The penguin glared at me with big black plastic eyes. I held it up in the air by one of its green wings and frowned back at its fuzzy yellow belly. How could normies find such dreadful creatures cute? I had faced the largely terrifying fae equivalent once before – cute and fuzzy were the last descriptors that came to mind. I shuddered, picturing the face of the piranha-like monsters superimposed over the soft toy. In reality, the Gob Reoites loved to lure young children into frozen lakes so they could eat them – not the friendliest of guardians to be watching over the twins. “You’re not buying this.”
A hand reached out, swiping the penguin from my grasp and dumping it into the shopping cart full of other questionably colored stuffed animals. “This is perfect for the kids. Besides, you have no taste,” said the man next to me.
I looked over at my thirty-seven-year-old best friend and let out an exasperated sigh. His messy sandy-blond hair was in dire need of a haircut, and dark circles surrounded his pale blue eyes, giving him a tired panda look behind his lopsided glasses. His gray polo shirt and black jacket had pink glitter sprayed across the left sleeve, probably from his daughter Margie. She was going through an artistic phase, and everything had to have glitter.
“You do realize that Alice texted me the list of the things she actually needs for my nephews’ room and gave me explicit instructions not to let you go overboard?” I pulled out my phone and scrolled through the small list of items, pausing at the bottom.
Don’t let my Mad Hatter buy the entire store. Just the items above are NEEDED!
Devon shot me a rueful grin, rubbing at his jeans absently and shaking his head at the cascade of green and yellow glitter that fell to the floor. He looked as if he had spent the whole night at a gentlemen's club rather than performing two autopsies back to back. It wasn’t enough that Portland had one of the most culturally rich magical communities in the United States, now apparently, we had our own serial killer.
I looked down at the shopping cart bursting with baby things. “None of this is on her list, so we’re going to put it back,” I said firmly.
“The boys need cute and fluffy toys to decorate their room. How can you say no to these lovely faces?” Devon scowled mockingly and picked up a purple giraffe with a pair of magenta-colored gossamer wings and a glowing silver horn. He held up the abomination of a green penguin in the other hand, and I shuddered when its eyes fixed on me. Alice was right. It really was like shopping with the Mad Hatter.
I snorted, thinking about the real Mad Hatter, then found myself frowning when I remembered he still owed me a hundred gold coins. Bastard liked to cheat at chess. At least he didn't have a penchant for stuffed animals, unlike some people.
I held my phone up to show Devon the text, and a smile bloomed across his haggard face. It was his funeral if he decided to ignore his wife.
“Firstly, the boys aren’t here yet,” I pointed out. Given that Alice was due to give birth in February, the boys wouldn’t need anything but diapers and milk for the foreseeable future. Let alone an army of cuddly toys. “Secondly, you bought about twenty stuffed animals of all shapes and sizes just last week.” His eyes widened, and he opened his mouth to speak, but I continued. “Alice can barely walk into the room without tripping over a red lion or blue triceratops. Thirdly, we are supposed to be getting the cribs, which you currently seem to be missing. And finally … get rid of that penguin. It’s unnatural.”
Devon dropped the toys into the shopping cart, crossed his arms, and glared at me. “How do you know about those? You haven’t been to the house since Margie’s birthday at the beginning of October.”
I ignored the look he was giving me and stuffed my hands into my jacket pockets. “Alice told me when she found out that I was coming with you.” I gave the mountain of toys another look. “But if I knew we were going to buy the whole toy aisle, I would’ve stayed at home.”
“After all the begging and groveling I had to do to get you to come out of the inn.” He wagged his finger at me, pink glitter floating through the air in small waves. “You were coming whether you liked it or not.”
I snorted and arched an eyebrow at him. “Begging and groveling? More like demanding and threatening.” I dropped my voice in a close imitation of Devon’s. “‘You’ve got five minutes to get ready. I’m picking you up, and if you’re not ready by the time I get there, I’ll summon a horde of zombie dogs to piss on your precious flowers.’”
Devon blinked innocently at me. “Well, what the hell was I supposed to do to get you to show your face?” He gave me a concerned look and stepped forward, putting his hand on my shoulder. “Nathan, no one has seen you, really seen you, since what happened at the Lighthouse. We’re worried about you. Margie asks about you constantly, and not for nothing – you look like crap.”
I gave him a once over. “Have you seen yourself recently?”
He picked up a toy mirror in the shape of a hippo and held it to my face. “Have you? I've been dealing with back-to-back autopsies and a serial killer on the loose. Not to mention Alice stressing over the baby prep, and obviously, Margie’s magic could awaken any day now. Things are a little tense. What's your excuse?” He wasn’t wrong. The killings were seriously taking their toll on him – hell, on the whole community. Devon, like all of the Portland P.D., felt responsible for each death that had occurred since October. It was December now, and the body count had reached eight, with the cops nowhere close to catching this monster. Baby shopping was not my usual idea of fun, but I needed to help Devon take his mind off the case.
A worn-out face stared back at me from the toy mirror. The man in the reflection had long unkempt dark hair that fell below a bearded chin. Exhausted gray eyes peered back at me above hollow cheekbones. While the bruises had faded and the wounds had healed, the emotional scars from my last encounter with the Fae were still fresh and bleeding. “So we both look like crap.” I took the mirror and put it in the cart. “But you’re still ignoring Alice’s orders, and you know how she gets.”
“Nathaniel Mercer,” he growled. “I swear by all that is dead and holy that I will beat you within an inch of your life if that’s what it takes for you to talk to me.”
I looked around and noticed several mothers with their kids giving us weird looks. A plump elderly woman with dark hair streaked with gray shook her head at me. “Honey, take advice from an old soul: communication is the key to any relationship. You don't want to make your husband feel like he can’t connect with you.”
Devon and I blinked at each other before a laugh began to curve his mouth. I started to correct her but stopped short as Devon cut me off.
He turned to the woman and gave her a grateful smile. “Thank you, ma’am, finally someone who understands. You don’t know how hard it is to please a man that has the emotional capacity of a platypus.” I stared at him, stunned. He continued, “We have two lovely daughters, and he can’t even make the time to go to their ballet recitals, and now we’re expecting twins!”
Now everyone in the aisle was giving me the stink eye – even the employees. I rolled my eyes at Devon. If that’s how you wanna play it, fine.
I let my Irish accent grow thick. “If you didn’t spend all hours of the night with your clients and leave the girls with me, then I wouldn’t be the way I am now, would I? I’m sick of it.”
A mischievous glint sparked in his eyes as he stomped his foot. “I’m providing for our family, and what are you doing? Sitting on the couch all day eating nachos, drinking beer and watching figure skating.”
One of the employees, a young man in his mid-twenties with short dark hair, walked towards us from the other end of the aisle, frowning. “Sirs, could you please lower your voices and discuss your problems at home? If not, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
I raised my eyebrows at Devon and poked him in the chest with the damn penguin I had picked up from the mountain of accessories. This whole theatre was his doing. “You see what you did? Now you’ve got” – I looked at the employee’s name tag – “Ron here asking us to leave before we can buy half the stuff we need. I hope you’re happy.” I grabbed the overstuffed cart and walked away.
A few seconds passed before Devon found me in the maternity clothes section. As soon as he saw me, he started laughing his ass off. I smacked him on the arm with a maternity gown. “Yeah, sure, laugh it up. You know we can never shop here again now the whole store thinks I’m a scumbag dad?”
Devon kept laughing, holding his stomach as tears flowed from his eyes. “Since when are you going to come back to My Bella Mama anyway?” He stopped laughing and picked up a red gown cut in a provocative style. It had a deep V-line that was supposed to curve around the breasts before opening up around the belly and falling towards the back like a wedding dress. “Unless you’re finally planning on making me an uncle. So far, I got you beat three to none.”
I rolled my eyes at him and checked the list again.
Soft maternity gowns, no pants and nothing too shocking. It’s for doctor’s appointments.
I considered the clothes that Devon picked up. They were certainly soft. I’d give him that, but that was it. “You do know that Alice plans on going outside in these, right? It’s not just to wear in your bedroom.”
Devon paused with a deep sapphire one in his hands. “What do you mean?”
I gave the dress another glance. “It’s lace and has a zipper from the chest to just above the thigh. Though, I guess that’ll definitely make it easier for the doctor to perform a check-up.”
He looked at the gown again. A flash of green light sparked in his eyes and his cheeks turned a rosy color. “Ah, right. Doctor-appropriate it is.”
I shook my head and swallowed a laugh. “I’ll leave you to shop for clothes. What else do we need?” I checked the list and nodded. “I’ll gather the rest of the stuff. You finish here and then look for the cribs. Also, you do know there’s this thing called baby showers, right? I’m told they are used by expecting parents to pawn the really expensive stuff off on friends and family. Why are you buying all of this?”
He gave me an incredulous look and put the gown back on the rack. “I’m not going to let someone put a wonky spell on something my boys will be sleeping in. Automated rocking beds that vibrate through walls? Self-feeding bibs that nearly choke the poor kids? No, thank you.” He shuddered visibly, and I fought the urge to smack him on the back of the head. “As for my family … let’s not get into that. If I let them, my dad would get me a crib made of twenty-four-carat gold because anything less is for plebeians, and my mom would fill the nursery with so many flowers my kids would be asthmatic before they turned a day old.”
I laughed at his overprotectiveness and clapped him on the shoulder. “And I thought I was the paranoid one. Fine, go and get the cribs. I’ll settle the rest of the stuff. You get the clothes, and then we can go have something to eat. I’m starving.”
Devon nodded, still eyeing the plethora of nightgowns available with a small crease between his brows. I sighed and grabbed a cozy-looking one. “How about this one? If there’s one thing I know, it’s comfy clothes.”
“It's not just comfort I’m worried about. It’s the style,” Devon replied with a quick glance at me. I looked down at the blue and red flannel shirt beneath my jacket and smacked him on the back of the head. You can only fight an urge for so long. It’s like eating nachos; you can’t just stop at one.
“What’s wrong with this? It’s soft and warm, and I can buy them in bulk because apparently running an inn for the supernatural is detrimental to your wardrobe.”
Devon’s eyes were skeptical as they darted from the gown on the rack to me. My hand twitched from the effort of not smacking him again.
“Fine, I’ll see you in twenty minutes,” I said with a huff, and he hummed noncommittally before putting the dress he’d held earlier in the cart as well as two other more modest gowns. I rolled my eyes as I walked away and pulled out my phone, texting Alice:
A reply came back with a facepalming emoji.
He bought the entire store, didn’t he?
I pushed the cart towards the newborn clothes and replied,
Half, and according to everyone, we make a cute couple. See you later.
My phone chimed again as Alice replied with a confused emoji. I grinned to myself as I put my phone away. I picked up some clothes for the boys and managed to dump the hideous penguin in an aisle nearby. Time had flown by since last September when Devon and Alice had found out they were having another baby. Remembering the crazy grin on Devon’s face when he told me the news made me smile even now. While I was recuperating from my injuries after stopping a crazy fae bent on drowning the city, they went to their first appointment and discovered that Alice was four months pregnant with not one but two babies.
Half an hour went by without Devon reappearing. I decided to play Nancy Drew and look for him before he could make his way back to the toy section. Raised voices snagged my attention, and I sighed, recognizing Devon’s voice as he argued with an employee over why they didn’t have twin baby cribs. He was demanding to speak with a manager. I turned my cart around and walked away. There was no way I was getting in the middle of that. I texted Alice again, hoping she could provide me with an excuse to get out of here before her husband sent a zombie after the poor employee.
I don’t know what she said to him, but he returned ten minutes later with two similar-sized cribs, a rocking chair, a large playpen, and that damn green penguin. I picked up the offending toy and placed it on a rack next to us. Devon didn’t even blink; he simply put it back in the cart with a smile. I sighed in defeat. I would just have to teach the boys how to kill Fae while they were still in diapers. Who said being an uncle was easy?
We paid for our purchases – penguin included – and went to have lunch at the food court. I ordered two double bacon cheeseburgers with fries and a chocolate shake for me and a grilled chicken salad for Devon.
I eyed his food and offered him one of my burgers. “Here, have some decent food. It pains me to see you eating that.”
Devon looked at the burger mournfully and reached out for it before his hand stopped several inches away. “No, I can’t.” He retracted his hand and speared his salad leaves, eyeing them with distaste.
“Come on. I won’t tell Alice. Have a bite. It even has lettuce and tomato in it, so you’re technically eating an upgraded salad.” I put the burger on his tray and started on the other one. After hours of shopping, it tasted heavenly, especially the crispy bacon between the layers of cheese and meat.
Devon chewed on his salad and moved the burger away. “I promised Alice I would follow her diet during the pregnancy. She’s been on this whole food regime for months, but the babies made it worse. Whenever I sneaked a burger here or there, she can smell it on my breath.”
I gave him an incredulous stare. “You do realize there’s something called mouthwash, right? It's something the normies invented for guess what? Bad breath.”
He put his chicken down and leaned back, crossed his arms, and matched his voice into a close impersonation of his wife. “‘Why does your mouth smell like mouthwash, dear? Did you eat something you weren’t supposed to? What did you eat? How could you? You promised you were going to support me? You don’t love me anymore, and you want me as fat as the cow you ate!’”
I choked on a fry and took a big slurp of my shake. “That sounds oddly specific.”
He went back to his salad. “You don’t know the half of it. I slept in the guest room for two nights after my little slip-up. Even if the mouthwash hadn’t blown up in my face – well, when your wife’s a telepath with mood swings, you learn what hell is really like.”
I shrugged but gladly removed the temptation by eating the burger he was eyeing. I was such a great friend. “Devon, I lived among the Fae for years, possibly centuries. I’ve seen pregnant Fae before, and trust me, as scary as Alice was with Margie, she doesn’t hold a candle to Sidhe women. You haven't known true fear until you've been screamed at by one of them.” Devon looked doubtful but didn’t argue as I munched through my second burger.
We finished our food and walked outside to my old black pick-up truck, our purchases in hand. The cold December air sucker-punched me after the toasty warmth of the mall, and the sky had become an amalgamation of purples and oranges as the sun began to set. The truck was parked only a couple of feet away from the entrance, which was a miracle in itself. I opened the back and raised the cover. Half the truck bed was filled with saplings, which left a small amount of space for the clothes and furniture.
Devon eyed the saplings warily. “What’s with the trees?” he asked as we started loading the cribs inside.
“The attack on the inn wrecked a good chunk of the woods, so Julia wanted to reforest the area. But we’ve been so busy dealing with … stuff that there just hasn’t been time. So with Yule coming up, I went and picked up a few apple, peach, and western hemlock trees. I just didn’t have time to unload them before you showed up,” I said as we picked up the rocking chair and loaded it up. Alice was going to kill him for buying yet another one, but I’d learned it was pointless trying to tell him what he shouldn’t buy, so I kept my mouth shut.
I climbed inside the truck and turned on the heater as soon as the engine started. The blast of hot air felt good against my cold skin as I pulled out of the parking lot and headed for Devon’s house. A couple of minutes into the drive, Devon’s favorite song played through the radio, and instead of busting out into an off-key tune, he sighed. His eyes were glazed over, staring out the window at the waters of the Willamette River without really seeing it.
Ever since the media gave the killer the moniker of ‘The Woodland Ripper’, the entire police force had been under the national spotlight. The cops had found two more bodies, and there was no telling who the killer would go after next or how many bodies they might find next week. If they didn’t catch this guy soon, going by his previous actions in six days, another body would turn up. Nobody felt safe anymore.
“Worrying what Alice is going to say about that third rocking chair?” I asked tentatively.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Devon's lips twitch into a brief smile before settling back into a worried frown. “Things are bad, Nathan, really bad. I was the medical examiner that performed the autopsy on the first victim. She was a kid, only just turned eighteen the week before she died. When the cops declared a serial killer was active, Jason stepped in and took over all the autopsies. Pompous asshole. He barred me from even coming near the bodies. Then last night happened. They found the two bodies, and Jason decided he needed me after all.”
Jason was Devon’s boss and the Chief ME for the city. I’d never met the man in person, but the picture that my friend had painted of him over the years was less than flattering. To use Devon’s own words: he was ‘a glory-seeking, arrogant, brilliant, pompous asshole.’
Devon rubbed his tired face with his hand as if he could wipe the memories from his mind. We had both seen our share of death. While I was living among the Fae, there were days where I was up to my neck in blood, and Devon, being a necromancer, walked with death every day and invited it to tea. I tried not to think about how my life was slowly falling back into familiar and unwanted patterns since the Fae came back into my life. I had escaped the blood and turmoil of court life, and yet, sometimes, it felt like I never left.
“What is it about these killings that can haunt even the most powerful necromancer in the country?” I asked him.
“People, even other necromancers, think the dead don’t speak. That they don’t feel.” He shook his head. “They’re wrong, Nathan. The dead do care. I feel their emotions every day at work. Right now, they’re disturbed. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I’ll have to ask my dad if he’s ever experienced this before.”
“Think he can help from Europe?” Devon came from a line of necromancers, but he had never told me which parent he inherited his powers from. Guess I now knew.
Devon nodded confidently. “If anyone knows, it'll be him.”
“The more information you have, the higher the chance of catching that sick son of a bitch,” I said as we passed into a more heavily wooded area.
Devon sighed. “I raised last night’s victim,” he said mournfully, pulling up the sleeve of his jacket. There was a multitude of scars along his forearm, a bright purple band-aid with smiley faces covered his most recent addition.
That must've been hell for both the victim and Devon. “What did she say?” I asked.
“Nothing, she just screamed.” His hands clenched, knuckles turning white. “It was like something was missing; her eyes were so blank, Nathan.” I reached over and squeezed his shoulder. “I’ve raised murder victims before, they know they’re dead, and they can usually relay the last moments of their lives, but this time…” He shook his head, his eyes shining with unshed tears. “It was as if everything that made her alive had been stripped away along with some of her organs. She screamed and begged on my table for five minutes. I tried coaxing her to calm down, but she kept going. Nothing about it was natural; there wasn’t anything left inside her to communicate with. In the end, I had to lay her to rest.”
Worry gnawed at me, for Devon and any future victim this animal might set its sights on. I tried thinking of something that would give him the slightest bit of hope, but my mind was blank. I didn’t do well with hope. Call me a cynic, but my years with the Fae taught me it’s a fleeting thing that kills more often than it saves.
I shook my head. Now I was bumming myself out. “You think the killer is from the community?”
Devon rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses and laid his head against the seat. “I don’t know. Humans can be just as monstrous to each other, if not more so, than the magical community. Her corpse was mutilated with almost surgical precision. That could mean anything from medical training to an experienced hunter, or Gods knows how many other things.”
A thick gray blanket of fog rolled from the woods to the left, shrouding the entire road in darkness. I could barely make out the car in front of us. I heard several car tires screeching ahead of us before the unmistakable sound of two vehicles crashing into each other. The minivan in front of us swerved from side to side. A dark silhouette burst through the fog and crashed into the side of the van, driving it off the road until it vanished into the woods.