Lillith didn’t just run a brothel. She supplied the perfect partners to high-powered, affluent clients. She knew anyone and everyone of any importance.
Babet dressed carefully to visit the succubus. It was a matter of showing respect. Otherwise, Lillith would let her sit in her establishment’s elegant lobby and be too busy to see her. In hip-hugging, tight, white pants, strappy heels, and a sheer, tan, sleeveless tank, she stopped at the mirror in the hallway to check her makeup one more time. She’d pulled her hair high in a loose, Gibson girl style. Then, hips swinging, she left her cozy bungalow to walk the five blocks to Lillith’s Victorian-style, lilac house.
The cool air hit her when she walked through the rose-colored door that matched one of the shades on the house’s trim. She stood for a minute, letting the sheen of perspiration evaporate before she went to the carved, oak counter in the corner. She reached to hit the bell, but a young woman with lush, red curls and brilliant green eyes came to greet her.
“Lillith’s expecting you. Follow me.” Her Christian Dior perfume couldn’t entirely mask the coppery scent of vampire. Babet had yet to meet a vampire or succubus who wasn’t gorgeous, but this girl made most of them look plain. She led Babet up two flights of stairs to a private hallway that housed Lillith’s suite. She knocked gently, and Lillith called, “Show her in.”
The girl opened the door, motioned Babet inside, then shut it behind her.
If the girl was gorgeous, Lillith was beyond that. The original succubus, who left Adam in the Garden of Eden to frolic with archangel, Samael, she was the first female—according to legend—the original creation of womanly beauty, before exotic flexed its muscles and made beauty a matter of choice. Honey-gold hair, sky-blue eyes, and a creamy complexion made her look like the innocent she wasn’t.
Lillith smiled. “You just missed Prosper. Why you haven’t claimed that man is beyond me.”
Babet crossed the plush carpet to seat herself on the velvet settee across from Lillith’s. “Neither of us is ready to commit. We’d rather enjoy each other’s company and lead our own lives.”
“Weres prowl too much, and witches are too independent to settle quickly. But he’s someone to keep in mind.” Lillith motioned toward a well-stocked bar. “Would you care for a drink?”
“No, but thank you. I’m sure you heard about Emile’s death before Prosper came to see you this morning.”
Lillith nodded. “Emile asked for a girl to be sent to his house last night, but as I told Prosper, he called to cancel at the last minute. Said that something urgent had come up.”
“I’m sure he didn’t elaborate.”
“Not Emile. He kept his business close, didn’t trust anyone.” Lillith reached toward a bowl of perfectly ripe strawberries on a side table, chose one, and bit into it, separating the juicy red fruit from its stem. A trickle of juice ran down her chin, and she caught it with her tongue. If Babet did that, she’d look messy. Lillith managed to make the entire sequence look sensual.
Babet sighed. She was an amateur compared to Lillith and conceded the fact. “You wouldn’t happen to know the vampire that Emile hired, would you?”
A small smile tilted Lillith’s lips. “As a matter of fact, I do. I’ll tell you what I told Prosper. I won’t work with him, but I will work with you, upon one condition. When you find Emile’s killer—and you will, I know you—the person won’t be prosecuted unless I wish it so.”
“Did Prosper agree to that?”
“Privately, yes. He can’t say so in public. But whoever killed Emile deserves a reward, not a punishment. Do you agree?”
“I wish I’d have thought of a way to do it myself.”
Lillith’s perfectly arched brows rose. “So you hated him too?”
“Is there anyone who didn’t?”
“When I started my business, before I decided he could only use mortals, he called me for one of my best girls. She’d only recently been turned. I warned him of that. But when his pulse quickened, and she tried to nip him, what did he do? He nicked the jugular of one of his mortal servants and watched as she lost control and fed on him. He got higher on that than if she’d bedded him.”
“So it was your decision that he only had humans?”
Lillith tsked. “Emile always let on that it was his. His ego was at stake.”
“And the girl? Did she go rabid?”
“Colleen led you to my rooms. She learned a lot that night, the hard way. But only because we cared for her when she came home. And you?”
It was tit for tat, Babet realized, but she had no qualms about stating why she hated the warlock. “One of my best friends, a fellow witch, crossed paths with Emile on accident. He didn’t ask questions, just assumed she was an enemy, and killed her.”
Lillith’s blue eyes glittered. “Then we have an agreement. If you find Emile’s murderer, and he deserved the punishment she dealt him, we never reveal who she was.”
Babet took a minute to study Lillith. “Why do you assume Emile’s killer was a woman?”
“Who else would be able to deceive him?” Lillith gave a careless wave of her hand.
“Maybe it’s our witch then, the one Emile was trying to find.”
“No, I never underestimate your kind’s magic powers, but Emile knew all of your tricks. He knew our gifts too. This time, he met something he didn’t know, something new. That’s what you need to look for.”
“The vampire’s the only lead I have.”
“Then talk to him. He’s Vittorio Rocco at the tattoo parlor on Granite Boulevard. His shop doesn’t open until sundown.”
Babet rose to leave. “Did you give his name to Prosper?”
“No, and you won’t either.”
“Thank you, Lillith.”
“This benefits me too. I’m every bit as curious as to how Emile died as you are. If there’s something as powerful as we are walking our streets, I’d like to know what it is.”
Babet hadn’t thought of that. As she left Lillith’s house and her footsteps led her home, she wondered if there truly was something in River City that none of them had dealt with before. And if there was, how did Emile make enemies with it?
* * *
Babet waited until dusk to visit Granite Boulevard. The sign in the tattoo parlor’s window was still turned to Closed when she knocked on the door. She wasn’t sure anyone would open it, but a tall, lanky man with shoulder-length, sandy-colored hair and pale, gray eyes cracked it slightly.
“I don’t have any appointments tonight.” His voice was steeped in sleep, gravelly.
“I’m here to see you about Emile.”
“Go away. I’m not talking about it.”
“You can talk to me, or I can give your name to the enforcers, your choice.”
He yanked the door wider and motioned her inside. He sniffed as she passed him. “Witch! You’re the one Emile tried to hire first, aren’t you?”
“Babet Spellbound, my chosen name. Emile called me. Then the enforcers found him dead. They called me too. I need some answers.”
He huffed. He’d tugged on low-riding jeans when he got up and nothing else. The scenery was breathtaking. Hard abs. Chiseled biceps and triceps. And lots of tattoos. A coffin covered his left arm, from shoulder to elbow. A dragon blew fire on his right arm. Barbed wire circled his neck. A phallic symbol stretched from his bellybutton down to who-knows-where. “Why should I care? I didn’t have any luck finding his missing girl. I’ve worked lots of cases. Always found what I needed. It was as though this girl had a spell on her. If someone got too close, she disappeared.”
“I need a name.”
“Evangeline Spirits. No kidding. Weird as hell. If you can find her, you’re luckier than I was. She couldn’t be the one who killed him, though. She was only half-witch. Even a full-fledged, powerful one couldn’t go against Emile.”
“There had to be a reason he was looking for her, though.”
“None that he told me.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Look, that’s all I know. And little good it did me.” He glanced at the clock on the wall. “I’m expecting someone soon. You’ll have to go.”
But before Babet could make her exit, there was a quick knock, and a stunning, young black man stepped through the door. His eyes blazed when he saw Babet. “I don’t do threesomes. Choose.”
Vittorio raised an eyebrow. “Give me some credit, will you? She’s here on business and she’s just leaving.”
“In that case….” The young vampire went to rummage in the refrigerator and brought out a bottle of wine. “It was nice to meet you, whoever you are.”
Babet didn’t wait to introduce herself. She left and headed toward the witchy end of town. If Vittorio had stopped there to question them, he got no answers. Witches didn’t mingle and share with vampires unless there was a damned good reason. Working for Emile would only make his job harder.
The market place on Magic Avenue was bustling with business. Tourists popped in out of shops on the main street. In the back alleyways, with no window-front displays, were the serious magic sellers. Babet headed to the herb shop, with its hard-to- find, dried roots, leaves, and seeds. Hennie (short for Henrietta) owned and ran it. No tourist would know that the white-haired, unwrinkled woman behind the counter was over six hundred years old—and as powerful a witch as any in River City.
Hennie looked up when Babet entered the store and whooped, “Well, it’s about time! I haven’t seen you for too many moons, young lady.”
Babet walked gladly into her open arms. “Is Mom around?” Hennie and her mother were business partners, of sorts. Hennie ran the store on this side, and Mom ran the school for young witches.
“No, she’s off on a field trip with the kids. It’s going to be summer solstice soon. They always head to stones somewhere to celebrate.”
Mortals went to Stongehenge. Witches went to the real circles—the ones that still pulsed power.
“I need some help,” Babet said. “You’ve probably heard about Emile’s death.”
“The enforcers asked me to help them investigate it.”
Hennie gave a curt nod. She walked to the shop door and turned the sign to Closed, then locked and magicked it shut. “You’ve come about the girl.”
Babet nodded. “I made a deal with Lillith and Prosper. If Emile deserved what he got, no one’s coming after her. If someone killed him to take his power, that’s another matter.”
Hennie’s usual cheerful expression turned serious. “You don’t want to mess with the person who killed him.”
Babet couldn’t hide her surprise. “You know who killed him?”
“I know the girl. I can guess what happened. If I’m right, he deserved it.”
“Hen, I need more information. You know that.”
Hennie pursed her lips. She sat, deep in thought, for several minutes. “If it was anyone but you….” She reached for her cell phone. “Mortals, we can deal with. Vampires had better stay out of our way. But if Lillith’s involved, maybe it would be better to get this matter settled.” She shielded the phone with her hand and spoke quickly and softly. When she flipped it shut, she said, “Evangeline’s on her way. When she gets here, we’ll take you to meet her mother. Then you’ll understand.”
Hennie’s tone made a shiver slide up Babet’s spine. Hennie didn’t spook easily. Whoever Babet was about to meet must be intimidating.
* * *
Evangeline didn’t come to the front door. She knocked at the back of the shop instead. Hennie cracked the door and hurried her inside.
When Babet saw her, she gulped in a long breath of air. The girl had the same pale irises rimmed with black that Emile had and the same narrow, oval-shaped face. Her hair was a mass of pitch black waves. Her lips were full and sensuous. Babet glanced at Hennie. “Did Emile have a daughter?”
The word on the street was that Emile bespelled himself so that he’d be without progeny, so that no offspring could grow and challenge him.
“His magic couldn’t overpower my mother’s,” Evangeline said. “Their meeting was a spontaneous, impetuous affair. She assumed she’d be pregnant free. She assumed wrong, and she’s always told me that it’s the best mistake she ever made.”
Babet smiled. So did Hennie. Babet couldn’t help asking, “What kind of magic does your mother practice?” She couldn’t imagine anything stronger than Emile’s.
“She’ll tell you herself. Come. I’ll take you to her.”
Babet and Hennie left the shop with Evangeline. They climbed into her mini-van and rode toward the river. Babet couldn’t help wishing she’d worn something more rugged—like jeans and a T-shirt—in case she had to run. But she was with Hennie. Between the two of them, they’d be hard to beat.
She was surprised when they turned south before the bridge and followed the river to the swamplands. She tried to think. She didn’t know of any supernaturals who lived out here. After a while, a small community came into view—a small town for mortals. Evangeline pulled to the curb in front of a shotgun-style house, a two-story that was long and narrow. It was painted deep orange with black trim. Babet’s thoughts turned to pumpkins and Halloween. But every house was splashed with bright, bold colors with dark trims. It made the town look almost surreal.
Evangeline flew up the sidewalk to the front steps, and a tall, slender woman stepped onto the porch. She was so pale, she made vampires look like they were tanned. Her eyes were so dark, Babet couldn’t distinguish the irises from the pupils. But she was mesmerizing. There was a dark, stark beauty about her that Babet couldn’t explain. No mortals were this striking. A prickling feeling made the goosebumps rise on her arms, and she looked up and down the street.
Every porch had a female standing on it, and all of them were watching Hennie and her. Most folded their arms across their chests, as if holding their powers in check.
Babet tore her gaze away from them and started up the steps to join Evangeline. She jumped, startled, when one of the snakes painted on the black, porch columns writhed to life. It extended its head toward her, and Hennie whispered, “Let it smell you. It can tell if you’re good or evil.”
The snake’s tongue darted in and out, nearly touching her flesh. She narrowed her eyes, watching it. If it tried anything, its venom was nothing compared to her magic.
The snake stretched its head further, begging her to rub its chin. She stroked a finger along its neck, and it slithered up her arm and coiled itself on her shoulders.
“Morgana likes you,” Evangeline’s mother said. Her voice was like liquid, a trickle of smooth cadences. Who was she? What was she?
Hennie made the introductions. “Babet, Nadine. Nadine, Babet.”
Babet sniffed. No scent that she recognized. Not supernatural. Not mortal. What the hell were these people?
The woman smiled. “Your magic is alien from ours. You claim energy from earth, wind, water, and fire. We claim ours from the spirit world.”
Babet frowned. “You mean like….the dead?”
“When life ends, energy transforms. We claim some of it for ourselves.”
“Is there a name for that?” Babet was struggling to understand.
Babet’s nerves tingled to life. “But I thought….” She wasn’t sure what she thought. Mostly, that voodoo was only a myth, but she should know better. Most mortals scoffed at magic too.
Evangeline’s mother motioned up and down the street. Black women, Hispanic women, women of all ages, sizes, and colors stood on their porches. “Any magic grows stronger with time, the more you learn, the more you experience.” She beckoned with her fingers, and mists swirled around them. Babet could swear that there were faces in the smoky vapors. “Many spirits abide near me now. Some good.” A woman’s face, pleated with wrinkles, formed and smiled. Nadine waved that spirit away and called forth another. This woman’s lips turned down at the corners in a grimace. “Some not so good. The good lift me. The bad taint me.”
Babet frowned. “I avoid black magic.”
“Yes, you would. Such an innocent, little witch. Your rules, not ours, but life is balance—is it not?”
“A fling. A moment. The meeting of two magics. I had a child. He would have destroyed her if he’d known, so I raised her out here, along with my friends and their children.” Nadine glanced down the street to the women on their porches, and Babet could feel a bond pulse between them. The woman sighed. A wry smile curved her lips. “Children grow up. They want more. Even magic can’t prevent Life. I may be old in magic and wisdom, but I could not stop the force of a daughter.” She chuckled and shook her head. “Evangeline slipped into town without telling me. All it took was for one person to see her eyes.”
Babet nodded. It was clear now. “Did Emile come here looking for her?”
The priestess glanced toward a wax figure on a wicker table. Babet followed her gaze and swallowed hard. “No, he sent people into the city, looking for her. She was curious about her father. I sent him a dream. It told him that if he left her alone, we’d return the favor.”
“Emile and his foolish fears. He worried that his magic, mixed with my voodoo, would make her stronger than he was. He finally smuggled a letter to her, inviting her to his house. He gave a mage’s promise not to harm her. Those can’t be broken. But the words can be bent.”
Her mood darkened, and spirits hovered close to do her bidding. “Evangeline went there, curious and hopeful, thinking that he might like her, want to spend time with her, but when he hugged her to him, he wouldn’t let go until he’d drained her of all her witches’ powers.” She gave a grim smile, and Babet shivered. The woman’s visage with the down-turned lips formed again, ready for action. “Stupid of him, really. He freed her of your witches’ rules. When she went to the restroom before leaving his house, she took all of the hairs from his comb, his nail clippings from his trash can, and one of his rings. Then she came here.”
Babet clamped her teeth together to keep them from chattering. “You made a doll.”
Evangeline’s face crumpled. She blinked away tears. “Mother warned me about him, but I still hoped…” She pressed her lips together, brushed her fingers over the wax figure. A sharp, hat pin stuck out of its back. Dark hairs curled in the wax center, twined around a silver ring. Nail clippings showed inside its arms and legs.
“We’ve waited the prescribed time. We’re going to melt it today to reclaim Emile’s powers.”
“Now? With us here?” Babet took a step closer to Hennie. Would being part of the ceremony affect them in any way?
Nadine ignored her discomfort. She held a match to Emile’s letter and tossed the burning paper into a pile of shavings. Evangeline took twigs that were gathered into a bin and laid them on the growing flames. When they licked and spat, she threw the doll into the center.
As the wax melted, a wind gusted around them. A misty shape took form. Lights sparkled inside it. Evangeline’s mother gave her a quick nod, and the girl began a low chant. When her voice peaked, the mists darted inside her body. She gasped, then glowed with power. Then the flames flickered out, the winds died, and Evangeline looked herself again.
Evangeline’s mother gave a sharp laugh. “Emile finally knows his place. All my daughter wanted was for him to like her. She didn’t even expect love. She knows our kind. She knows the conflicts. Until now, she’s never been interested in her gifts. She plants flowers, raises herbs and vegetables. She nurtures.”
Babet squirmed. “Until now?”
The woman cocked her head to one side, studying Evangeline. “I hope Emile hasn’t changed that. She has his power now, his gifts. Along with mine.”
Babet stared at the girl. She was undoubtedly much older than she appeared. Witches and priestesses didn’t age. How powerful was she? What happened when witches’ magic and voodoo magic combined? She rubbed her arms, afraid to think about it.
“Relax, child. We’re here for her. She may be strong, but so are we. We raise our children right.”
Hennie reached out a hand to grasp hers. “Thank you, Nadine. We can put this to rest now.”
Nadine looked at Babet, assessing her. “Power sparkles in your aura. You come from strong bloodlines too.” She reached out a hand to touch her, and the snake lunged at her, hissing.
Nadine drew back her hand quickly, laughing. “I won’t harm her, Morgana.
We have no quarrel with her or her kind. We have no quarrel with her Were either.” She turned her attention to Babet. “Tell Prosper what happened. He’s dealt with voodoo before. He won’t mention it to anyone. It’s best we all know our places and stay separate from each other.” She reached out her hand once more, and Babet braced herself. But instead of touching her, Nadine offered it to the snake.
Morgana turned her head and refused to leave Babet’s shoulder.
Nadine stared. “Morgana’s chosen you. You’ve found your familiar.”
Tension coiled in Babet’s limbs. “Most witches have cats.”
Nadine passed her hand close by a third time. “Aaaah, your aura. Most witches don’t have an incubus for a father.”
“What?” Babet turned to Hennie. Her mother rarely talked about her father, only said that she loved him, and he loved her, but they came from different worlds and could rarely spend time together. Babet had formed the impression that he was a vampire. She was obviously wrong.
Hennie looked away, unwilling to meet her gaze.
Nadine cocked a brow. “You and Evangeline are not so different. Do you have a familiar?”
“No.” Babet couldn’t catch her balance. Her world was spinning out of control. “Familiars choose witches, not vice versa. Mine hasn’t shown up yet.”
“It has now.” Nadine’s eyes narrowed as she studied the snake. “Our paths will cross again. Morgana trusts you, so I will too. She’s yours, sworn to protect and guide you.”
In what? Voodoo? Succubi skills? A knot formed in Babet’s throat. “But….”
“My daughter has mixed blood. You’ll have mixed gifts too. It’s not ours to decide. It’s decreed. Everything serves a purpose.” Nadine nodded to her daughter. “Return here after you take them to the city.”
Hennie made an effort to leave Nadine on a happy note. “Thank you for seeing us. I’m sorry Emile couldn’t love his own daughter.”
Nadine gave a careless shrug. “Emile was incapable of love. He knew lust, but that’s selfish. He was a selfish man.”
When they climbed into Evangeline’s mini-van, Babet was happy to leave this place. Questions swirled in her head. She sat in the back seat and let Hennie sit in front, beside the young girl. Morgana coiled on the seat beside Babet, resting her head on her lap. As they pulled from the curb, Babet watched the women swarm from their porches to join Evangeline’s mother, and her hand moved to the snake’s smooth head, stroking it gently. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing to have a voodoo protector as a companion.
The drive home seemed endless. She leaned forward, intent on getting answers from Hennie, but the older witch held up her hand. “I’m not the one to ask. Your mother chose not to tell you. I won’t break her confidence.”
Babet squirmed, impatient. Her mother wouldn’t be back for a few days, at least. Hennie’s shop was closer, so Evangeline dropped her off first. Then she pulled to the curb in front of River City’s city/county building. She turned when Babet opened the door to leave. “I know how you feel. If you need someone to talk to, call me.”
Babet bit her bottom lip, trying to hold her emotions in check. “Thank you. I will.” She let Morgana coil around her arm before rushing into the station. People gave her curious looks as she stepped into Prosper’s office. He looked up when she entered, glanced at the snake, then studied her face. “Close the door behind you. Have a seat, then tell me everything.”
It all spilled out. Not her usual style. When she’d finished her account of what happened, he nodded. “Not a good day. I’m sorry we brought you into this.”
Babet tried to sort through her jumbled emotions. Was she sorry she’d learned the truth about her father? Not really. She’d rather know than not know. Did her mother ever plan on telling her? She highly doubted it.
Prosper waited until she gave a careless smile. “See? You’re still you. And I’ve tasted some of your best kisses, and you didn’t drain one drop of me.”
True. Her succubus genes hadn’t made her hungry to feed on the living. She squared her shoulders, rallied to match his tone. “Really? I thought you expended quite a bit of energy on my behalf.”
He laughed. “If I remember right, it was mutual. And now I find myself in your debt again. You’ve helped us close this case. I’ve met Nadine. Emile should have left her and Evangeline alone. They didn’t seek him out. Nadine even warned him off.”
Babet pushed herself to her feet. She felt a little shaky inside. She wasn’t sure how threatened she felt by voodoo, but it sure made her uneasy. So did having an incubus for a father. She didn’t know how powerful Evangeline was or would become, but then, she didn’t know her own powers either.
Prosper stood and rounded the corner of his desk. “I owe you a favor. I always keep a debt of honor.”
He was changing the subject, trying to lighten things up. Not a bad idea. She raised an eyebrow. “How big of a favor?”
“I was thinking dinner, dancing, maybe more.”
The man was almost as impressive in his human form as when he shifted. She’d seen him as a bear once—big and ferocious, with dark brown fur and chocolate brown eyes. Big claws, big teeth. She wouldn’t want to fight him. But as a detective….well, all that brain and brawn proved awfully fun in bed. He even made a pretty good dinner partner.
“I get to choose the restaurant,” she said.
His famous grin showed. “Make it expensive. Then you’ll feel more beholden to me.”
“Beholden? I’m the one who helped you.”
They bickered on their way out of the station. Bickering, for them, was foreplay. Babet licked her lips. They’d stop at Lillith’s on their way to her house. Then show Morgana her new home. They might even make it out to eat. They’d drink. Maybe even dance. Either way, she couldn’t wait till they reached dessert. She needed a distraction, and Prosper was just the man to provide one. With the bedroom door locked, so that no snake could enter, her final treat would come in a four-poster with the ceiling fan on. And it helped burn calories.