DEMON HEART (10th Babet & Prosper)
The fiddler touched his bow to the strings and Prosper pulled Babet to her feet. Her Were loved to dance. Mom's back yard didn't offer much room, since it was jammed full of tables, but that didn't matter. People just stood and moved in place. The cramped space forced Babet and Prosper closer together, and Babet had no problems with that. Her mate was over six feet of solid muscle. She'd never found one inch of him that she didn't want to touch.
Their hips bumped, and happiness zinged through her. His arm slid around her waist, and she turned to press her body against his. They swayed to the Cajun music.
Prosper nodded in the direction of her mother. Babet followed his gaze and felt a smile curl her lips. Mom, glowing with pleasure, plopped on Dad's lap. For three hundred years old, she looked great. With her lustrous, light-brown hair, blue eyes, and a willowy figure, she reminded Babet of a nymph—graceful and lovely. But much more deadly.
"Happy birthday, hon." Gazaar opened his arms to her and tugged her to him.
Babet had to swallow the lump that lodged in her throat. Her dad called Mom hon. How sweet was that? He'd gotten to come to the party—a rare treat.
Happiness bubbled inside her. She'd pulled it off. She'd surprised her mom for her three hundredth birthday. She and Prosper had set up tables and chairs in the small area behind Mom and Hennie's magic shop while Hennie took Mom shopping. Babet had made enough gumbo and crab cakes to feed Mom's entire coven and their families. She'd decorated a half dozen sheet cakes. Then everyone hid inside the privacy fence that surrounded Mom's small back yard, and when Mom and Hennie returned home…surprise!
Her mom hadn't suspected a thing. She thought she was going to Babet's for supper later in the evening. Even the weather cooperated. A breeze blew off the Gulf, whipping away the usual August heat and humidity. And Dad was here. He'd gotten someone to take his place at the gates to the pits, so that he could spend time with his wife.
Hatchet came and tapped Prosper's shoulder, cutting in. His wife, a vampire, couldn't attend parties when the sun was out.
Prosper scowled at his fellow detective. "This is our first dance."
"There'll be more." Hatchet scooted Prosper away and took his place. He smiled down at Babet. "You done good."
She laughed. Hatchet's speech tended to be as precise as everything else about him. He gave off an ex-military vibe, if Druids could be considered military. They were certainly disciplined enough. She gave a cheerful nod. "Mom's sure enjoying herself."
Babet's eyes narrowed when Agatha, one of her fellow witches, left her husband's side to claim Prosper for the remainder of the dance. She stretched her arms around his solid body and grabbed his ass with both hands. Then she smirked at Babet and said, "I've always wanted to do that."
"Shame on you. Your husband's watching." Babet glanced at the table where Agatha's two kids pestered their dad. He looked up and gave her a playful salute.
Agatha shook her head. "What can I say? That man loves me and wants me to be happy." She leaned her head against Prosper's chest. "I can cross this off my fantasy list."
Prosper's dark gaze met Babet's, sparkling with amusement. "See? All the ladies want me."
"Maybe I can rent you out and make money."
Hatchet chuckled at his friend. "Serves you right. You should know better than to try to make Babet jealous."
Prosper cocked his head to the side. "Are you jealous?" he asked her.
"No, vengeful. You'll pay later."
Hatchet's chuckle deepened.
The fiddler moved to a new song, and Prosper reached for Babet. Hatchet sashayed Agatha back to her family and then grabbed white-haired Hennie to dance. Hennie's matronly hair might fool mortals, but no one else. Mom's friend could make herself youthful with one spell.
People ate and drank. They visited and mingled. The sun moved across the sky, and the party wound to a close. Prosper raised a beer in one, final toast. Babet held up her glass of wine, and everyone else followed.
"To Rowan!" Prosper announced. "Babet's mother, our friend, and Gazaar's wife!"
A loud thud smacked the outside of the privacy fence. The wooden slats shook. Cheers stilled. Ears strained.
"What the hell was that?" Babet started toward the gate, but Prosper stopped her.
He strode to unlock it and flung it wide. A bloodied body sagged onto his feet. Prosper scanned the alley and shook his head. "Whoever did this took off."
The dead man looked to be as tall as Gazaar and every bit as muscular. Definitely not a mere mortal. A black tattoo of flames covered his bare, lower back. When Prosper rolled him over, Babet pinched her lips in a tight line. Damn it! The flesh on his chest and abdomen hung in shredded strips. His face was…gone, a mass of raw meat. At the scent of blood, Prosper's eyes rimmed with gold and his muscles bulked, ready to shift.
Babet hurried to lay a hand on his forearm. "Down, boy."
He gave her an evil look, but there was no reason for him to split his best jeans if he didn't need to. Besides, the witches enjoyed seeing him naked when he changed a little too much.
Babet and her fellow witches raised their arms and hands, palms out. Whatever did this had crashed the wrong party. Enough magic hummed in the air to destroy a small town. Prosper's gaze swept the entire area, and he shook his head. "Nothing. No one." He hooked his hands under the man's arms and dragged his body inside the fence, then slammed the gate.
Hatchet nodded. "Good, no one saw him. If we can keep mortals out of this, all the better."
Prosper's eyes returned to their usual soft, chocolate-brown. Gazaar stalked to frown down at the corpse. He crossed his arms over his broad chest, frowning at the few, visible black-ink flames that stretched to the man's sides. "That's Alastar's tattoo, a friend, the incubus who guards Xamian's pit." He looked at the raw flesh and winced. "I need to return to the gate. We need answers. Sorry, Rowan."
Her mom gave a fleeting smile, and he started to walk away, dimming as he went.
Babet tensed. An ugly fear wormed through her veins. Had Xamian found a way out of his pit? The last time a demon escaped and came to River City, people died.
Prosper studied her expression. "We won't jump to conclusions. We'll follow the evidence and see where it leads."
The evidence lay crumpled on the ground by the fence. "It's not easy to kill an incubus."
"But it can be done. We've done it."
"Not an incubus like Alastar, he worked with Dad. He had to be more powerful than most."
Her mother agreed with Prosper. "There's no use guessing. We'll know soon enough. In the meantime, we're neglecting our guests."
The joy of the party gone, people came to say their goodbyes. Hatchet stayed behind to help load tables and chairs. Babet and Hennie worked clean-up, refusing to let Mom help. When Babet handed Hennie the last of the leftovers to store in Mom's refrigerator, Hennie asked, "Are you all right?"
Bless Hennie. Mom's friend had helped raise her. For Babet, she felt more like a loving aunt, but what could she say? "This wasn't the merriment I wanted for Mom's birthday."
Prosper heard her disappointment. He put down the trash bags he was hauling to the alley and came to pull her close. She leaned into him, comforted by his solid strength. She sighed. "I hope the killer was just passing through. I hope he keeps going."
"Not me." Prosper gave her shoulders a squeeze. "Who else can deal with him like we can?"
He would say that. That's why he was a cop, sworn to serve and protect. Witches had a lot more leeway, and if she could walk away from this battle, she would.
The back lot looked almost pristine when Gazaar returned, walking toward them as though no fence existed. Her father had returned to his warrior mode—bare-chested with leather pants, a whip, and giant sword. He looked debonair when he wore white shirts and dress pants. He looked gorgeous now, but grim.
Rowan turned to him. "Well?"
"Xamian's not in his pit."
Fear tightened into a cold, hard knot in Babet's stomach.
Prosper studied the mutilated body. "Claws shredded him, but giant jaws ripped out his throat. That's what killed him." Prosper would know. He worked with Hatchet in the supernatural division of River City's detective squad. When he shifted, he turned into a huge, brown bear that made a grizzly look puny.
Images of flames and destruction flashed through Babet's mind. "A fire demon?" She could still picture Jaleel, blasting houses and the mortals who ran from them. The coven, Prosper, and her dad had to work together to return him to the deepest regions that held him. But Alastar had been slashed, not burned.
Her father grimaced and glanced her way. She knew what he was thinking. Jaleel's battle had been too close. "No, Xamian's a shapeshifter. He can become anything he's seen, but it has to be something real, not a dragon or a monster."
Rowan came to put a hand on her husband's shoulder. "So the demon killed his guard and escaped."
Gazaar glanced at the body again. Pain flickered in his eyes. He and Alastar must have been close. "I didn't think that was possible, but even if Xamian made it out of the pit, he shouldn't have made it past the gate. Bolzir took my place, guarding it."
Babet had heard the name Bolzir before. He'd taken her father's place when Dad came to the bonding ceremony for her and Prosper. She frowned. "He's a fellow angel, isn't he? He can't die."
Gazaar nodded. "The only one who can destroy us is the Father."
Babet fidgeted. "What happened to Bolzir?"
"A group of fallen angels started a disturbance in their pit. When Bolzir went to help the guard there, Xamian walked through the gates."
"So they worked together," Hatchet said.
Gazaar nodded. "I left Bolzir with back-up at the gate until I return. It's my job to retrieve Xamian."
"But why did he come here?" Babet thought of all the magicks in River City—vampires, witches, succubi, and voodoo. They all shared the haunts and byways with the mortals who settled or visited here. They rubbed shoulders with the tourists who clogged the sidewalks. Surely, there were safer places for a demon to play.
"Could he take on one of our images?" Rowan asked. "Can we tell that he's an impostor?"
Gazaar wrapped an arm around his wife's slender waist. "Xamian can change shapes, but he's always crimson red—like his sins. He won't bother shifting to a mortal form, but he's lived a long time. He's seen mammoths and saber-tooth tigers."
Babet frowned at the deep claw marks that ripped the guard's body. "Dinosaurs?"
"No, none of us were interested in Earth until man appeared." Her father was an angel who left Home to guard the pits once Lucifer and his band were sent there. When she'd asked why, he'd shrugged and said, "Someone has to do it."
No dinosaurs. Babet's shoulders relaxed. It wasn't much of a reprieve, but it was a small one. How did you battle a Tyrannosaurus Rex? "Why would Xamian kill his guard and bring him here? Why not take off and hide so that you can't find him?"
Gazaar's expression filled Babet with dread. Crap. She braced herself for more bad news.
Rowan reached out to rub her husband's cheek. "Something else is worrying you. What is it?"
Her father exhaled a deep breath. "Babet asked why he'd come here, why he'd toss my friend's body at your fence. Xamian hates me. He wanted me to know he'd escaped. He wanted me to know he'd killed Alastar."
Shivers raced up and down Babet's arms. When Jaleel came here, he wanted to punish the coven, because their founder, Magrat, had magicked her dagger and defeated him the first time he'd escaped. Xamian had come for a different reason, to defy her dad. "Can he hurt you?" she asked.
"Only at great risk, and it's not worth it. Allies will come to rescue me." He smiled. "No one wants my job. They'll make certain I can return to it."
Hatchet locked gazes with Prosper. "We know the feeling. Regular cops don't want any part of the supernatural division."
Hennie squared her shoulders. "If the demon's smart, he'll run. He has no business here."
Demons were plenty smart, but they weren't always rational. Her dad's words stirred an unspoken fear in Babet. He'd confirmed that he could be hurt. Would Xamian's hatred override caution?
Prosper laced his arm through hers. "Your dad has help here. Your magic's strong. So are your mom and Hennie's. No supernatural is going to want a demon roaming our streets."
True, but would that be enough to catch Xamian and return him to his pit? Between her witch magic and the succubus powers she'd inherited from her dad, she could put up a good battle. Most magicks were strong here, but Dad's allies would be even more powerful.
Gazaar's lips turned down. "I don't want River City involved in this. I'd be putting you in danger. I'd rather battle him alone."
Voice grim, Hatchet said, "You don't have a choice. Xamian's here."
Gazaar studied each of them, in turn. Clearly frustrated, he rested his hand on the hilt of his sword.
What could anyone say to comfort him? Babet couldn't think of anything. They were staring at each other, silently, when a body flew over the fence. It landed near the brick building. Long, brown hair hid the face, but Babet recognized the black blouse and long, black skirt. A cry wrenched from her throat. "No!"
Rowan rushed to bend over Agatha. A dark stain oozed from a deep gouge near her heart.
Agatha forced her eyes open and struggled to speak. "I'm the first. Be ready." She licked her lips and pushed the last words out. "He means to kill us, Rowan, one witch at a time. The weakest to the strongest."
"Your family?" Mom pushed loose strands of brown hair back from Agatha's face.
"In the house. I was watering my herb garden before I went in."
Mom hugged Agatha as her body went limp. Hennie pressed a hand to her lips, visibly fighting for control. Gazaar's hands curled into fists.
A shiver shook Babet's body. Agatha had clung to life long enough to warn them. Xamian meant to kill each witch in the coven. "Why? He's never been to River City before, has never fought us."
Gazaar bent to close Agatha's eyes. He studied her face a minute before he turned to them. Voice raw, he said, "He's afraid to face me. He means to hurt me by killing people I care about, by making a game of it."
Grief pooled in Babet's stomach. Did Agatha's husband know she was missing? Dead? They had two, young witch daughters. A warlock had bespelled the girls and kidnapped them a year ago, a frightening experience. And now this.
Hennie smoothed a hand over her snow-white hair. She looked as sweet and jolly as Mrs. Saint Nick until she zapped enemies with bolts of power. Her voice shook with emotion. "How do we defeat him?"
Power rose inside Babet, made her skin tingle. Xamian would pay for this. They'd make sure of it.
Her dad's shoulders had stiffened, too. "My sword can weaken him. I can't kill him, but I can return him to his pit, but first, we have to find him. That's going to be a challenge. Remember, he can grow into something massive, but he can also turn into a butterfly or a bee."
"But crimson red," Prosper said.
Babet grimaced. How many people would notice a crimson gnat? The demon had a serious advantage.
"Can we trace his magic?" Hennie could brew any potion a witch had ever devised. Was there one that tracked down demon magic?
Gazaar nodded. "With your skills, we might narrow down the area he's in. If he's tiny, he'll still be hard to find, but at least, we'll know where to look."
Always practical, Hennie frowned at Babet. "Check the wards on your house and property. Add more if you can think of any."
"No worries there. I have so many, nothing can get past them, and even if Xamian managed somehow, Morgana would kill him." Babet's boa had the strongest venom Babet had ever known—a perk of being a familiar and living with a voodoo priestess for years.
Usually, the snake would have attended Mom's party with them. Morgana loved her mother, adored the witches in the coven, but her vanity had forced her to stay home in Babet and Prosper's cozy, yellow bungalow in town. She was shedding her skin and didn't want people to see.
"And you?" Babet asked her mom and Hennie. "Have you checked your wards?"
"I'm staying with them," Gazaar said. "Xamian knows I can harm him, or worse, capture him. He'll try to avoid me."
Her mother gave a grim smile. "If Gazaar has to leave, there are enough wards. No enemy can step foot on our property. Besides, we'd be overjoyed to see him…and show him a proper welcome."
Her mom and Hennie would pound him with magic. Xamian would have to separate them if he meant to attack and kill them. And luckily, Mom's school for witches didn't start until after Labor Day, two weeks away. Xamian couldn't grab a child witch to bait them.
Hennie must have been thinking the same thing. "I need to warn the other members in our coven. They should keep their kids close for now."
"Prosper and I can do that," Babet volunteered, "while you and Mom visit Agatha's husband." She was grateful her mom would be the one to break the news to him. She didn't envy her that.
Her mom's chin went up. She was the coven's High Priestess. She didn't run from unpleasant duties. "Let's get busy. The sooner we inform our sisters about Xamian, the better."
"I'll contact everyone with magic we know," Babet said. "If everyone watches for him, we might get lucky."
Hatchet reached for his cell phone. "I'll call the station, have them spread the word through the community. Colleen can tell Lillith. The succubi might be able to taste his energy."
Prosper took out his cell phone, too. "I'll call Vittorio. He can warn the vampires."
They separated, determined to alert others so that they wouldn't be caught by surprise. Not that a warning was enough. Xamian would play dirty. He'd still find a way to catch them off-guard.