At half past midnight on her thirty-third birthday, Detective Nita Dodd squinted through a rain-streaked car window at the worst dive bar on Demon Island, drank the awful coffee her new partner handed her, and shivered while she tried to sober up.
Okay, she told herself. Be calm. And not drunk. Look at the facts. Don’t start singing or share any ideas you’ll regret with the new kid who already thinks you’re an idiot lush. Professional, that’s what we’re going for here, Dodd. Look sharp, be sharp. And don’t throw up in her car .
Across the street, Hell Bar glowed red in the darkness thanks to the pitchfork-shaped neon letters in the bay window of the old Victorian brick row house. The blue light from the squad car flashing over the cobblestones didn’t improve it any, nor, as she leaned forward to see better, did the sheet-covered body on the pavement in front.
“This is just wrong,” Nita said, sitting back again. “This just has wrong all over it.”
“Pardon?” the woman sitting next to her said.
Nita focused on her new partner in anti-crime.
Detective Chloe Button. Young. Blonde. Petite. Round blue eyes behind rounder glasses. Moderately hostile in spite of her perky little voice.
“I apologize again for the drunk dial,” Nita said. “I thought I was calling my brother. It won’t happen again.”
“So you’ve said,” Detective Button said. “Are you all right? You look sick . . . and really cold. You’re making me cold.”
Nita nodded. “I’m always cold. I have a metabolism problem. And I’m sick because I ate a bad doughnut this afternoon. Then I had three hot tea toddies to feel better. And now here we are, you sober and me drunk.” She tried again. “I really am sorry about this.”
“Uh huh. Where are we?”
Right, the kid was new in town. Nita pointed her coffee cup toward the bar. “We are across the street from Hell Bar, a once great dive bar in the old part of Deville, the main town on Demon Island, home of the world-semi-renowned Devil’s Playground Amusement Park and many other tourist traps with equally stupid names. Welcome to the Island.”
“Thank you,” Detective Button said, her voice flat.
Nita nodded again, accepting that bonding was not in the cards. “Judging by the size of the body on the pavement, the bar’s owner, Vinnie Smith, has left one Hell for another. His criminal activity on the island is legendary, and he deserved to die for that neon alone, but that does not mean it is okay that somebody offed him. We must find the off-ee.” No, that wasn’t right. “The off-er.” That didn’t sound right either. “The guy who killed him.”
“And your brother called you to come here?” Button said, with admirable focus.
Nita pointed her cup at the SUV that had crashed into one of the mayor’s prized reproduction streetlights a short way down the street. “See the guy in the jacket that says ‘Demon Island Medical Examiner’ up there beside the wrecked SUV with the big guy who’s yelling at him?”
Button squinted through the rain-streaked windshield. “Uh huh.”
“The non-yelling-person is Dr. Mort Dodd, who texted me that he needed me here. The big yeller is Detective Jason Witherspoon, who is not happy with me at the moment, so I will wait until he leaves.”
Up the street, Jason Witherspoon strode off looking disgusted, and Mort put his head back into the SUV window.
“And there he goes.” Nita put her empty cup back in the cup holder. It was time to fight crime. Solve evil. Maybe throw up. She opened the passenger door, letting in the late March cold.
Nita looked back at Button.
“Detective Dodd, I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to be here. This isn’t our case, it’s Detective Witherspoon’s. And you’re wearing pajamas.” Button paused. “They have poodles on them.”
“I did not realize I’d be getting out of the car at a murder scene, Detective Button.” Nita closed the door again and pulled out the front of her oversized black hoodie, so Button could see it better. “I felt this hoodie would be sufficient to obscure the poodles. I was wrong. But let’s be positive; I’m not wearing my bunny slippers.” She hesitated. “Although I am wearing my Bad Ass socks.”
“Pardon?” Button said.
“My Bad Ass socks. They say ‘Bad Ass’ on the back with arrows pointing up. I think they’re a good subliminal message. Or body shaming. I’m not sure which–”
“This is a crime scene,” Button said, an edge to her voice.
“Yes. The two bodies were dead giveaways, assuming there’s one in that SUV. Which is why I must talk to Mort.”
Button nodded. “Just not tonight. We should talk about this in the morning and make a plan so I can provide back-up.”
Nita blinked at this evidence of clear-thinking. “You are going to be an excellent partner. I apologize again for drunk-dialing you.”
“So you’ve said.” Button looked exasperated. “I just don’t want you to hurt your career. Or mine.”
“Drunk. At a crime scene. In poodle pajamas,” Button said, enunciating the words carefully.
“Oh.” Nita thought about mentioning the Bad Ass socks again and decided it wouldn’t be helpful. “Well, I doubt they’ll blame you for anything that happens tonight. They’ve had so much practice blaming me.” She reached for the door handle.
“Some of the guys at the station took me out for a drink this afternoon,” Button said. “They called you Spooky Dodd and said that you think you’re psychic, that you can tell if somebody is guilty if you shake hands with him..”
Nita closed her eyes. “I’m not psychic.”
“And they said your brother thinks demons are real.”
Nita smiled at her, trying to look sane. “That is a thought he’s had. But he’s sound on everything else. I consider it a delightful personality quirk, not a flaw.”
“I got the impression that things might be a little . . . dicey for you at the station.”
“Oh,” Nita said, thinking of twelve years of Spooky Dodd jokes and the new lieutenant scowling at her that morning. “Not really.”
“So I don’t think poodle pants are a good move for you.” Button handed her a Styrofoam cup.
Nita straightened and pried off the lid. “Didn’t I just drink this?”
“I thought two might be good.”
“I hate coffee.”
“Drink it anyway,” Button said.
Nita blinked at the menace beneath the fluff. “Iron Butterfly. Steel Magnolia. Unobtainium Button.”
“Drink it,” Button snarled.
Nita drained the cup and handed it back to her, grimacing. “And now I must go.”
“Wait,” Button said.
“No.” Nita opened the door and put one foot out into the cold, and then looked up as somebody came to stand next to the car. “Hello?”
A patrolman stooped to look inside. “Ma’am, you’ll have to move . . .” he began, and stopped. “Nita?”
“Hi, Frank. Mort texted me to come. Don’t tell Jason I’m here.”
“Uh,” Frank said and then looked past her and smiled. “Hey, Chloe!”
“Hi, Frank.” Button pushed her glasses back up to the bridge of her nose, beaming at him like a little sun. “Could you be a sweetie and ask Detective Dodd’s brother to come over here?”
“You bet, Chloe.” Frank winked at her.
When he was gone, Nita closed the car door and wrapped her hoodie closer around her against the cold. “How friendly did you get over that drink this afternoon?”
“Not that friendly,” Button said, her voice flat again.
“Frank was damn near licking the doorframe.”
Button shrugged. “Men like me. They say I’m cute as a button. Then they tell me things. So I go with it.”
Nita thought about it. “Nobody ever tells me I’m cute as a button.”
“That’s because you’re scary-looking. You got that black helmet hair and your eyes are really dark.” Button hesitated. “And you don’t smile.”
“I smile.” Nita smiled.
Button pulled back a little. “We should leave–”
The back door opened, letting in another blast of cold air, and Mort climbed into the back seat, folding his five-foot-nine-inches like a jackknife, his narrow face cheerful as a lock of dark hair fell into an upside down question mark over his forehead.
“Happy birthday, honey,” he said to Nita. “Mom called. We’re having dinner with her tonight. Why aren’t you out there fighting crime with me?”
Nita sighed. “Happy birthday, I don’t want to have dinner with Mom. I’m in here because I’m wearing poodle pajamas and Bad Ass socks, and my new partner does not approve. Also I’m sick from a bad doughnut.”
“There is no such thing,” Mort said.
Nita turned to Button. “Button, this is my brother Mort. Mort, this is my new partner, Detective Chloe Button. Do not tell her she’s cute as one.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Mort stuck his hand over the seat. “Pleased to meet you, Detective Button.”
Button pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and shook his hand awkwardly. “Uh, happy birthday? To both of you?”
“Twins.” Mort transferred his attention back to his sister. “So there’s a guy in the bar who says he’s the Devil, and I want you to shake his hand.”
“There’s a guy works down the chip shop swears he’s Elvis,” Nita said before she could stop herself.
“Pardon?” Button said.
“It’s a song,” Mort said. “Is she drunk? Sometimes she sings when she gets drunk.”
“Uh huh,” Button said. “About the Devil.”
“We get this all the time,” Nita said, regrouping. Be clear. Be informative. Don’t sing. “Once the park opens in May, every asshat tourist in green make-up will swear he’s a demon.”
“It’s March.” Button tried to hand her a cup of coffee.
“So we got an early asshat.” Nita frowned at the cup. “I just drank that.”
“I bought three. You were really drunk on the phone.” Button shoved the cup into Nita’s hand, and then the back door on the other side opened and Jason Witherspoon folded his six-foot-plus bulk into what was left of the back seat, bringing a lot of cold air with him.
“So of course you show up,” he said to Nita.
“I suppose Frank ratted us out.,” Nita said. “Button, this is the partner who preceded you. Jason, this is the partner who succeeded you. Talk amongst yourselves while I think about throwing up in the street. Or maybe peeing. I’ve had a lot of coffee.” She looked at the cup in her hand and gave it back to Button.
Jason leaned forward. “I said–”
Nita scowled t him. “I heard what you said. Say hello to Button.”
“Hello, Chloe,” Jason said.
“Hello, Jason,” Button said cheerfully, doing the sun thing and making the entire back seat smile.
“Really,” Nita said to Button.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” Jason said to Nita.
Nita frowned at him. “Don’t say ‘fuck’ in front of Button. She’s just a child.”
“Are you drunk?”
“Yes. Are you annoying?”
Mort looked at Chloe. “They used to be a thing.”
“A long time ago,” Nita said.
“Seven weeks ago,” Jason said.
“Moving on,” Mort said to Jason. “Nita’s here because I called her because you are screwing this up.”
Jason and Mort began to argue, and Nita’s head began to pound. This is a bad place for me to be. I should leave.
She said, “Hey!” and they stopped in mid-sentence. “Mort, if Jason has this solved, why do you need me?”
“Excellent point,” Button said and started the car.
The heater kicked on and Nita thought, Oh, yes, heat, thank you.
“He doesn’t have it solved,” Mort said. “For one thing, he can’t explain how the Devil got shot seventeen times.”
Nita blinked at Mort. “I thought the Devil was the guy in the bar?”
“He is. He’s talking to Vinnie and the Hotels.”
Nita blinked again. “With seventeen bullets in him? Wait, if Vinnie’s inside talking to the Devil, who’s dead in front of the bar?”
Nita went cold, even colder than before, and straightened in her seat. “Jimmy? I just talked to Jimmy today. He gave me my doughnut. I yelled at him because it made me sick. He can’t be dead. I haven’t apologized for that yet.”
“And now he’s been murdered,” Mort said, “and Jason is going to close the case.”
“What?” Nita stared at Jason. “Why?”
“It’s open and shut,” Jason said, exasperated. “The guy in the SUV shot him and then died in the crash.”
“Well, actually,” Mort began and Jason glared at him, and Nita said, “No.”
She fought through her bourbon fog. “Nobody would kill Jimmy. He’s the nicest bouncer Vinnie’s ever had. This is another wrong thing. Nobody would kill Jimmy.”
“Somebody did,” Jason said. “And we got the shooter. Case closed.”
Nita set her jaw and concentrated on clarity. “Get out of this car so I can think. This car is only for people who want to solve this crime. Like me.”
“And me,” Mort said.
Button sighed and turned off the ignition. “And me.” She looked over the back seat at Mort. “The Devil caught seventeen bullets and lived. What killed Jimmy?”
“The seventeen bullets that went through the Devil and hit Jimmy,” Mort said. “Which really were fired by the guy in the SUV, which is why we need Nita, who is good with the weird. I took a picture of the shooter. He’s green.”
He held out his phone and Nita squinted at the screen. She’d never seen the guy before. “The green make-up was a disguise?”
“Demon,” Mort said.
“No. Stop that. And nobody would shoot Jimmy.” Nita thought about Jimmy’s sweet goofy face. “This doesn’t make sense.”
“We have the Devil in the bar who took seventeen bullets,” Button said, with admirable focus, “which went through him and hit Jimmy. That’s the part that doesn’t make sense to me. Also, what did you mean by another wrong thing?”
“Wrong things have been happening,” Nita said. “Little stuff. Weird minor crime that makes no sense. Strange fights between people who are friends or at least have no reason to fight. People selling businesses they loved. The whole island’s on edge, and I can’t find out why. And now this—”
“The guy is lying about getting shot,” Jason said, disgust in his voice. “No witnesses at all, just his word? Come on.”
“I need his shirt,” Mort said. “If it has his blood on it, then he got shot. If it doesn’t, then he’s the Devil. Or a demon. Although even demons bleed in this dimension–”
“He’s not a demon, demons aren’t real, damn it.” Nita looked at Button. “Give me that coffee.”
Button passed the third cup over, and Nita drained it. It was vile.
“This is not your case,” Jason said. “I’ll file a complaint if you interfere.”
“If you’re not going to help, get out,” Nita snarled.
“Yeah, you’re good at telling people to leave.” Jason got out and slammed the door behind him.
“Much better,” Mort said.
“For the record,” Nita said to Button, “I did not tell him to leave. I left. He stayed where he was.”
“Valuable information,” Button said, sounding as if she didn’t care. “Now about the shooter . . .”
She began to question Mort, and Nita leaned back in her seat and tried to get a grip on the situation.
This is going to be bad. I have to sober up and figure this out and it’s going to be bad. She looked over at Button, who was new in town, and thought, And this kid should not be part of my bad. She straightened. “Detective Button, it’s time for you to go home. Something very wrong is happening on my island, and I have to fix it, starting with going into that bar and talking to Vinnie, which is going to cause trouble with Jason, which is going to cause trouble with the new Lieutenant, which you do not need your first week on the job. You can request another partner in the morning. Nobody will be surprised.” She handed Button her empty cup and opened the car door, bracing herself against the cold.
Nita stopped, one foot out the door, and looked back at Button.
Even in the dim light from the streetlights, there was a lot of steel in that blue gaze, and while the chin was round, the jaw was set.
Button pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose again. “I’m coming with you. Buttons do not walk away from their partners.”
Nita blinked, taken aback. “Oh.” She wasn’t sure what to say next, so she got out of the car, shut the door, and started carefully across the wet cobblestones toward the bar. She heard Button’s and Mort’s doors slam behind her, a one-two punctuation that was kind of comforting.
Jason yelled, “Do not go into that bar.”
“I’m goin’ into that bar,” Nita yelled back and remembered she was still drunk. No yelling. No yelling. Act sober.
Jason glared at her from across the street, furious. “Go to hell, Nita Dodd!”
“That’s my plan,” Nita said, and opened the door.
Fifteen minutes earlier in Hell Bar, Nick Giordano had answered the very few questions a large detective named Witherspoon had asked him and then watched as the detective had asked even fewer of the bar’s owner, Vinnie Smith, which was surprising since Vinnie was clearly guilty about something.
When the detective left the bar, Nick said, “Vinnie, I have questions.”
“I got nothin’ to say.” Vinnie hunched over his drink, his bald head bent in the red glow of the many elderly Christmas lights strung across the speckled mirror and battered shelves behind the bar, his face the color of the faded-to-bloodshot-pink teddy bear with devil horns on the shelf over his head. Vinnie looked shifty, but Nick was pretty sure that was Vinnie’s normal state. The giveaway was that he was also looking miserable.
“I asked Jimmy to look into something for me yesterday, Vinnie,” Nick said, sitting down on an ancient bar stool that was an insurance claim waiting to happen. “I think he told you what he was doing. I think you told somebody else. I think that somebody had him killed.” He fixed Vinnie with the stare that made demons go cold. “Who did you tell, Vinnie?”
Vinnie flinched and looked down the bar to his left to the three morosely tanked senior citizens who were his last customers, raising his voice so they could hear. “Statler, you need another?”
“I’m good,” the thinnest of the drinkers called back, his seamed face wrinkling more as he squinted past his friends, a stocky white-haired man running his finger over his thick, white mustache, and a nervous, elderly woman hunched under an improbably red beehive, pursing her equally red lips as she ignored them all.
The mustache spoke to Nick. “Heard you’re the Devil.”
“No,” Nick said, staring at Vinnie.
“Shut up, Waldorf,” Vinnie said to the mustache. “He ain’t the Devil.”
“He’s a good-looking devil,” Statler said.
“Shut up, Statler,” Vinnie said, “Have some respect. Jimmy just died.”
Waldorf raised his glass and blew out his mustache. “To Jimmy. A damn fine bouncer. Never left a mark on anybody.”
The three of them clinked glasses and drank.
“Thank you, Waldorf,” Vinnie said, looking wobbly again. “That was kind.”
“I skinned my knee once,” the woman said.
“You fell down after he helped you out the door,” Statler said, looking sternly at her. “Don’t you put that on Jimmy.”
“That’s fair,” she said.
Then, as if he couldn’t help it, Vinnie looked back at Nick. “Don’t make me no trouble. I run a nice place here.”
Nick turned to look at the rest of the bar, its walls covered with decades of scuffed and dirty amusement park memorabilia—Have A Hell Of A Good Time at The Devil’s Playground!!!!–and dirtier graffiti over red vinyl booths with the padding erupting out, its sticky floor crowded with splintered black tables and chairs. And then there were the Hotels. The only thing the bar had going for it was that it was dark.
Nick turned back. “Who did you tell, Vinnie?”
Vinnie shook his head. “You don’t put this on me. You got Jimmy killed. All of them bullets.” His face twisted for a moment. “Why ain’t you dead, too?”
“I am dead. I died five hundred years ago. Satan keeps me walking around because I’m useful. Who did you tell?”
“You’re a liar.” Vinnie knocked back the last of his bad booze, spilling a little as two boys in hoodies and jeans came clattering down the back stairs and through the archway into the bar and startled him. Nick saw them for the moment as Vinnie must be seeing them: typical twenty-something college kids, one medium height, dark-haired and Asian, the other stocky, blond, and Nordic.
“We’re done upstairs,” the taller one said to Nick. “No gate.”
“Thank you, Jeoseung.” Nick turned to the stocky blond, but he’d moved down the bar to the three senior barflies.
“Hotels!” he said, smiling at them. “Looking good, Astoria.”
“You go on now,” the woman said, smiling faintly at him.
“You’re lookin’ good, too, Robbie,” Statler said.
“Rabiel,” Nick said.
Rabiel waved to the three and came back to stand with Jeo. “So it’s really nice up there now that it’s all gutted,” he said, proud as a puppy. “Super clean.”
“What?” Vinnie said, looking for a moment more alarmed than grief-stricken. “Wait a minute, I rented you that apartment, I didn’t say you could change things. You get out, all of you!”
“Don’t talk to Robby like that,” Statler said.
“I’m not going nowhere,” Astoria said.
Waldorf blew out his mustache, possibly in protest.
“Tomorrow,” Nick said, ignoring everybody but Jeoseung, “gut everything down here until you find the gate. Somebody just shot Jimmy, so we’re close.”
“We heard,” Rab said. “I liked Jimmy.”
“Everybody liked Jimmy,” Jeo said.
“Tha’s right,” Statler said and Waldorf and Astoria nodded.
“You ain’t gonna do nothing here,” Vinnie said, trying to talk over them all.
“Maybe if you told him what’s going on,” Jeo suggested.
Nick considered it. Generally, he didn’t explain things, but in this case, it might be more efficient.
He turned to Vinnie, dropping his voice so the Hotels couldn’t hear. “I’m on a job from Satan, Vinnie. It involves finding an illegal hellgate which we believe is in your building. That is normal. I sent two agents down, and they both disappeared. That is not normal. I sent down my best agent team a week ago and they couldn’t find the gates or the agents. That is very much not normal, so I came down. Tonight Jimmy was killed. That is an abomination. I need to find that gate and my missing agents and drag whoever is responsible for Jimmy’s death to Hell, and then and only then, we will leave.”
“You’re crazy,” Vinnie said. “You get out of here!”
“Jeosueng and Rabiel are my best agents,” Nick went on. “The smart one who will probably survive this mission is Jeosueng.”
Jeosueng held out his hand. “Pleased to meet you, sir,.” he said, and Vinnie shook it, still stunned.
“And this is Rabiel.”
Rabiel stuck out his hand and shook Vinnie’s with enthusiasm. “Rab. I’m really enjoying taking your place apart, Vinnie. I’m an Earth Studies major and–”
Nick looked at him.
Rab shut up.
“And I’m Satan’s fixer.” Nick smiled at Vinnie, which made him step back. “Who did you tell, Vinnie?”
“Demons ain’t real,” Vinnie said.
“Drop the facades,” Nick said to the boys.
Jeo and Rab looked at each other in surprise and then, turning their backs to the Hotels, they dropped their facades and became green-skinned, black-eyed versions of their former selves.
Vinnie stared at them.
The Hotels continued to drink.
“Demons,” Nick said.
Vinnie turned shocked eyes to Nick. “You’re a demon?”
“No. I’m human.” He nodded to the boys, and they put their facades back up and looked human again.
Vinnie’s eyes dropped to the bullet holes in Nick’s shirt. “Then why ain’t you dead?”
“I am dead, Vinnie. That’s how I got to Hell.”
“And now he runs the place,” Rab said cheerfully. “Or at least, he’s gonna at midnight Hell Time, he’s the Devil’s heir now, but Satan already gave him the power to smite and open hellgates, so he’s the Devil in all but name–”
Nick looked at him.
Rab shut up.
Vinnie deflated. “You’re gonna kill me.”
“Demons can’t kill humans,” Jeo told Vinnie, his voice steady and reassuring. “It’s against our laws.”
“Nick can’t kill you, either,” Rab said helpfully. “Not until midnight Hell time, But we’ll be out of here long before that because I have this great idea.”
“Rab,” Nick said. “I’m threatening Vinnie here.”
Vinnie stepped back again.
Rab took a brown glass bottle from his pocket and put it on the bar, his round face beaming. “See, I think we should start running this bar–”
“No,” Vinnie said.
“For once, I’m with Vinnie,” Nick said.
Rab charged on. “—and when people come in here for a drink, we put some scupper in their glasses.”
Nick straightened. “There’s scupper in that bottle?”
“Yes!” Rab said. “If they drink it and don’t pass out, they’re not demons. If they do, we drag them in the back, question them about the gate and Forcas and Sadiel and Jimmy, you open a gate, we push them through, and Thanatos can take it from there . . .” He looked at Nick, now looming over him and faltered.
“Thanatos?” Vinnie said.
“Gatekeeper to Niflheim,” Rab said, keeping an eye on Nick. “Tall, thin, gray, half-stoned most of the time because of the air in Niflheim, so sometimes you have to repeat things, but nice guy–”
Nick frowned at him.
Rab shut up.
“So your plan, Rabiel, is to dope unsuspecting customers with scupper, and the ones who are demons will drink it and go into an alcoholic coma, which will cause some concern when beings everyone thinks are human start passing out. Especially if one of the demons dies because then equilibrium will overcome resistance and suck the body back into Hell, which will look like it disappeared into thin air.”
Rab swallowed, shrinking a little under Nick’s shadow. “Well, there is that.”
Vinnie spoke out of the corner of his mouth to Jeo. “What’s scupper?”
“Demon liquor,” Jeo whispered. “Very potent. Tastes great though.”
Vinnie nodded. “Think we could sell it here?”
“No point,” Jeo said. “Humans can’t taste it. No effect on them. Like drinking water.”
Nick looked at Jeo, who shut up.
Nick turned back to Rab. “How much scupper did you bring with you?”
“Oh . . .” Rab looked around as if hoping a gate would appear and he could lunge through it. “Five gallons. Maybe twenty. But I’ll pour it down the drain, I promise–”
Nick set his jaw. “Don’t pour it down the drain, Rabiel. We don’t know where it will go. It might do something bad to the wildlife. Or to the ecosystem in the lake, which is already disturbing. Remember Beelzebub and the dinosaurs? We don’t want that again, do we?”
“No. No. No, we do not.” Rab swallowed again, put the bottle on the bar, and nudged it toward Nick with his fingertips. “So there’s this bottle. And . . . uh . . . what do I do with the rest? Sir.”
“Jeo,” Nick said.
“Yes, Nick,” Jeo said, still behind Vinnie.
“Take the twenty gallons of potential disaster from your idiot friend and put it somewhere under lock and key. Do not tell him where. Give me the key.”
“You gotta admit, it was a great idea,” Rab said.
Nick looked at Rab: round-faced, enthusiastic, and completely without boundaries. “Rabiel, you will not have any more great ideas. Ever. In your lifetime.”
“A demon’s lifetime is pretty long,” Rab began, but Jeo said, “You got it, Nick,” grabbed Rab by his hoodie, and yanked him through the archway into the safety of the back room.
“And now, Vinnie.” Nick flipped up the middle section of the bar that was hinged as a pass-through, and walked around to the business side of the scarred counter.
Vinnie took a step back. “Listen, mister, you don’t scare me–”
Keeping his back to the Hotels, Nick flattened his hand, palm up. A hellflame sprang up, bright red, dancing on his palm.
Rab came out of the back room and said, “Sorry, sorry, I left the bottle–” and then stopped.
“That’s just a trick,” Vinnie said, watching the flame. “That’s just–”
Nick threw his hand at the faded devil teddy bear overhead, and the bear whooshed up, burning hotter than hell for a second and then subsiding to nothing but a little pile of ash, everything around it untouched.
“Wow,” Statler said.
“Now that was a precision smite,” Rab said. “Sir.”
Nick turned around and looked at him, the hellfire still burning on his palm.
“Never mind,” Rab said and went back through the archway.
Vinnie jerked his head back to look at Nick, and Nick let the skull beneath his façade show through.
Vinnie went sheet white and took two steps back.
“Who did you tell?” Nick said.
“Mr. Lemon,” Vinnie said fast. “I told Mr. Lemon. He gives me money, and he just wants to know anything I hear. Don’t kill me.”
“I can’t kill you, I’m not the Devil yet.” Nick closed his fist to extinguish the flame as he tried to put “Mr. Lemon” into the jigsaw of miscellaneous clues the last two investigators had left. “I’m new here, Vinnie, who’s Mr. Lemon?”
The street door opened, and Vinnie looked past Nick. “Oh, hell.”
Nick turned to look.
A woman paused inside the door, tall and dark-haired in an over-sized black hoodie.
Statler called out, “Spooky!” and raised his glass, and the mustache guy, Waldorf, said, “Spook! Long time no see!”
“Hotels,” the woman said, her voice low, as she strode toward the bar.
Nick picked up Rab’s bottle of scupper and shoved it into the miscellany of bottles on Vinnie’s back rail. “Who’s she?”
“Island cop.” Vinnie said out of the side of his mouth. “Psychic. Her great-great grandpa was Death.”
“Death is not a person.”
Vinnie shrugged. “Her great-great-grandma thought he was.”
The woman came up to the bar, pale as death, her silky black hair cut straight below her ears, black bangs cut straight above her sharply arched eyebrows, black eyes looking straight past him at Vinnie, her irises as black as her pupils. She had a thin face, a wicked jaw, and a pointed chin that went up as she saw them. And the air was noticeably colder when she got close.
Most troubling, she looked familiar. Where have I seen you before? he thought, and then two more people came through the door, a dark-haired, thin-faced man who looked a lot like her, and a shorter, pretty blonde in glasses who didn’t look anything at all like her.
“Spooky,” Vinnie said, his voice a little too high, and Nick realized the barkeep was more afraid of this cold woman than he’d been of the Devil’s Fixer.
Mr. Lemon could wait. He folded his arms and leaned back against Vinnie’s shelves of bad booze to watch.
Nita had surveyed Vinnie as she reached the bar, his bald head ruddy in the red glow from the Christmas lights that gave him a bloody, evil look. Her grandpa had put the Christmas lights up when he’d owned the bar, but they’d never made him look like a minion of Hell.
Behind Vinnie, in the shadows, a tall man in a suit leaned against the wall in by the archway to the back room, his arms folded. The Early Asshat, she thought, and started with the devil she knew.
“Vinnie,” she said, leaning on the bar.
Vinnie nodded. “Spooky.”
“I’m sorry about Jimmy. I know you thought a lot of him.”
“He was a good guy.” Vinnie shook his head, as if he were trying to shake off grief. “Look, Spook, if I knew who killed him, I’d tell you.”
“But you do know, Vinnie,” the guy in the shadows said, and Nita leaned forward to look closer.
Oh, part of her said, the part that was low and common and responded to a beautiful man: close-cropped dark hair; intense, dark, hooded eyes; sharp cheekbones, and a mouth that made her think about biting into it. He looked in his late twenties, wearing a suit jacket that had to be custom given those shoulders, tall and lean and relaxed against the back rail, his arms folded.
The low, dumb part of her said, Oh, but the evolved, smarter part of her said, Nope.
And then nope nope nope NOPE.
There was something off about him, something dead-eyed and not real.
“Something wrong?” he said, his low voice almost a drawl.
“Have you had a lot of work done?”
“You know, plastic surgery?” She looked him up and down. “All over?”
Button prodded her sharply from behind.
Right, she was pretending to be sober. “I’m sorry, who are you?”
“And you’re the Devil,” Nita said.
“Good answer.” She turned to Vinnie, who took a step back. “Vinnie, I’m sick, and I’m tired, and you know who ordered the hit on Jimmy. Give me your hand.”
Vinnie scowled and then stuck out his hand.
“I’m innocent,” he said.
“You were never innocent.” Nita wrapped her hand around his.
The dislocation hit, the dizziness she got whenever she touched another human being, that feeling that she was in the wrong place, the wrong time, but there wasn’t any nausea, at least nothing more than she was already feeling from the bad doughnut and three tea-and-bourbon toddies, and she didn’t see any blood on Vinnie’s hand. He really was innocent this time.
“But you know who had Jimmy killed.” Nita frowned at him.
“No.” Vinnie tried to take his hand back. “It’s like I told Witherspoon, I don’t know nothing.”
“Witherspoon was the large detective?” the new guy said. “He only asked you one question.”
Nita looked at the new guy, startled. “Really?”
He nodded, not smiling. “Vinnie said he didn’t know anything, and the detective left.”
“Get the shirt,” Mort whispered.
“I don’t know nothing.” Vinnie tried to yank his hand back again, and Nita tightened her grip.
“Yeah, you do.” Nita leaned in. “Come on, Vinnie. Who had Jimmy killed?”
“I will tell her if you don’t,” the new guy said.
Vinnie gave up. “I mighta mentioned to Mr. Lemon that Nick here was asking Jimmy to find out some stuff for him.”
Nita let go of his hand in surprise. “Mr. Lemon’s back on the island?”
“Find out what stuff?” Button said from behind her.
“Could I have your shirt?” Mort said to the new guy.
“I’m Dr. Mort Dodd, the medical examiner. It’s evidence, Mr. Giordano, or I wouldn’t ask.”
“Of course.” The new guy stood up and took off his jacket.
His white shirt was beautifully tailored, or had been before somebody had riddled it with bullets, the bottom half now shredded and hanging in tatters. No bloodstains. He unbuttoned the shirt and took it off and handed it to Mort.
Button said, “Oh.”
Statler said, “Fine-lookin’ man.”
Nita squinted at the half-naked new guy. “You look like an Abercrombie and Fitch ad. Airbrushed. Where are the bullet holes?”
She pointed her finger at him. “You are suspiciously unperforated for a shooting victim. So you are not real.”
“Nita,” Mort said.
“I think he’s real,” Button said.
“Nope,” Nita said, as the new guy reached under the bar and took out one of Vinnie’s overpriced souvenir t-shirts. “There is no there there.”
The guy pulled the black t-shirt on and it stretched tight over his broad chest, making the little red demon dancing over the Hell Bar slogan—“You’ll have a DEVIL of a good time!”–a lot broader, too. “So tell me,” he said to her. “Who’s Mr. Lemon?”
Nita scowled at him. “Just to be clear, New Guy, I’m the cop, you’re the suspect, I ask the questions.”
He gave her that man-look that said, I’m being patient with you. “I was shot seventeen times. How am I a suspect?”
“Because I suspect you are not real,” Nita said as the phone rang.
“Can I talk to you for a minute,” Button said, poking her from behind again.
“No,” Nita said. “There’s something wrong with this guy.”
“Fine,” Button said. “Just stop saying that out loud.”
“I’m going to go log in this shirt,” Mort said to Button. “Don’t let her do anything interesting until I get back.”
The phone rang again and Vinnie answered it as Mort left; then he handed it to the new guy. “It’s for you.”
“For me?” he said, showing surprise, the first emotion she’d seen in him. He took the receiver as Vinnie sidled behind him toward the archway to the back, and said, “Hello? Belia? How–” He listened, and then said, “Wait.” He looked at Nita. “I need to talk to this person. Grill Vinnie.”
“Hey,” Nita said, but he’d already turned his back on her and was moving into the darkness of the archway into the back room, his head bent, speaking into the receiver in a low voice. “Hey, New Guy.”
“His name is Nick,” somebody said, and she turned and squinted at the kid blocking Vinnie from escaping through the archway.
“Vinnie, get your ass back here.” Nita pointed at the kid. “You. Come over here.”
Vinnie sighed and moved back behind the bar as the kid flipped up the center section of the bar and came through toward her, young, stocky, blond, and cheerful.
“Nick will get back to you. He’s very efficient.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Rabiel.”
Nita looked at his hand for a minute and then shook it, bracing herself, but there wasn’t any dizziness. That was new. “You work for Vinnie?”
He shook his head, disavowing all knowledge of Vinnie, which was smart. “No, I work for Nick. Did you see a bottle here anywhere?”
“It’s a bar,” Nita said.
“Right,” the kid said.
Button poked her in the back. “The murder.”
“You stay here,” Nita said to the kid and then looked back at Vinnie. “So you’ve been meeting Mr. Lemon?”
Vinnie shook his head. “No, no, I just e-mail him. He does everything in e-mail now.”
Nita closed her eyes and thought seriously about having one last toddy. Just one more to get her through the rest of the night that was now morning surrounded as she was by tense people, fake people, and idiots. I get Vinnie the idiot to start the day, Button poking holes in my back, Fake Naked New Guy making things complicated, and my mother the insane person at dinner tonight.
And Jimmy’s dead.
“Vinnie, you have no idea who’s sending those e-mails.”
“No, no, it’s Mr. Lemon. He’s the one who sent me the first e-mail and told me to get in touch that way. We been doing that for almost two years now.” Vinnie’s face was blank with innocence.
“Have you ever discussed this with him in person?” Nita said, tired beyond words now.
“Have you talked to him on the phone about it, and recognized his voice?”
“I don’t think I ever heard his voice,” Vinnie said.
“So it could be anybody.” Nita took a deep breath. Yelling at Vinnie for being thick was like yelling at the sky because it had clouds in it. “You think that whoever’s been calling himself Mr. Lemon had Jimmy killed.”
“No,” Vinnie said. “He thinks that.”
He jerked his head toward the archway, and Nita turned back to the new guy, still on the phone.
He really was beautiful in a noir kind of way, that grim, chiseled handsomeness that would rock one of those thirties fedoras on some mean street. He might even have been distracting if he didn’t remind her so much of a mannequin. The guy not only didn’t have flaws, he didn’t have pores. He was talking into the phone, his voice low, but as Nita listened closer, there was an edge there that made her straighten a little.
He might not be real, but his voice was. Something was standing there with the phone in its hand. If that was a hand. That could be Cthulhu for all she knew.
Did Cthulhu have hands?
Her head was pounding now. She needed another toddy if she was going to find out who killed Jimmy, so she walked through the opening of the bar to the business side, passing close to the new guy.
He was really warm and she was always cold, so she hesitated next to him because he felt good. Like a space heater in the form of an action figure.
He raised an eyebrow as he looked down at her, and she looked up into his cold, dead eyes and thought, Nope, and moved down the bar. Vinnie tried to evaporate through the archway once more, and she said, “Get back here, Vinnie, I’m not done with you yet.”
He came part way back, stopping just before the fake guy on the phone. “What are you doing?”
“I want a toddy. I’ll make it. You’ll screw it up.”
She flipped on the white light over the bar, exorcising the hellish red light, and plugged in the electric kettle. Then she got a glass mug down from the shelf and polished it clean with the hem of her hoodie as she watched the new guy on the phone while he watched her.
Who are you? she thought. And why are you here? Because you are part of the wrongness on this island, I know it.
He was a mystery and she had no clue, so she got the dusty jar of honey off the shelf under the bar and went to work on her toddy.