception desk that read: If your behavior attracts attention, YOU have to explain that behavior to someone who might eat you. Good luck.

It wasn't subtle, so most guests got the point, and no one had been eaten since that unpleasantness this past summer when my ex-husband and his cronies had tried to force me out of The Jumble in order to turn it into a posh resort.

I escorted the Cornleys and the two professors up to their suites, giving them a rundown of possible activities they could enjoy during their stay, emphasizing tomorrow night's festivities since I assumed those were why they were here and also pointing out that the TV was already reserved for the evening. Since this was the only TV available to guests, it was a not-so-subtle way of saying Make out your will before you attempt to change the channel.

This being cop and crime night, I had ordered enough pizza and salads from the Pizza Shack in Sproing to feed my employees and guests. As the proprietor, I'm supposed to be available for guests, but Conan and Cougar made it clear to everyone that no one who wanted to keep all their digits disturbed me or the rest of the staff during the cop and crime shows.

Surprisingly, all the guests stayed to watch the shows with us, even the almost newlyweds. The men chowed down on pizza-wisely not touching the one called the Carnivore Special after Conan and Cougar growled at them-and fielded questions about human behavior both in the show and in the commercials. Jenna and Wilma ate mostly salad, which they almost dumped on themselves when Aggie jumped up and started yelling at one of the cops in the show when he paid no attention to the crow in the trees, who, according to Aggie, was trying to warn him that the sneaky human had just passed that way and was waiting to spring a trap.

That created a lively discussion during commercials about whether the cop, who didn't speak crow or Crow, could have realized he was being warned. And then everyone wondered if the crow had been just a bird that happened to be in a tree when that scene was shot or if it was supposed to be one of the Crowgard.

That led to questions of how to write to the show and suggest that they hire a Crow to assist the cops in the show in the same way the Crowgard assisted the police who protected Sproing.

My guests were fascinated by this claim of assistance. I ate my pizza and thanked all the gods that Grimshaw hadn't decided to drop by to play a game of pool and snag a couple of slices of pizza. I knew the look I would get if my guests started asking how the Others assisted the police in their apprehension of wrongdoers. Telling the truth-that wrongdoers were often eaten if the police didn't get to them first-would not help Sproing's tourist trade. Or my bottom line.

Grimshaw didn't watch the cop and crime shows, although he often dropped by because cop and crime night was also pizza night. Julian Farrow didn't watch those shows either, because he'd been a cop until the Incident that ended his career and he never knew if something in the shows would stir up post-traumatic memories. So whenever Grimshaw or Julian did turn up on that night, it was for pizza and pool. That's what they said, but David Osgood, the rookie police officer who worked for Grimshaw, had told Paige Xavier, who had told me, that Chief Grimshaw had made a passing comment about me being a trouble magnet, which was the real reason he stopped by a couple of times a week. Keeping his finger on the pulse, so to speak.

I preferred to think it was just a Grimshaw sort of justification for coming to The Jumble. Ilya Sanguinati had turned one of my downstairs rooms into something that looked like a pool hall just to give Grimshaw a private place to play pool. It could be used by my guests too, but when the Reserved sign was on the door, it was Grimshaw either playing on his own or playing with Julian and/or Ilya. A bit like an exclusive club-and we'd all learned how much trouble those could be, but the three males liked being able to discuss things in an informal setting. Keeping their fingers on the village's pulse-and their eyes on the trouble magnet, a label I thought was unfair since all I'd done that first time was call the police to report a dead man after I stopped Aggie from heating up one of his eyeballs for lunch.

Copyright © 2022 by Anne Bishop


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