Again, thank you very much for the critiques, Kelly S, Office Wench, S, Micki, Amy, and Reb! Here’s the revision. Keep in mind, this will change again and again, and will definitely have to be cut; it’s way too long. But it does try to solve the problems in the previous draft that you all pointed out in your critiques.
When Nick Borgia came out of the hellhole Vinnie Smith called his office, carrying the fiction that Vinnie called his ledgers, Vinnie was behind the bar, a glass in one hand and a bottle of whiskey labeled “Demon Rum” in the other, the picture of thuggish misery.
Nick went around to the front of the bar and dumped the ledgers. “Vinnie, your bookkeeping is worse than your housekeeping.” He looked around the ugly, empty bar. “And your decorating.”
Vinnie raised his bald head, ruddy in the reflection of the many neon flames he’d slathered over the matte black walls of Hell Bar. “Joey’s dead.”
“I know.” Nick pointed to the bullet holes in his jacket and shirt. “I was there. Now about your suppliers. This Mr. Lemon . . .”
“Joey’s dead,” Vinnie said.
Nick frowned at him. “He’s fine. He’s just moved on to another world. Now about Mr. Lemon–”
“Don’t give me that religious crap,” Vinnie said. “He’s dead and it’s my fault.”
“Really,” Nick said, interested now. “How is that?”
Vinnie shook his head and poured another drink, so Nick reached over the bar, took a glass, and poured himself one, too.
He took one sip, winced, and put the glass down. “Your liquor is terrible, too.” He picked up the bottle, which was green with a large demon face on it. “I assume this is for the tourists?”
“I rented you the apartment upstairs,” Vinnie said. “Not this bar.” He focused on the ledgers. “Were you in my office? Get out.”
Nick put the bottle back on the bar. “Your books have many references to a Mr. Lemon.”
Vinnie leaned on the bar, more for support than for menace. “I said, Get out!”
Nick sat down on one of the ugly black barstools. “If you really want me out, tell me about Mr. Lemon.”
“And if I don’t?” Vinnie snorted. “Whaddaya gonna do?”
“Vinnie, somebody just put many bullets through me to shoot Joey. Shouldn’t that tell you something?”
“Tells me that you’re bad news, you tricky bastard. Get out of here.” Vinnie picked up the bottle again and then stood looking at it, as if he’d forgotten what it was for.
“Vinnie, cooperate. I’ve been on this island for two days looking for answers, and everything leads me back here to a dead end. Tell me about Mr. Lemon.”
“No,” Vinnie said.
The eight-foot run of neon flames next to the street door fell and shattered on the sticky black floor.
“Hey!” Vinnie peered into the gloom.
“Tell me about Mr. Lemon, Vinnie,” Nick said, keeping his voice friendly.
“No. You get out–”
Three more runs of flame fell and smashed, leaving that side wall empty of neon.
Nick brushed off the few chips of glass that had reached the bar and looked back at the naked black wall. “So much better.” He sipped his drink again and winced. “So much worse.” He pushed the glass toward Vinnie, who picked it up and drained it. “Now about Mr. Lemon.”
“I can’t,” Vinnie said, and all the neon on the other side of the bar fell, too, leaving Vinnie with only the three-foot run of flames behind him.
“Talk to me, Vinnie,” Nick said, his voice gentle.
“It’s gonna cost me to replace that.” Vinnie poured another drink.
“It’s so much better without it.” Nick looked around. “Still vile, of course, but so much better. New paint, refinish the floor, get some drinkable liquor, you’ll have yourself . . . a not-as-vile bar.”
“Takes money,” Vinnie said. “You’re gonna pay for that neon.”
Nick looked back at him. “Aren’t you curious as to how I made it fall off the wall?”
Vinnie opened his mouth and then stopped. “Hey, how did you do that?”
Vinnie hadn’t been one of the world’s faster thinkers in the two days Nick had known him, but he hadn’t been this slow. Demon rum, Nick thought, and then wondered if that were literally true. “So Mr. Lemon supplies your booze?”
“I’m not saying.” Vinnie tried to lean on the bar and missed.
Nick regarded him, exasperated. “I’m constrained by free will here, Vinnie. You have to be of sound mind to deal with me. How much have you had to drink?”
“Not enough,” Vinnie said morosely. “Not enough to make up for Joey. Not enough to tell you about Mr. Lemon, neither.”
Nick nodded. “Okay. Listen carefully.”
Vinnie squinted at him.
“I have come here to Demon Island to solve a problem. Your bar seems to be the focal point for much of the traffic causing this problem. Therefore I need to examine everything and everyone having to do with this bar. Do you understand that?”
Vinnie thought about it and nodded. “You’re a Fed. I ain’t sellin’ drugs.”
“I’m not a Fed,” Nick said. “I know you’re not selling drugs.”
“I buy my liquor legal.”
Vinnie thought hard again. “There’s nothing to find out.”
“Vinnie, you’re trafficking in demons.”
Vinnie frowned at him, legitimately confused. “Demons ain’t real. That’s just a tourist thing. Demon Island, Demon Rum, ball caps with horns, that crap. It’s why I named the bar Hell. And put up them flames.” He looked proud for a moment and then seemed to remember that his neon was no more. “I really loved them flames.”
“Demons are real, Vinnie. And I think they’re coming onto this island through your bar.”
“Nah.” Vinnie shook his head and almost fell over. “Nah. I ain’t never seen one.”
“They look a lot like human beings. You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”
“They ain’t real,” Vinnie said and drank again.
Nick counted to ten and tried again. “Vinnie, I’m pretty sure there’s a hellgate in your bar somewhere and I am going to find it. And then I’m going to close it. And then I’m going to find the demon on this island who built it and drag him back where he belongs. But to do all of that, I’m going to have to take this place apart. . The boys are already working on the apartment I rent. They’ll be down here next. And then I’m going to have to talk to everybody you do business with. Do you understand?”
“I ain’t talking to you about Mr. Lemon,” Vinnie said.
“Which is why we’re going into partnership.” So that I never have to have this conversation with you again.
Vinnie snorted. “You ain’t never gonna be my partner.”
One of the blackened, splintered tables by the front door caught fire.
“Hey!” Vinnie said, and then the next table went up, and the next until all thirty tables were aflame. And then they weren’t, they were just thirty pieces of fragile table-shaped ash.
Nick smiled at Vinnie, and the ash tables collapsed into ash piles. “Vinnie, this bar is an insult to a very fine, very old institution. In exchange for your help, I am willing to fix that. After I tear it apart, of course.”
“People like it,” Vinnie said sullenly.
“You’ve had maybe half a dozen people in here in the past two nights.”
“It’s the off-season.”
All the chairs burst into flame and became ash-chairs.
Vinnie froze, his drink halfway to his mouth, and a moment later the chairs collapsed into piles of ash.
“You bastard,” Vinnie said, without heat, and took another drink.
“Here’s the deal, Vinnie,” Nick said, also without heat. “You’re taking me on as a partner. I’ll get this place–” He looked around in contempt. “—fixed, after we search it.” He looked at the bottle on the bar. “And I’ll order the liquor. I will even straighten out your books, Belia help me. And in return you will give me access to everything and tell me everything you know, especially about Mr. Lemon.”
Vinnie glowered at him. “I don’t think–”
The last of the neon flames behind him creaked on the wall.
“No,” Vinnie said, and then looked around as two boys dressed in hoodies and jeans came clattering down the back stairs and into the bar, one tall, dark, and slender and one short, chunky, and blond, just your average twenty-something college students.
“I suppose you’re gonna have your goons beat me up now.”
“Did he just call us goons?” the blond one said.
“We’re done with the upstairs part,” the dark one said to Nick. “Bathroom finished tomorrow morning.. Back room still needs cleaned up, but you’re not using it, so we’ll do that later. Attic’s empty now. So far, nothing.”
Nick nodded. “Good. Clean this mess up. Take all the walls on this floor down to the brick and the studs, just like upstairs. Clear out the cellar if there is one and strip it down, too. When you have the place gutted, get the floors refinished. Get the plywood out of the front window and replace it with safety glass.” He thought of Joey. “No, with bulletproof glass. Do the same thing upstairs with the apartment windows. And keep your eyes open. You know what we’re looking for.”
“Same terms as before?” the dark one said.
“Cool,” the blond said. “I like it down here.”
“Does that go?” the dark one said, pointing toward the last of red neon flames behind Vinnie.
“No, we’ll keep that,” Nick said, taking pity on him. “Clean it up. Put a mirror behind it or whatever will make it look ironic instead of cheap.”
“Ironic,” the dark one said.
“All this is gonna take some time,” the blond said.
“Two days at least, hell time,” the dark one said.
“Probably more,” Nick said. “In fact, I may have permanent jobs for you down here.”
“We could talk about that,” the dark one said.
“We’ll do anything,” the blond one said. “It’s great down here.”
Nick turned back to Vinnie. “Vinnie meet Joey’s replacements, your new bouncers, delivery men, and bartenders.”
“I’m not partners with you,” Vinnie said. “And I’m not hiring them.”
“Does he know who he’s talking to?” the blond one said to Nick.
“Free will,” Nick said. “He has to agree.”
The dark one nodded, looking around. “Explains what happened here.”
“Who the fuck are you?” Vinnie said, scowling at the boys.
“They’re demons,” Nick told him. “This is Daglas.” Nick gestured to the dark one who held out his hand to Vinnie.
“Pleased to meet you, sir,” Daglas said to Vinnie, who shook his hand, confused.
“And this is Rabiel.”
Rabiel stuck out his hand and shook Vinnie’s with enthusiasm. “This is gonna be great.”
Vinnie looked at Nick. “Who are these guys? Who the fuck are you?”
“As I’ve told you, several times, I’m the Devil. And Daglas and Rabiel are demons. Fallen angels. As you can see from their ages, it didn’t take them long to fall.”
“It was my fault,” Rabiel said. “Daglas just got thrown out with me.”
“It’s fine,” Daglas said.
“I don’t believe it,” Vinnie said. “This is some kind of con.”
Nick sighed. “Show him.”
Daglas and Rabiel looked at each other and then back at Vinnie, and before his eyes morphed into green-skinned, black-eyed versions of their former selves.
Vinnie stared at them.
“Demons,” Nick said, feeling like he might finally be making progress.
Vinnie turned shocked eyes to Nick. “Can you do that?”
“No, I’m human.”
Vinnie’s eyes dropped to the bullet holes in Nick’s shirt. “Then why aren’t you dead?”
“Because I’m already dead, Vinnie. That’s how I got to Hell in the first place.”
“And now he runs the place,” Rabiel said cheerfully.
“And now I’m going to run this place, too,” Nick said. “Because I think Hell should have control of its gates. Say yes, and I’ll make you a rich man.”
“You’ll get me killed,” Vinnie said, staring wild-eyed at the boys.
“Then I’ll have your back in the Afterlife. You can’t lose.”
Vinnie looked at green Daglas and Rabiel and then back at Nick as it all soaked in. “I don’t really have a choice, do I?”
“Yes,” Nick said. “You have free will. You can say no.”
“And then you set me on fire,” Vinnie said.
“NO,” Nick said, his patience at an end. “YOU HAVE FREE WILL, VINNIE.” He held up his hand and a contract appeared in it, flaming. “SIGN HERE OF YOUR OWN FREE WILL, DAMN IT.”
He slapped the contract on the bar, and Vinnie looked into his eyes and took a step back.
“Here’s a pen,” Daglas said, and Vinnie looked down at the pen held in green fingers and back at Nick.
Nick let his façade slip just enough for Vinnie to see the skull beneath the skin. “SIGN IT.”
Vinnie took the pen and signed the contract.
“It’ll be okay, Vinnie,” Nick said, his voice gentle again. “You’ll be making more money than you ever have, and I’ll never take the bar from you. If I disappear, it reverts to you. That’s in the contract.”
“He’s pretty drunk,” Daglas said. “Is that legal?”
“I’ll get him to look at it again tomorrow,” Nick said. “As long as he says yes when he’s sober, we’re good. A verbal agreement is binding. And by Friday, you’ll have this place cleaned up and be working for him. That’ll make him happy.”
Daglas looked at Vinnie, who was staring, shocked, at all of them. “Yeah, he’ll be thrilled.”
“The green,” Nick said, and Daglas and Rabiel reverted to normal-looking college guys. “Okay, you know what to do. It’s Monday. We’re opening again on Friday. Earth time. And I want my bathroom finished tomorrow, too. I’m not going to be here much longer, but there are minimum standards.”
“Got it,” Daglas said.
“We won’t let you down, boss.” Rabiel looked at Vinnie. “How do we learn to bartend?”
Vinnie pulled a book out from under the bar and put it down carefully on the marble bar top.
“Cool,” Rabiel said. “Thanks.” He took the book and put it in the front of his hoodie and followed Daglas out the back.
“How are they gonna get this done by Friday?” Vinnie said, concentrating on the stuff he understood.
“They work like demons.”
That took Vinnie a minute. “I got nothin’ to pay them.”
“They’re paid in earth time. And whatever cash you paid Joey as a bouncer/bartender/delivery guy.”
“It’s about twenty-to-one,” Nick said, and when Vinnie looked confused, he said, “I’ve been here two days, but I’ve been out of the office in hell for about two hours. So they’re getting twenty times the hours they spending working in free time here. Where there are girls.”
“There aren’t any girl demons?” Vinnie said appalled.
“There are, but not as many,” Nick said. “Female angels don’t fall as often as male angels do.”
“Women are just nicer than men,” Vinnie said, nodding.
“No, Vinnie,” Nick said. “Women are just smarter than men. And now we’re partners, so about Mr. Lemon–”
The street door opened, and Vinnie looked past him and said, “Oh, fuck.”
“What now?” Nick said.
“What?” Nick turned around and saw three people coming toward him: a dark-haired woman, a taller dark-haired man who looked like her, and a shorter, prettier blonde in glasses who didn’t look anything at all like her.
The woman in front wasn’t anything special to look at– medium height, medium weight, dark hair, dark jacket –until she got close enough for Nick to see her eyes. Darker than dark, her irises were almost the same black as her pupils. And when she reached him, he could feel the cold coming off her, not a lot, but it was there: she brought down the temperature around her.
“Hi, Spooky,” Vinnie said to her.
“Call me that again, and I’ll shoot you,” she said, her voice flat and low, and then she turned to look at Nick, the full force of those cold eyes meeting his.
“I’m Detective Dodd,” she was saying to him. “And you are?”
“Hello, Detective Dodd,” Nick said to her, holding out his hand. “I’m the Devil.”
“So I’ve heard,” she said and turned back to Vinnie.
She was cold and sharp and dark, and there was something else, lurking beneath the surface.
You’re not entirely human, are you, Detective Dodd?
If he was right about Mr. Lemon, the guy had been on Demon Island for three hundred years. He could wait a few minutes.
Nick sat down to watch.