(In case you missed part 1, it’s on my webpage. Here’s the link: https://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/. You can find part 2 there as well.)
Prosper couldn’t drive fast enough. They went from house to house, warning each member of the coven and explaining about Agatha’s death. A sense of urgency throbbed through Babet’s veins. She couldn’t get the image of Agatha out of her mind. When they passed the witch’s house, Babet’s mother’s car was still parked in the drive. Tears prickled Babet’s eyes, and she blinked them away.
Finally, she blurted, “What do you think created a round, deep wound like that? Xamian didn’t claw her, so what was he when he attacked her?”
Prosper’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “It looked like a damn tusk or horn to me. Maybe the bastard’s trying to find a different way to kill each of you.” He rubbed his hand over his forehead. “Agatha just squeezed my ass, and now she’s dead. That pisses me off.”
He changed clothes the minute they got home and set off for the station. Babet stalked from room to room, pacing restlessly. Morgana slithered to a corner, curled into a ball, and watched her. The snake could gauge her emotions. She’d wait until Babet calmed down before trying to greet her.
There must be something more they could do! There had to be. That’s when Babet thought of the list.
She felt guilty, collecting a pen and a pad of paper. Her task felt wrong, but it needed done. Before she settled down to work, she kicked off her shoes and padded into the bedroom. Her skirt and dressy top hit the floor. She pulled on baggy shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt. Prosper would fuss that she didn’t put her clothes in the hamper, but fussing was good for him. She went to sink onto the soft, leather sofa in the living room and bent over the paper on the coffee table. She bit her bottom lip as she scribbled names of the women in her mother’s coven, trying to list them from the most powerful to the weakest.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. She rubbed the ring she’d embedded with one protective spell after another, a nervous habit, and offered silent apologies to the women who might qualify as early victims.
Morgana came to curl near her feet. Babet leaned to stroke the top of her head. At least, that was smooth. The rest of the boa was peeling in patches. Morgana stretched to lay her head on Babet’s knee. Who knew that a snake could be so affectionate?
Babet glanced at the names she’d written. She’d never ranked the members of their coven before, didn’t judge her fellow witches that way. She rethought whom she’d consider the strongest and the weakest. Come to think of it, though, how did Xamian know? He’d never met any of them before. How could he determine their strengths? She thought about her succubus powers. She could taste someone’s energy, or worse. Unlike succubi in other cities, who stole energy from unsuspecting victims, the supernatural laws in River City were strict. Plenty of mortals were willing to let a vampire or succubus sip from them in return for sexual favors, but there were set limits, and humans had to condone the exchange. No furtive tastes. Absolutely no draining. Her father was an angel and an incubus. Could he and Xamian, a demon, inhale someone’s energy and gauge their power?
She went to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine. Morgana slithered behind her and peered out the French doors at their walled-in courtyard. Houses touched walls in this part of the city, so the courtyard offered privacy. The snake loved to lie in the sun on the patio’s warm cement. Babet cracked the doors for her, and Morgana went to the fountain. Prosper had built a slanted, plywood ramp for her, and she wriggled across it and slid into the warm water to soak. Hopefully, her skin would loosen enough, she’d finally be able to shed.
Babet returned to the living room and to the list she’d made. She sipped her wine and ran a line through Agatha’s name. Ouch! That hurt. The image of Agatha, smirking at her, while plastered against Prosper, made her throat hurt. Agatha had definitely been the weakest witch in the coven, but one of the nicest. Her inability had nothing to do with lack of trying. The genetics just weren’t there.
If Babet were totally honest, Pearl would be next in line. Babet liked Pearl, really enjoyed her offbeat humor, but Pearl struggled with concentration. When Rowan trained the coven, Pearl learned half of a lesson and then daydreamed through the rest. Mom probably wouldn’t have accepted her into the group, except that her sister Ophelia had joined before her. And Ophelia showed lots of promise. Truth was, none of them voted for members because of strength. They voted for people they liked spending time with.
Babet scanned the list again. If Xamian meant what he said and would try for the weakest first, Pearl would be his next choice. Even though she and Prosper had driven to each house and warned each member, it wouldn’t hurt to visit Pearl and Ophelia again. The two sisters shared a tiny cottage on the west side of town. Not particularly safe at the moment. The yard was too private. Without blurting that Pearl had little power, Babet had warned them it would be wise to leave temporarily.
Babet glanced at the kitchen clock. Seven. Damn, it had been a long day. Hopefully, the sisters had found some place to stay. A quick image of them, lying on the ground, big holes in their chests, made her clench her fists. Surely, they’d listened to her and left their house…. Most of the big hotels would be filled with tourists and businessmen, but there were plenty of smaller hotels and motels around the city. She called Ophelia.
“Hello?” Not Ophelia’s voice.
“Oh, hi, Babet!” Pearl sounded nervous. Something was up.
“I wanted to stop by and see you. I thought I might be able to help you cast protection spells on wherever you are now.”
Silence greeted her.
“Pearl? Is Ophelia there?”
“Don’t be mad at us. We only came home for a few minutes,” Pearl said. “I forgot to pack a few things.”
Babet’s breath caught in her throat. “You went home? Alone? No one else is with you?”
“It’s only for a minute.”
“Do you have wards on your house and property?”
“A few of them.”
Babet bit her bottom lip. A few wards weren’t even enough to protect against most supernaturals in River City. They sure as hell wouldn’t hold against a demon.
“Get in your car and leave there now. Right now. Okay?”
A gasp sounded in the phone.
“Pearl? What is it?”
“Ophelia’s running for the house. A red beast is chasing her.”
“Didn’t you put a ward around your property?”
“It’s too big.”
Babet gritted her teeth. The sisters’ property was unprotected. If Xamian didn’t kill them, she might. How careless could they be? “Get Ophelia in the house and hold Xamian off until I get there. Hurry!”
Pearl’s phone went dead, and Babet ran for her car keys. Panic surged up her throat. She swallowed it. Her skin felt cold. Dread coiled in her mind. Morgana raised her head out of the fountain when Babet ran across the courtyard, but Babet waved her back. “No time! Have to hurry!”
She closed the courtyard’s gate, jumped in her car, and sped through the city. She called Prosper on the way. “Trouble. Xamian’s at Ophelia and Pearl’s house. I need backup.” Hell, she’d lived with a cop too long. She was starting to sound like one.
She glanced at the sky. Two more hours of light. Good. She wouldn’t be fighting an enemy in the dark. The clouds had scattered, and heat rippled off the cement. She could slice the humidity with a knife. Another stroke of luck. Most people had scrambled back to their air conditioning and wouldn’t venture outside until it was evening. It still took her half an hour to reach the sisters’ cottage—thirty minutes too long.
Bursts of magic exploded in the air above their house. Screw caution. Babet drove through the side yard and screeched to a stop near the back door. A crimson rhinoceros lowered its head and rushed the house. A single horn glinted bloodred—that’s probably what killed Agatha. Chunks of wood lay on the back stoop. Not a good sign. The sisters’ wards must be weakening, letting Xamian ram the house.
No time! She had to save them! Babet rushed from the car and raised her palms, slamming magic at the beast as it passed her. The rhino staggered sideways, then whirled to face her. Narrow, hate-filled eyes squinted at her. It snorted, then charged in her direction. Not overly smart. She rippled the earth under its feet, tossing it off balance. As it floundered, she pursed her lips and inhaled, breathing in its energy. Yich. Disgusting. Xamian’s foul taste coated her tongue. Bile rose in her throat, and she gagged.
The demon hesitated. He’d felt the drain. He shook himself, then his shape blurred and stretched until a wooly mammoth rampaged toward her. Two vehicles came to an abrupt halt beside hers. Xamian screeched to a stop. Prosper and Hatchet sprang forward to stand, shoulder to shoulder, beside her. Prosper tossed off his clothes and shifted—a sight to behold if things were more leisurely. In seconds, a monstrous brown bear flashed its claws and bared long, lethal teeth. Hatchet rolled up his shirt sleeves and tattoos stretched from his skin, reaching for Xamian. He held up a hand, and a bolt of lightning flew into his fist. The mammoth retreated a few feet. It pawed the dirt, then turned and ran.
Babet’s knees almost gave, she felt such relief. Prosper shifted back, and both men’s shoulders sagged. They’d been worried, too. Ophelia and Pearl burst from the house, looking pale and frightened. Prosper yanked on his clothes, not that the witches hadn’t seen him naked before… part of shape shifting.
“I thought we were doomed.” Ophelia’s hands shook, and she gripped them together to steady herself. “We kept pumping magic into our wards, but they were beginning to crack.”
Babet couldn’t keep the anger out of her voice. How stupid were these two women? How could they not know the danger? “Why did you come back here?”
Pearl looked down. She couldn’t meet Babet’s eyes. “I left my spell book when we packed. I was afraid if Xamian found it and read it, he could use my own magic against me.”
“Didn’t you cast protection spells on it, so that if anyone opened it besides you, the pages would go blank?”
Pearl chewed her bottom lip. “I must not have learned that part of the lesson.”
Babet took a deep breath, fighting for composure. Prosper reached out to take her hand—an unsubtle clue to calm down. She pressed her lips together to keep from saying anything she’d regret. Fear drove most of her anger, she knew that, but they’d survived this, and somehow, they’d prepare Pearl to be better from now on.
Hatchet smoothed his sleeves back over his arms. How the man could stand sleeves in this heat, she didn’t know, but she’d never seen him sweat. Maybe weather didn’t affect Druids. He looked at Pearl and smiled. Even Hatchet’s smiles could prove intimidating.
“Nothing is more important than keeping both of you safe.” He looked at Babet. “Perhaps there’s someone they could stay with? Someone to watch over them?”
Ophelia colored with embarrassment, but Pearl looked excited. “That would be fun. It would be like a sleepover.”
“Exactly.” Hatchet nodded.
Prosper frowned, thinking. “They’d be safest with your mom and Hennie. Gazaar’s staying with them. That would make five magicks for Xamian to go against if he went there.”
Babet couldn’t disagree. Mom and Hennie’s apartment stretched above their magic shop on one side of the building and Mom’s school for young witches on the other. There’d be plenty of room for Ophelia and Pearl in the school room.
“I’ll call Mom and tell her we’re coming. I’ll drive them.” She didn’t want Xamian attacking the sisters on the road.
“We’ll make a caravan.” Prosper locked gazes with her, as worried about getting them somewhere safe as she was. By returning home, the two sisters had put them in danger, trying to protect them.
Hatchet put his flashing lights on top of his car and drove lead. When they reached her mom’s place, Mom waited at the door and opened it for them to hurry inside. When she closed it, she smiled. “Xamian doesn’t have enough magic to get past our wards. Hennie’s magic complements mine. No enemies can enter here.”
“Good, Xamian can’t reach them.” Babet’s thoughts flew to the next name on her list. She couldn’t help it. The names churned in her mind—Agatha on the bottom, Pearl next, and then Melina. Melina’s great-grandmother had been a witch. Her grandmother had carried the gene, but had no magic of her own, and her mother could have been powerful, but turned against witchcraft. She wouldn’t even use magic to fight the fever that claimed her, leaving Melina on her own with smatterings of magic and no training. When the girl had joined the coven, she’d felt so guilty about her gifts, she could hardly perform magic. She wasn’t close to full strength yet.
Hennie pursed her lips, studying Babet’s expression. Like an aunt to her, Hennie knew her too well. “Who else are you concerned about?”
Hennie nodded. “We should invite her to stay with us, too.”
Prosper looked around the classroom. Rowan and Gazaar had pushed the desks to the room’s edges and put two, queen-sized, air mattresses in its center, inside the large hexagram painted on its pine floor. More protective magic. He glanced at Hatchet. “We’ll help Babet fetch Melina and bring her here.”
“Thank you.” Rowan smiled her gratitude.
Gazaar eyed the size of the room. “Bring as many as you think wise. We’ll find safety in numbers.”
Rowan reached for her cell phone and began punching in numbers. “I’ll let Melina know you’re coming.” But when no one answered, she glanced their way.
“No answer. She must not be home right now. I’ll try phoning her again.”
Babet gave a quick nod, but didn’t wait. She felt like they were already two steps behind Xamian, scrambling to catch up. She and Prosper hurried to Hatchet’s car and, lights flashing, rushed to reach Melina as quickly as possible.
“You don’t think I’m overreacting?” she asked.
Hatchet shook his head. “Why take chances? Better safe than sorry.”
When they pulled in front of the large, plantation-style house in the Garden District of River City, they all stared, surprised. Melina didn’t give off a rich vibe. She didn’t wear designer clothes or take trips. If anything, Babet suspected that Melina had to budget to make ends meet. Boy, was she wrong.
They got out of the car and walked to her front door. The bell chimed through the house. The way it echoed, the rooms must be massive. No one answered. The gate for the side yard stood slightly ajar.
Babet pushed the doorbell again and slid behind a bush to press her nose against a front window. “I don’t see any movement inside.”
“Maybe she’s not home yet. Let’s go around back.” Prosper edged the gate wider, and they made their way to the back door, which was open. A calico cat lay, too still, on the cement patio that surrounded the pool. Babet clutched Prosper’s arm and motioned to it. “Melina’s familiar.” When a witch died, so did her familiar, so tight was the magic that bound them.
Babet pressed a hand to her stomach. She suddenly felt sick. Hatchet tapped the back door with his toe, and it yawned wider. He rolled up his sleeves, ready for anything. But then they noticed the blood on the floor. It led to the far side of the kitchen island. Shit. Babet started toward it, palms up. Prosper stayed close to her side. Hatchet came at it from the other direction. They rounded the corner, and Melina’s body sprawled on the marble tiles, a butcher knife protruding from her chest.
Hatchet’s lips pressed into a tight line. “She opened her door to someone. Why would she do that?”
“Her wards are at full strength. I can feel them.” Babet scrambled for an answer. “How did an enemy get past them?”
Prosper motioned to a take-out bag, filled with white Chinese boxes, on the counter near the door. He nodded at the money clutched in her fist. “She called for him to come inside, so she could pay him.”
Hatchet stepped outside and looked around. When he rejoined them, he said, “There’s a bike propped against the fence. A guy’s body is lying behind some bushes. Xamian took his uniform.”
Babet sank onto a stool at the kitchen island, her legs suddenly weary. Bicycle delivery men were welcome sights all over the city. When Melina saw a white jacket and a take-out bag, she opened the door and went to get money. “You’d think she’d have noticed he was bright red.”
Hatchet shrugged. “All he’d have to do is turn his head and pull his cap lower than usual. She’d only give a quick glance before she went to pay him.”
It had been too easy. Xamian killed Melina with a damned butcher knife, like any mortal might use. Babet pushed her unruly, black hair away from her face, frustrated.
Prosper called her mom and explained what had happened, then walked to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “We’ll call in the crime. Our men will handle the rest. Want me to drive you to your mom’s shop?”
She nodded. She sure as hell didn’t want to stay here. Hatchet nodded them on their way and called the station. Prosper led her to the car and said, “I’ll drop you off, then come back to help Hatchet. I doubt if we find anything useful, but we’ll look.”
Babet watched scenery blur past them on the ride to Magic Street. Usually, she enjoyed watching tourists who jostled along the sidewalks of River City. Not today. At a red light, she peeked in the bar windows at tables crowded with people and frowned. Their happiness didn’t register. Was this what shell-shock felt like? Numbness licked at the corners of her mind. It had taken too much energy to fasten her seatbelt, and for once, Prosper hadn’t protested.
Her Were pulled in front of Hennie’s shop and leaned sideways to give her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Hang in there. He’s been one step ahead of us, but we’re catching up.”
Like hell they were, but she didn’t argue. She waved him off, then went inside to talk strategy with the others.
After she told them everything, her father turned to her mother. Dark circles rimmed her mom’s eyes. She and Hennie had lost members of their coven before—five of them—the first time Jaleel attacked River City.
“You okay?” he asked.
Mom and Hennie glanced at each other, looking haggard and overwhelmed. Just like she felt. But that wouldn’t do anyone any good. Babet squared her shoulders. She took a deep breath. “What do we do now?”
The bastard had killed another witch. How did they stop him?
Gazaar nodded at her. “We fight back.”
“How?” Babet looked at Hennie. “Did you find any spells that would help us find Xamian?”
Hennie shook her head. “No, but I called Nadine at the voodoo settlement. She’ll send her spirits to search for him.”
Nadine’s spirits had helped their coven before, but Xamian would be harder to locate. He could look like a ladybug on a leaf, if he chose to.
“So what do we do next? There must be something that will help us fight the demon.”
Hennie had an answer. “I say we go to each witch’s house and work together to re-enforce their wards. And then ask everyone to stay inside.”
Rowan started to the door. Mom wasn’t any better at sitting and waiting than Babet was. “Let’s do it. Gazaar, will you stay here to guard Ophelia and Pearl?”
Her mother looked at her. “Will you come with Hennie and me to cast protection spells?”
Babet gave a tired nod. It wasn’t much, but it was something they could do to help. The three women walked to her mother’s car and drove from one witch’s house to the next. There were only four to visit. Agatha was already dead. So was Melina. Ophelia and Pearl were staying at Mom and Hennie’s. Babet’s house didn’t need any more wards.
Their first stop was Perdita’s. Evangeline was staying with her mentor instead of returning to her mother’s voodoo settlement. Voodoo performed powerful magic, but the women at the settlement couldn’t defend themselves against a demon on their own. Evangeline could wield both voodoo and witch magic, and Perdita had enough power, but she nurtured more than battled. She didn’t have one aggressive bone in her body, and that worried Babet.
They all joined hands and chanted their spells until the house buzzed with energy. When they left, Babet felt sure that they were secure. Then they drove to Loreena’s house. The beautiful, young witch had already chanted at least a half dozen spells to keep her house safe. After her encounter with the Pied Piper of River City, she didn’t take safety for granted. She was thrilled Rowan, Hennie, and Babet helped her chant more. After that, they visited Cleo’s house, then Maeva’s. Both Cleo and Maeva were mothers, and they joined hands for every spell Rowan could think of to keep their children’s homes and yards safe.
By the time the three women returned to Rowan’s shop, the sun hovered on the horizon. Temperatures had cooled, and tourists crowded the streets. Prosper pulled to the front curb, bearing huge bags filled with po’ boys. He dangled one of them in front of Babet and grinned. The man’s grin could melt hearts. “Shrimp.”
She licked her lips. Nothing said heaven like a mound of fried shrimp on toasted French bread, smothered with mayo and shredded lettuce. The others chose oysters, Prosper’s favorite, but what did they know? Her mom and dad carried bottles of wine and beer to the back patio, and they all sat outside, enjoying their meal.
Pearl laughed as she tipped back her bottle of ale to indulge. “This has been such a fun day! First, we had Rowan’s birthday party, and now we’re having a sleepover. Isn’t it great?”
Ophelia gave her sister an odd look, but forced a smile. “There was that little misadventure in the middle, battling Xamian.”
Pearl wrinkled her nose. “But Babet, Prosper, and Hatchet came to rescue us. It was exciting!”
Gazaar looked as though he’d like to smack her, but Rowan laid a hand on his arm. “Someday, if you train hard enough, you could be that ferocious with your magic.”
Pearl’s eyes gleamed with pleasure. “I’m going to start concentrating harder, I promise. Babet’s magic knocked Xamian off balance.”
Ophelia followed Rowan’s lead. “We could practice together at home and help each other grow stronger.”
“We could, couldn’t we?” Pearl clapped her hands together. Babet had never realized how child-like the witch was. When she thought back on their coven meetings, Ophelia worked hard to cover for her, making Pearl seem more competent than she really was.
Hennie finished the last fried oyster on her sandwich and smiled. “Witches have to be strong and clever. We need to think about our friends and our enemies, so that we don’t make rash decisions.”
Pearl bobbed her head.
“Xamian will try to trick us,” Hennie said. “That’s why it’s important not to trust anyone we don’t know until we capture him.”
Pearl frowned. “But he can’t step foot on your property. No enemy can.”
“That’s right, so you’re safe unless you walk outside this building or the privacy fence. You won’t do that, will you? No matter what.” Hennie waited for Pearl’s answer, and Babet realized Hennie had always known how naïve she was.
“I won’t leave this property,” Pearl said.
Hennie’s smile widened. “Good, that means a lot to me.”
Pearl heaved a happy sigh, pleased with herself. Ophelia’s shoulders relaxed. A wave of worry drained Babet’s energy. She rubbed her forehead, fighting a headache.
Prosper looked at her and rubbed her cheek. “Come on. We both could use some rest. Everyone’s protected for now. Maybe one of Nadine’s spirits will get lucky and find Xamian tonight.”
He put a hand under her elbow, and for once, Babet let him guide her on their way to his car. They didn’t talk on the eight block drive from Magic Street to their yellow bungalow. Tourists thronged the sidewalks in front of their house, walking from their hotels to the popular spots in town. None of them stepped foot in the tiny yard that led to their bright-red, front door. She’d bespelled it to keep people off. Prosper turned at the corner and drove to the alley that ran in back of their property. He parked beside the high wall of their courtyard. When they stepped through the gate, Morgana slithered to greet them.
“You finally shed!” Prosper bent to pet the boa’s bobbing head.
Babet crouched to rub her smooth scales. “You look beautiful.”
If a snake could smile, Morgana did. The boa’s happiness lifted Babet’s spirits. She laughed. “I’m happy for you!”
Prosper carried drinks onto the patio, and Morgana glided around its perimeter, looking for snacks. No mice or frogs survived if they slipped past their gate. On a whim, Babet opened it and said, “Tourists don’t use the alley. Stay in the shadows, and hurry back. But find yourself a good meal. No pets, though.”
Morgana’s body trembled along its entire length. This was a rare treat, and she disappeared before Babet could change her mind.
Prosper grinned. White teeth glowed against burnished copper skin. Damn, his grin worked wonders. Babet could feel the tension of the day dissolve a little more. She slid onto the lounge chair next to his. He raised an eyebrow at her long, bare legs. “Have I told you how much I like it when you wear anything short?”
“You’ve mentioned it.” She shook her head. Prosper loved shapely legs. He loved long, dark hair, and he wasn’t averse to perky boobs. But it all seemed pointless at the moment. Two witches were dead, and a demon roamed River City.
Prosper raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. “We survived Jaleel. We’ll survive Xamian, too.”
“A pep-talk. I need it. You’re a good man. But you wouldn’t be so upbeat if your detectives were under attack.”
A scowl furrowed his brows. “First, I’m not upbeat. I’m damned frustrated. But you’re right. If it were my men on the line, I’d be like you, mulling over one idea after another to kill our enemy. And you’d be like me, trying to bolster me up. We make a great team.”
She smiled. They did work well together, on and off the battlefield. By the time Morgana returned, moving more slowly with a bulge in her midsection, they were both ready to call it a night. Prosper closed the gate, and Babet put their glasses in the dishwasher. Then they headed to the bedroom. They left the door open, so Morgana could curl on the floor at the foot of the bed. A new compromise. The snake liked being in the room with them. Babet spooned her body against the long, hard length of Prosper’s, closed her eyes, and immediately fell asleep.
The phone woke them a half hour before Prosper’s alarm.