* * *
Shooing thoughts of bogeymen away, Babet drove to the fish market on the pier before Prosper got home. She intended to have a nice night. A bucket of blue crabs almost guaranteed it. She put them in her chest freezer before plunging them in the boiling water—as humane as mass murder got. Then she melted butter and added seasonings for a dip. She put a round of crusty bread on the bread board and started chopping greens for a salad. By the time Prosper stepped through the back door, their meal was ready.
"Damn, it smells good in here." He went to the refrigerator for a beer.
Babet stepped into his embrace. "What did you do while Hatchet and I interviewed people?"
He grimaced. "I visited friends and families of the victims. Talk about a crappy day."
Babet led him to the table. They didn't chat while they enjoyed their food. Crab deserved to be relished. When they finished, and the dishwasher was loaded, they headed to the back courtyard with Morgana close on their heels.
Once they settled, Babet asked, "Did you learn anything?"
"Only that everyone felt more relief than sorrow with these three kids gone. Can't say that I blame them. We're not talking good family dynamics here."
"I'm guessing Hatchet already told you everything we did." Babet closed her eyes for a moment, enjoying the mid-seventy temperatures. When she opened them, her toenails were in full view, chipped polish and all. Ich. Lillith had every right to give her grief about them.
Prosper's voice sounded serious. "I didn't grow up on bogeyman stories. Weres worry more about pack laws and hierarchy. Glad I missed the monster in the closet bit."
"Some storytellers put him under the bed."
"Not much better."
Babet reached for his hand, happy to connect with him. "Witches don't tell those stories either. I'd never heard of them until Hennie said that he'd visited here before and taken lots of children."
Prosper gave her fingers a squeeze. "Lord, I love touching you, but I'm almost dead tonight. Bone-tired."
"Me too. Let's call it quits early." She paused and felt a tad sneaky when she asked, "Had Hatchet heard about him before?"
"I don't think so."
"Where did he grow up—around here?"
Prosper chuckled—a low rumble. "Don’t have a clue. He doesn't tell us anymore than he's probably told you."
She sighed. "It was worth a try."
"A good attempt, but won't work. No one knows much about Hatchet, even people who've known him for a long time."
Her body sagged. Not disappointment, just out of energy. "Come on. We stayed up late last night. I need some sleep."
Prosper didn't argue. He rose and pulled her out of her chair, then put his hands on her hips to steer her toward the bedroom. "Sorry, Morgana," he told the snake. "We're not good company tonight. See you in the morning."
They closed the door, undressed, and a few minutes later, they were both asleep.
* * *
Something was making a lot of noise, a constant pounding. Babet opened her eyes, but the room was still dark. Prosper had pulled a pillow over his head, still sleeping. The noise continued. She pushed herself out of bed and went to the hallway. Morgana's head was bobbing so fast, it made Babet jittery. She started toward the front door. Morgana slithered ahead of her.
The closer Babet got to the foyer, the louder the noise. But this was more like a desperate scratching. That's when she realized that Morgana, thumping against their bedroom door, was what woke her. This noise was something different.
She flipped on the porch light and moved the front curtain to look outside. Virgine was slumped against the door, scratching to be let in.
Adrenaline pumping, Babet came wide awake. She flew to the door and yanked it open. Virgine half fell inside. The poor girl looked like she'd fought a war, lost, and then crawled here.
Babet gripped her under her arms and pulled her into the house, then shut the door and locked it. She turned out the lights and said quick chants to bolster her wards. She sagged on her knees beside Virgine and propped the girl's head on her lap. "Tell me what happened."
"The bogeyman tried to take me." Her voice sounded parched, feeble.
"You? You're an adult, a vampire." Babet shook her head, trying to clear it. Why would a bogeyman attack a grown woman?
"He came after me and kept saying, 'You've deserted your father to live in a whore house. What's wrong with you?'"
The bedroom door opened, and Prosper came to join them. He took one look at Virgine and sank down beside Babet to help support her. "Can we get you anything? Food? Water?"
Virgine shook her head. "I'm a vampire. I'll heal. But it hurt more than I expected."
"What did he do to you?" Babet could feel her magic rise. She wanted to find the bogeyman and make him regret coming to River City.
"When he opened his bag, I started to turn to shadows too. First my feet, then it worked its way up."
Prosper stared. "That's how he does it? He makes them shadow spirits like him, then stuffs them in his bag?"
Virgine nodded. "But I'm a vampire. My feet would start dissolving, and then they'd grow solid again, healing themselves, until it hurt too much and I grew angry."
"What did you do?" Babet couldn't imagine Virgine angry. She didn't think the girl had it in her.
"I screamed at him. I told him that my father sent me here. It was his idea for me to live with Lillith, to keep me safe. And that he wasn't as smart as he thought he was, because I am a good daughter."
Babet would have jumped up and down and cheered, except that Virgine looked so utterly miserable. "Did he listen to you?"
"I think it surprised him. He didn't know what to do then, and I ran."
Prosper leveled a serious look at her. "What were you doing out in the middle of the night when you know there's a bogeyman in town?"
A flush crept up Virgine's neck and stained her cheeks. "I can't make myself feed from humans. I go to the river walks and feed off the vermin and strays."
"But surely…." Prosper faltered to a stop, unsure how to word his sentence.
Virgine guessed and nodded. "Lots of mortals have offered to let me sip from them. I find it unappetizing."
"Perhaps, for right now…." Prosper stumbled to a stop again.
Virgine shook her head. "Not from people. I just can't."
"But it's not safe for you to leave Lillith's house."
"I'll order steaks for now and eat them raw," Virgine promised. "Not as good as fresh blood, but it will do."
Prosper stood. "I'll drive you home. You can't be out alone tonight."
Babet helped Virgine to her feet. The girl could hardly stand. No wonder she didn't make it the few more blocks to Lillith's. "I'll go with you."
Together, they drove Virgine to the brothel and helped her to the door. Colleen greeted them at the back entrance, saw Virgine, and slid an arm under her friend's arms to support her.
"I can take her from here. Thank you."
A hint. Don't come in. Noise and laughter drifted from the house. Deep bass mixed with higher-pitched tones. Clients and associates. Babet had no desire to visit during business hours. She and Prosper turned and drove home.
"Well, I'll be damned," Prosper said when they locked the courtyard gate behind them. His movements lacked their usual grace. He scratched his head, trying to stay awake.
"But we have answers now. We know how he takes them." Babet rubbed at her eyes.. She ignored the lawn chair and went into the house, straight for the bedroom.
Prosper raised a hand to hide a yawn. "He makes mistakes. We know that too."
Babet shook her head. "It was a close call. I'm guessing Virgine's father misses her and thinks of her often."
"And that's what the bogeyman picked up on?"
"That, and she's living in a whore house." They flopped onto the bed together.
She expected an answer. She heard soft snores instead. And then it didn't matter. She fell asleep too.
* * *
It didn't surprise Babet when she was summoned to Lillith's house two days later. It was late afternoon. Lillith rarely rose before noon. This time, she didn't rush. She carefully arranged her dark hair in an updo. She rimmed her eyes with black eyeliner. And she dressed in a flowing, butter yellow skirt that showed off her tanned legs.
Colleen nodded her head in approval when she greeted her. She raised a copper eyebrow. "Have you seen your friend lately?"
"Hatchet? He's working a case. Pulling long hours."
Colleen's expression relaxed, slightly mollified. "Lillith's expecting you." She led the way up the stairs.
This time, Virgine sat in one of the silk-covered chairs in the center of the room. Babet took a sofa across from her, and waited for Lillith to begin their meeting.
Lillith raised a hand to push back a strand of honey-gold hair that dared to fall too far forward. She licked her lush lips. Dressed in a gauzy, apricot-colored gown, she looked more gorgeous than usual. As the first woman, before Eve, she was intended as perfection. Someone got it right. She got straight to the point. "It seems that the bogeyman is still interested in our Virgine."
Babet's breath caught. Fear stuck in her chest. "He tried to take her again?"
"No, a different sort of interest." She nodded to Virgine. "You tell her, dear."
A flush colored the girl's cheeks. She took a deep breath. "He stands outside the house all night long. If I look out a window, I catch him watching me. He leaves dead rats on the back step."
"Like a cat that leaves a mouse on your stoop. He leaves Virgine her evening meal." Lillith grimaced. "I think he's formed an attachment for her."
Babet was at a loss for words. She'd never seen this coming. A bogeyman with a crush. Who knew? She shook her head, trying to sort her thoughts. "And you?" she asked Virgine. "Have you tried to shoo him away?"
Virgine sounded bemused. "I opened the window to shout at him, and he pressed his fingers to his lips and blew me a kiss."
Babet studied the girl, small and thin, plain and painfully shy. What did the bogeyman see in her? Perhaps he was drawn to someone genuinely nice. "This could be a good thing," Babet said. "If he's watching you, he's not grabbing children. You're buying us time."
Virgine straightened up from her slouch. "I am?"
"Why don't you smile at him occasionally? Maybe wave? Encourage him a little. But never leave this house."
Lillith watched Virgine closely. She narrowed her eyes. "What does he look like? I've never seen him."
Virgine considered the question carefully. "I have a feeling that his looks change to fit the occasion. At first, he was hideous—more of a monster than a man. But later, he reminded me of a tutor I had when I was young. And then he just looked…like a rather homely man."
Lillith tilted her head, thinking. "Plain, like you?"
"Perhaps that's why he chose you. Maybe you make him feel comfortable."
Virgine pursed her lips. "When he was homely, he seemed nice."
"But he's not." Babet didn't want Virgine to read something into the bogeyman that wasn't there. "He hurts children."
"Yes, I remember that." She put a hand to her lips, covering her mouth. Was that a sign of anything? Babet tried to remember the few things Prosper had told her about body language. No use. It was gone.
Babet rose. "I'll tell Prosper and Hatchet what's happened. I'm not sure if we can capture him. He's shadows. I'll go through some of my spell books to see if I can learn anything new."
Lillith nodded, still watching Virgine. "Thank you for coming. At least now, we don't have to search for him, do we? We know where he'll be."
* * *
Babet drove straight to Prosper's station when she left Lillith's. She found him in his office, tapping a pencil on a sheet of paper while he talked on the phone, with Hatchet pacing nearby, waiting for the call to end.
They both looked at her expectantly. When the call was finished, she told them about Virgine.
Prosper shook his head. "This case just keeps getting crazier."
"What do you mean? What happened?" Babet took the chair across from him.
"All three kids have been returned."
"Returned? From where?" Babet rubbed her forehead. A headache was building behind her eyes.
"None of them know. The last thing they remember is a shadowy man opening a bag, and then they watched their feet start to dissolve. By the time their knees were mist, they must have passed out. And it hurt. They were cold."
"That's it? Nothing else?"
"The eighteen-year-old dreamt that he was in a classroom, and chalk moved across the blackboard, writing the same things over and over. You will never strike your family again. You will be a good person."
"Do you think that was real?"
Prosper shrugged in bewilderment. "All I know is that all three kids have done an about-face. The girl's mantra is Thou shalt not steal. The first boy kept telling us that his body is a temple."
Babet's headache settled into her gumline. "And if they refuse to change?"
Hatchet answered. "The first boy told us that you stay until you're ready to return."
Babet dug in her purse for a bottle of aspirin. Prosper opened the top drawer of his desk and handed her some. Hatchet went to get her a paper cup filled with water. She swallowed the pills and said, "So this is some sort of bad kids' boot camp?"
Prosper popped two pills too. "It sounds like it."
"And if a kid's incorrigible?"
"The girl said you fade until you start to listen, to gear in. I'd guess if you wait too long, you fade away."
The three of them looked at each other. "So what now?" Babet asked. "The kids are back. They can't remember enough to press charges."
"We go to the bogeyman and politely ask him to leave." Prosper reached for his cell phone and started for the door.
Babet held back. "He doesn't come until dusk."
Prosper pointed to the sun painting the horizon every shade of rose outside.
"No, it can't be." Babet looked at her watch and sighed. Where had her day gone? "I didn' realize it was so late."
Prosper grinned. "Time flies when you're having fun."
"Don't go there." Hatchet started for the door. "Time to kick some bogey butt."
Babet and Prosper weren't far behind. They climbed into Hatchet's unmarked car. People waved at them as they drove by.
"I think you've been made," Prosper teased.
"I like being recognized. Then people know they're being watched when I'm around." Hatchet drove to Lillith's and parked a little distance away on a side street. No use causing panic if they didn't have to. They got out of the car and went in search of the bogeyman. They circled the entire block, expecting to find him gazing at a window, but he was nowhere in sight. Finally, they went to the back door of the Victorian house and knocked. Lillith herself opened it and invited them inside.
They crowded into a small parlor, meant for employees only.
"She's gone," Lillith said.
"Gone?" Babet couldn't believe it. "Did she run home to her father?"
Maybe the girl didn't feel safe. Maybe she was tired of hiding in Lillith's bordello.
"She ran off with her knight in misty armor."
Prosper's voice showed his surprise and panic. "With the bogeyman?" Lillith's sigh was almost inaudible. "The girl's been waiting a long time for the right someone to find her. He finally did. She deserves a chance at happiness."
"And you think he'll give it to her?" Hatchet's tone was harsh.
Lillith slanted him a look. "What do you do with criminals? How do you handle the incorrigibles in our society?"
"We catch them and lock them up, where they can't hurt anyone…." Hatchet hesitated. "You're comparing us to the bogeyman."
"I don't see a lot of difference, only his odds for rehabilitation might be better than yours. Virgine will love that. He snatches bad children and tries to make them better."
Babet looked around the room, at the beautiful furnishings and wallpaper. "But what will she do? What kind of life will she have with him?"
Lillith squared her shoulders, all business. "What did she do here? She cooked and cleaned. She served us. She doesn't want anything more."
"And her father?" Prosper asked. "Will he be angry?"
"I've talked to him. He's relieved. What could he do with her? His enemies are powerful. Virgine wouldn't stand a chance against them. That's why he kept her hidden. Who's going to kidnap the bogeyman's true love? Would you?"
"And have him track me down? Haunt me with mists?" Babet shook her head.
"There it is, then," Lillith said. "A happy ending."
"Is it?" Babet needed to sort it out before she felt sure.
"Virgine left me a note. She and Dongola won't return here. River City will be off limits. She asked us to be happy for her."
Babet leaned against Prosper. It was all too much. Her headache settled behind her right ear, into her neck. The aspirin only dulled it. "I'm tired. I want to go home."
He wove an arm around her and started for the door. Hatchet said a quick thank you and started after them when a voice stopped him.
He turned and stared. Colleen stood in the doorway, dressed in a diaphanous gown that accented every good feature she had…which were many. "Yes?"
"We have business to discuss."
She walked forward, took his keys from his hand, and tossed them to Prosper. "I'll make sure he gets home okay."
"Hatchet?" Prosper wasn't sure whether to leave or stay.
"See you in the morning." Hatchet didn't look back. He went with Colleen.
Prosper paused a moment, but Lillith waved him away. "She won't eat him, even if he asks her to."
That was enough. Prosper pulled Babet close and got the hell out of there.
On the drive home, he kept his hand over hers. His touch calmed her whirling thoughts. By the time they made it into the kitchen, she'd come to terms with what happened. Tomorrow, who knew? She might be able to put a positive spin on everything. She could see how that could happen, once all the pieces fell into place.
Prosper must have felt the same way. He patted Morgana's head, then headed for the bedroom. "I'm talked and thought out. I need to sleep."
They dropped their clothes to the floor, then spooned their bodies together. Babet had worried she'd replay the days' events over and over in her mind. She didn't. As soon as Prosper's breaths came in a steady rhythm, hers matched them. And before long, she drifted away, Prosper's arm thrown over her shoulders to keep her safe. No bogeyman could claim her. And no dreams came. She drifted in blissful peace.
(This novella came from the bundle of Lunch Hour Reads: The Babet & Prosper Collecting II). www.amazon.com/Babet-Prosper-Collection-II-Collections-ebook/dp/B00FBG7J4I/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1530148505&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=Babet+%26+Prosper+Collection+III%2C+Judith+Post