A Crappy Start for Christmas
(a Babet and Prosper holiday short story)
As Babet hung the last strand of white mini-lights around the front window, she watched tourists bustle past her yellow bungalow. Holiday shopping was in full force in River City. Her phone buzzed, and she smiled at the caller I.D. Damek. Hennie’s incubi rarely called her, so something must be up. Maybe a cocktail party? Or a fancy soiree? After all, it was December, time for Christmas get-togethers. And if Damek threw a party, it would be one to remember. Her mother’s best friend had fallen for one of the most sophisticated men Babet had ever met. She pictured fancy canapes and appetizers, and her mouth watered.
“Hello.” She could use a little Christmas cheer. Her Were mate, Prosper, had been busier than usual at the station lately. Mortals were going missing, and usually, a supernatural was to blame. Not that they’d found any leads. Nothing to connect the victims who’d disappeared.
Babet’s visions of fancy gowns and glittering jewelry vanished the minute she heard Damek’s voice. Hennie’s tall, suave incubi didn’t sound like he was in a party mood when he started talking. “Hey, Babet, sorry to bother you, but I have a bit of a problem. Care to meet me at the antique shop on Magic Street? I could use a second opinion.”
Really? He knew she didn’t know a damn thing about his specialty—relics and antiquities—so this must be about something else. “Sure, give me half an hour and I’ll be there.” She was wearing an old T-shirt and a pair of ratty sweats. No reason to dress up to decorate the house. She’d already strung lights around the high, brick wall of their back courtyard. Grunge work. She hadn’t even bothered to brush her teeth yet.
Damek’s voice sounded strained. “The sooner you can get here, the better.”
It took a lot to bother Damek. If he needed her, she’d hustle. “I’m on my way.”
She’d skip the niceties, except for brushing her teeth. Five minutes later, she started out the kitchen door, and Morgana slithered after her. “I’m just meeting Damek,” Babet told her familiar. “I’ll be safe.”
Her boa didn’t budge. Usually, in cool weather, she was happy to stay inside, coiled in a slant of sunlight coming through the long, narrow windows, but she’d caught something in Babet’s tone and raised her head, alert. Babet sighed and reached for a sweater. The sultry heat of summer was gone, but it never got too cold here. She wagged a finger at the snake. “Okay, you can come, but you can’t let tourists see you. We’ll have to go in the back way.”
Tourists were funny about long, poisonous snakes. They might visit voodoo shops and pay a vampire to give them a tattoo, but reptiles ruined their holiday mood. Morgana took her job as a familiar seriously, though, and had saved their asses on numerous occasions. If she wanted to tagalong, she was welcome. It was a short drive to Magic Street, but it took longer than usual. The streets and sidewalks were packed with people, shopping and partying. It might be early afternoon, but the bars were all booming. Babet turned at the alley behind the antiques shop and parked in the small, back lot.
Damek met her at the door and motioned her inside, then locked it behind them. The blinds were down, and the signs in the front and back windows were turned to CLOSED. Babet waited for her eyes to adjust to the gloom, then asked, “What’s up? These are business hours.”
“Not anymore.” He led her to the stairs and started up them. “I called Prosper, and he and Hatchet will be here soon, but I wanted you to look at Rory first.”
Morgana slithered up the steps behind them. If Rory needed a witch, Damek had called the right person, but why Prosper and Hatchet? Had he been mugged? Did he need a healing spell? “Is Rory in trouble?” Babet asked.
“Not anymore.” Damek stepped inside a large bedroom and motioned to the bed.
Sheets covered Rory to his waist, or at least, what was left of him. His mouth was wide, as if he was about to scream, and his eyes were bulging and glazed. His torso and face were raw and pocked, as if someone had thrown acid on him, then chewed off chunks of his flesh.
Babet’s stomach turned. She put a hand over her mouth and willed herself not to gag.
Voice hard, Damek asked, “What does that?”
“Damned if I know. Not one of you.” Incubi could take deep breaths and inhale a person’s energy until they drained them. “Rory would be dead and empty. Not like this. Not a vampire either. The blood’s gone, but they don’t look like this.” She couldn’t help but grimace. “Weres might gnaw the flesh off victims, but they look chewed on. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
They heard a car pull next to hers in the back lot and park. Damian ran downstairs to unlock the door for Prosper and Hatchet. When they climbed the steps to stand beside her, Morgana glided to Prosper. He bent to rub her chin. When he stood to look at the victim, he rubbed a hand over his eyes. “We just came from a crime scene exactly like this.”
Damek stared. “There’s another one?”
“Two more,” Hatchet said. “Both were men who came here on vacations. We found their bodies in motel rooms with Do Not Disturb signs on their doors. One had been dead about a week, the other longer than that. No one reported them missing until they didn’t return home.”
Babet turned to Prosper. Her mate wore a sage green, button down shirt today with his khaki pants. The green looked good against his bronze coloring. The muscles straining against the clothing looked even better. “Were the men on the list of missing people you’ve been looking for?”
“No, we’ve searched each person’s home and came up empty. No bodies. No clues. We can’t find anything to connect them, no leads to follow.”
She played with a strand of hair that had escaped her topknot. A bad habit. “Were all of them men?” That wouldn’t narrow the crimes by much, but it was a start. The killer would probably be a female. Babet watched Prosper wince and knew she was wrong.
Her Were locked gazes with her. “No, a brother and sister went missing on their way home from school, both young.”
“In the city?”
Hatchet glanced at Rory’s body and his shoulders sagged. “I sure as hell hope we find them alive. They lived outside of city limits. Their house sat back from the road. The bus driver dropped them off, then drove on. Their mom said they never made it to the front porch. There’s a wood not far from their property.”
Babet’s stomach knotted. “Did your unit search it?”
“We didn’t find anything.” Prosper’s hand reached to stroke Morgana’s head. He hated dead ends, hated not having something to do, so he fidgeted. She understood.
Flickers of fire bounced across Damek’s knuckles. The incubus was a fire demon, and he was struggling for control. He stepped out of the room into the hallway. “Can we talk out here? Away from the body?”
Babet gladly followed him, and so did Prosper and Hatchet. Babet studied her friend. “It had to be awful to be the one who found him. Were you close to Rory?”
Damek pinched his full lips together before he spoke. “We both loved rare items. Rory just bought a relic he thought might interest me, asked me to meet him at his shop today. When I got here, the door wasn’t locked, so I let myself in. When I called and he didn’t answer, I went to find him. I figured he was on the phone with a client, but . . .” His voice trailed off. “We weren’t friends, but I liked him.”
“I’m sorry.” It was bad enough finding a body. Worse when you knew the person.
Damek balled his hands into fists. “I want to help you find whoever did this. Whatever the supernatural is, I want it stopped.”
Prosper nodded. “We’d appreciate it, but first, we have to find it.”
Babet’s gaze roamed from the open staircase to the shop below. Every empty space was filled with memorabilia. Framed antique pictures lined the hallway. Vases and figurines sat on tables and shelves. “Nothing’s been disturbed. There’s no sign of a struggle—anywhere.”
Damek narrowed his eyes, considering that. “Rory was in his early forties. He loved women, but only for short affairs.”
“One night stands?” Prosper asked.
“He wouldn’t turn an attractive woman away, but he always went to the same bars. If he met someone, he met her at one of them.” Damek walked back into the bedroom and returned with a photo of Rory and his family—they looked a lot alike—that he’d had on his nightstand. “Maybe a bartender will remember him and who he was with.”
Hatchet’s predatory smile made Babet rub her arms. He started down the steps. “We finally have some place to start. I have a sudden thirst. Let’s go buy a few drinks.”
Babet started after them, but Prosper shook his head. “I love ya, babe, and the minute we hear something, I’ll let you know. But you can’t walk into a bar with a giant boa. Morgana would cause a ruckus. Why don’t you take her home and we’ll meet you there?”
Babet raised an eyebrow. He was being nice. She looked like shit. A bartender would open up to the guys faster if she weren’t there. Prosper and Damek were so good-looking, they were magnets for females, and bars loved that. Hatchet’s lean build and intensity would attract plenty of them, too.
Morgana wrapped a coil around Prosper’s ankle, unhappy. Hatchet bent to stroke her smooth scales and said, “You know we’re right, old girl. You can’t help us this time, but we won’t go after our killer without you. Okay?”
She loosened her hold and slid closer to Babet.
“We’re sidelined for now,” Babet told her, “but they’ll need us later. Come on.”
Babet helped Morgana onto the passenger seat of her car. When she was climbing behind the steering wheel, the crime scene men pulled into the lot. Hatchet went to talk to them for a minute, listened to their report, and looked grim. Then he, Prosper, and Damek pulled away. So did Babet. She and Morgana would return to their yellow bungalow and wait.