After the Discovery Draft and the Truck Draft comes the Paper Edit, a new way of looking at the book. Reading the story on paper really does change it from reading it on the screen, and it becomes much easier to edit.
At half past a March midnight on her thirty-third birthday, Detective Nita Dodd squinted through a frosty car window at the worst dive bar on Demon Island, sipped the coffee that the stranger in the driver’s seat had handed her, and tried to sober up while she considered her situation.
It wasn’t good.
Down the street, Hell Bar glowed red in the darkness thanks to the pitchfork-shaped neon letters in its multi-paned front window, cheapening the elegance of the nineteenth century building. The cop cars flashing blue light over icy cobblestones and old brick didn’t improve it any, nor did the sheet-covered body on the pavement in front.
Also, she hated coffee.
“This is wrong,” she said.
“Pardon?” the woman sitting next to her said.
Nita turned her head to focus 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.
“Are you all right?” Detective Button said. “You look sick . . . and really cold. You’re making me cold.”
“I’m always cold. I have a metabolism problem. And I’m sick because I ate a bad doughnut this afternoon. I thought a hot tea toddy would fix it. Then I thought four would fix it better. And now here we are, you sober and me drunk on my ass.”
“Uh huh. Where are we?”
Right, the kid was new in town. Nita pointed her empty coffee cup toward the bar. “We are down the street from Hell Bar, a once truly 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. Welcome to the Island, by the way.”
“Thank you,” Detective Button said, her voice flat.
“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 thought you should be 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 with his head stuck in the SUV window?”
Button squinted through the rain-streaked windshield. “The one with the jacket that says “Demon Island Medical Examiner”?”
“That’s Dr. Mort Dodd, who texted me that there was something here I needed to see.” Nita sipped more coffee and grimaced.
“Uh huh,” Button said. “Detective Dodd, I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to be here. This isn’t our case.”
Nita squinted at the little blonde in the dim light. She looked hostile. Bad way to meet your new partner, Dodd, she told herself. “I do not usually drink, Detective Button. I promise, you won’t see me like this again.”
“Uh huh,” Button said.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t believe me, either.” Nita put her empty cup back in the cup holder. Time to fight evil. Solve crime. Maybe throw up. “But whether it’s a good idea or not, Mort needs me, so I am here.” She opened the passenger door.
“Wait,” Button said.
Nita leaned back in.
“You’re wearing pajamas.”
Nita frowned at her. “Is that a criticism?”
“No, no,” Button said. “An observation.” She 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 am 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. And now I must go detect.”
“This is a crime scene,” Button said, an edge to her voice.
“Yes,” Nita said. “The two bodies were dead giveaways, assuming there’s one in that SUV.”
“And it didn’t occur to you to change out of your pajamas?” Button looked at her feet. “And your socks?”
Nita looked at her exasperated. “They were warm. I was cozy. And yes, I know I’m drunk, but I still have to talk to Mort.”
Button nodded. “Of course. But not tonight. We should talk about this in the morning and make a plan so I can provide back-up.”
Nita blinked. “You are going to be an excellent partner. I apologize again for drunk-dialing you.”
“Not a problem,” Button said. “I just don’t want you to hurt your career. Or mine.”
“Drunk. At a crime scene. In poodle pajamas. And Bad Ass socks,” Button said, enunciating the words carefully.
“They can’t get rid of me, Button. I have skills. I doubt they’ll blame you for anything that happens next. They’ve had too much practice blaming me.” She reached for the door handle.
“These skills,” Button said. “Is this the psychic thing?”
Oh, great. Nita closed her eyes and leaned forward to rest her head on the dashboard. She was sobering up. Just hell.
“I stopped by the station when I got to the island. Some of the guys took me out for a drink.”
Nita rolled her head to look at Button’s fluffy little cuteness. “Of course they did.”
“They said you’re psychic. That you can tell if somebody is guilty just by shaking his hand.”
“They’re wrong.” Kind of.
“And your brother believes demons are real.”
“That is a thought he’s had lately. 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 . . . tense 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 the 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, determination in her soft little voice.
“Oh,” Nita said, blinking 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. She reached for the door again and then stopped as a large detective came out of the bar and glared down at the body. “Oh, well, hell.”
“Hell?” Button craned her neck to look where Nita was looking.
“See the big guy who looks like he’s about to kick Vinnie’s corpse? That’s Detective Jason Witherspoon. I have to talk to Mort and get out of here before he sees me.” She opened the car door to another blast of cold air.
“Wait,” Button said.
“Again?” Nita said, one foot out the door, and then somebody came to stand next to the car and she looked up. “Hello?”
A patrolman stooped to look inside. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but you’ll have to move–” he began and then he said, “Nita?”
“Hi, Frank. Mort called 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 said, 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 said and winked at her.
When he was gone, Nita closed the car door and looked at Button. “How friendly did you get this afternoon?”
“Not that friendly,” Button said, her voice flat again. “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,” Button said. “You got that black helmet hair and your eyes are really dark and you don’t smile.”
“I smile.” Nita smiled.
Button winced. “Don’t do that. We should leave–”
“No.” Nita reached for the door again just as the back door opened and Mort climbed into the back seat, folding his five-foot-nine-inches like a jackknife, his narrow face cheerful and his blue eyes bright as a lock of dark hair fell into an upside down question mark over the scar on his forehead.
“Happy birthday, honey,” he said to Nita. “Mom called. We’re having dinner with her tonight. Why are you in here instead of out there fighting crime with me?”
“Happy birthday to you, too. I don’t want to have dinner with Mom. I’m in here because I’m wearing poodle pajamas, and Button does not approve. Also I’m sick from a bad doughnut.”
“There is no such thing,” Mort said. “Did you see the streetlight the SUV broke? The Mayor’s going to go ballistic.”
“He’ll get over it.” Nita turned to Button, careful not to smile. “Button, this is my brother Mort. Mort, this is 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 shook his hand awkwardly through the space between the seats. “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. Damn it.
“Excuse me?” Button said.
“It’s a song,” Mort said. “Is she drunk? Sometimes she sings when she drinks.”
“Which isn’t that often,” Nita said, hastily.
“Oh,” Button said. “So about The Devil.”
“We get this crap all the time,” Nita told her, carefully not singing anything. “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 as more cold air rushed in.
“So of course you show up,” he said to Nita.
“Hello, Jason,” Nita said. “I suppose Frank ratted us out. 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–”
“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.
“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.
“Five weeks ago,” Jason said.
“Moving on,” Mort said. “Nita’s here because I called her.”
“This is my crime scene,” Jason said to Mort.
“And you’re screwing it up,” Mort said.
Jason and Mort began to argue, and Nita’s head began to pound as the sobering-up part of the evening got serious. Well, this is misery, she thought, and said, “Hey!” They stopped in mid-sentence. “Mort, if Jason has this solved, why do you need me?”
“Excellent point,” Button said and started the car.
Heat, Nita thought.
“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 guy was in the bar?”
“He is. He’s talking to Vinnie.”
Nita blinked again. “With seventeen bullets in him? No, 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. “Joey? I just talked to Joey today. He gave me my doughnut. He’s the nicest bouncer Vinnie’s ever had.”
“And now he’s dead,” Mort said, “and Jason is going to close the case.”
“What?” Nita stared at Jason. “Why?”
“Because the guy in the SUV shot him and then died in a car crash,” Jason said, exasperated. “It’s open and shut.”
“No.” Nita tried to concentrate through her bourbon fog. “No, it’s not. Nobody would kill Joey. He was a sweetheart. This is wrong. This is another wrong thing. You can’t have this figured out already.”
“I get to decide when this case is closed,” Jason said. “And it’s closed.”
Button frowned. “What do you mean, it’s another wrong thing?”
“There have been some wrong things lately,” Nita said to her. “Odd petty crime, people acting funny, and now this. This is why Mort called me. This is the first big wrong. Nobody would kill Joey.”
“Well, the guy in the SUV just did,” Jason said. “I’m closing the case.”
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. Which is not you. It is, however, 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 Joey?”
“The seventeen bullets that went through the Devil and hit Joey,” Mort said. “Which is why we need Nita. Nita is good with the weird.”
“No,” Jason said and they began to argue again.
Nita’s head pounded while they yelled at each other. If I had another toddy, it would stop doing that.
No. More drink would be bad. She had to be sober. Joey deserved that she be smart and sober.
“Hey!” Nita said, stopping the back seat in mid-sentence again. “Who’s the shooter in the SUV?”
“No ID,” Jason said. “Some off-islander.”
“He’s green,” Mort said to Nita. “Not make-up. Green skin. I took a picture for you.”
He held out his phone and Nita squinted at the screen. She’d never seen the guy before, and he was definitely green. Good make-up job. “Maybe an actor?”
“Demon,” Mort said.
“No.” Nita went on, trying desperately not to be drunk. “Demons are a myth. This is wrong. There’s wrong all over this. Joey getting shot by an off-islander in a drive-by is wrong, that doesn’t happen here.”
“Of course, it happens here,” Jason said, exasperated. “It just did.”
“Not to people like Joey,” Nita said, remembering Joey’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 Joey. That’s the part that doesn’t make sense to me.”
“He’s lying,” 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 it’s a trick. Or he’s a demon.”
“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 said, and Jason got out and slammed the door behind him.
“Much better,” Mort said.
“So what’s the plan?” Button said, and Nita turned to really look at her for the first time.
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.
Do not underestimate Button, Nita told herself. “I’m going into that bar to find out what Vinnie Smith knows. And I will question the guy who is not the Devil but who somehow survived seventeen bullets.”
“And get his shirt,” Mort said.
“But you, Detective Button, will leave. I think something bad is happening on this island, and it’s going to be a mess to clean it up, and you’re new. It’s not fair to drag you into this. You can request another partner in the morning. Nobody will be surprised.” She handed her empty cup to Button and opened the car door, bracing herself against the cold. “Mort will see I get home.”
Nita stopped, one foot out the door. “No?”
Button stuck that round chin out. “Buttons do not walk away from danger. You’re my partner. I’m going with you.”
Nita blinked. “Oh. Uh, thank you.”
“It’s my job, Detective Dodd, no need to thank me.”
“Okay,” Nita said. “Call me Nita.”
She wasn’t sure what to say next, so she got out of the car, slammed the door, and started carefully across the icy-wet cobblestones toward the bar, shivering in the wind as she heard Button’s and Mort’s doors slam behind her, a one-two punctuation that was comforting.
Jason yelled, “Do not go into that bar.”
“I’m goin’ into that bar,” Nita yelled back.
Mort and Button caught up with her at the pitchfork-handled door just as Jason yelled, “Go to hell, Nita Dodd!”
“That’s my plan,” Nita said, and opened the door.
So this is Hell, Nick Giordano had thought twenty minutes earlier, looking around the scruffy dive bar and then at Vinnie, the bar’s scruffy owner. If Satan could have seen the place, he’d have smote it off the face of the Earth for the blasphemy that it was.
“You ain’t the Devil,” Vinnie said. The large Detective Witherspoon had just gone out, having asked very few questions, none of Vinnie, and now the bar owner leaned on his ancient, graffiti-scared wooden bar, his thuggish face slack with grief. “You’re just some con man. I don’t care about that. You can call yourself what you want. But you got Joey killed. All them bullets, why ain’t you dead, too?”
“I am dead.” Nick sat cautiously across from him on an ancient bar stool that was an insurance claim waiting to happen. “I died five hundred years ago. And you’re right, I’m not the Devil. I just work for him. He keeps me walking around because I’m useful.”
“I don’t believe it.” Vinnie knocked back his glass of very bad booze, while Nick studied him.
One of the many benefits to being dead was that you did everything calmly. Vinnie, still among the living, was not calm, his pudgy hands shaking as he poured another drink from a green bottle of tourist liquor labeled “Demon Rum,” his bald head bent in the devilish red glow of the elderly Christmas lights strung across the speckled mirror behind the bar, the room’s only light source.
“You’re hiding something, Vinnie,” Nick said, taking the bottle from him. “I think Joey told you he was looking into something for me and you told somebody else and that person had him shot. Who was that?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Vinnie said, his eyes sliding right.
Nick smiled, and Vinnie stepped back. “Vinnie, I want that name.”
“Listen, Mister,” Vinnie began, his bravado undercut by the quaver in his voice, and then he looked around as two boys in hoodies and jeans came clattering down the stairs in the back room and into the bar, one tall, dark-haired and Asian, the other stocky, blond, and Nordic, typical twenty-something college students.
Vinnie got some of his swagger back. “So you’re gonna have your goons beat me up, is that it? Well, big deal, you don’t know who you’re dealing with.” He put his fists up. “Come on,” he said to the taller one, who looked perplexed. “I seen Jackie Chan movies. I know how you people fight.”
Nick turned to the boys. “Daglas, Rabiel, this is Vinnie. He owns the building, so we’re renting the upstairs from him. He knows something I need to know. It’s going to get bad. Report and leave.”
“Sorry you’re upset, sir,” Rabiel, the chunky one, said to Vinnie. “Have you tried meditation?”
Vinnie put his hands down, confused.
Daglas, the taller one, said, “We’ve cleaned up most of the mess. Looks a lot better up there. No gate, though.”
Vinnie looked up at the ceiling. “Up where?”
“The second and third floors,” Rabiel said, proud as a puppy. “It’s really clean now that we gutted them.”
“What?” Vinnie said, looking for a moment more alarmed than grief-stricken. “Wait a minute, I rented you that apartment for a month, I didn’t say you could change things. You get out, all of you!”
“Does he know who he’s talking to?” Rab said to Nick, his round face concerned.
“No,” Nick said. “He thinks I’m a tourist and demons are a myth. Gut everything down here until you find the gate. And put bulletproof glass in the front window here and upstairs. Somebody just killed Joey, so we’re getting close.”
“We heard,” Rab said. “I liked Joey.”
“Everybody liked Joey,” Dag said.
“You ain’t gonna do nothing here,” Vinnie said, trying to talk over them. “You just get out. You get out or I’ll call the cops.”
Nick looked at him with interest for the first time. “You’d call the police?”
“They’re real serious about crime on this island,” Vinnie said, virtuously. “If I tell them about you, you’ll be in for it, ‘specially when I tell them you got Joey killed.”
“Does he know what’s going on?” Dag said to Nick.
“Maybe if you told him,” Dag suggested, polite as always.
Nick considered it. Generally, he didn’t explain things, but in this case, it might help. He turned back to Vinnie. “Pay attention. I’m on my last job for Satan, and it involves finding an illegal hellgate which previous investigation has indicated is in your bar. That is normal. I sent two agents before me and they both disappeared. That is not normal, so I sent Daglas and Rabiel and then came down the next day myself. Now Joey has been killed. That is an abomination. I need to find that gate and my agents and discover who’s behind Joey’s death and drag him to Hell. If I have to leave this place a smoking ruin to do that, I will. So–”
“It’s in the contract,” Vinnie said.
Nick stopped. “What contract?”
“The contract I signed when I bought the place. It says I can’t change anything for twenty-five years.” Vinnie looked honestly distressed. “I got two years to go. If I change anything, I lose the bar. It’s bad enough you did stuff upstairs, nobody ever goes up there, but you touch anything down here–”
“I see.” Nick turned to look at 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. The ceiling was strung with burned out Christmas lights and the occasional Halloween crepe paper spider, and the sticky floor was crowded with splintered black tables and chairs. The only thing it had going for it was that it was dark.
“So,” Nick said, “if I did this, it would be bad.”
“Did what?” Vinnie said.
Nick waved his palm toward middle of the room, and held it there until a table there began to glow and smoke. The heat spread to the chairs around it, and then to the other chairs and the tables they surrounded, all of it turning cherry red, and then suddenly it all went up in flame, roaring as the fire consumed the wood in an instant inferno.
Then just as suddenly, it snuffed out, leaving twelve perfectly shaped ash tables and forty-eight perfect ash chairs.
“Now that,” Dag said, “is a precision smite.”
“Suck up,” Rab said to him.
Nick looked at Rab.
“Your precision smite is astonishing, sir,” Rab said.
Vinnie shook his head as if to clear it and said, “No!” and it all collapsed into ash heaps, everything else in bar untouched.
“Daglas and Rabiel are demons,” Nick went on. “The smart one who will probably survive this mission is Daglas.”
Dag held out his hand. “Pleased to meet you, sir,” he said, and Vinnie shook it, still stunned.
“And this is Rabiel.”
Rab stuck out his hand and shook Vinnie’s with enthusiasm. “I’m really enjoying taking your place apart, Vinnie. I’m an Earth Studies major and–”
Nick looked at him.
Rab shut up.
“And as I said before, I’m Nicolas Giordano, Satan’s fixer,” Nick said to Vinnie. “No job too great, no smite too small. Tell me who you told about Joey or the smite will get bigger.”
“Demons ain’t real,” Vinnie said.
Nick nodded at the boys.
Daglas and Rabiel looked at each other and then back at Vinnie, and then they dropped their facades and became green-skinned, black-eyed versions of their former selves.
Vinnie stared at them.
“Demons,” Nick said.
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 ain’t you dead?”
Another good thing about being dead: endless patience.
“I am dead, Vinnie. That’s how I got to Hell in the first place.”
“And now he runs the place,” Rab said cheerfully. “Or at least, he’s gonna at midnight, he’s the Devil Elect now. That’s midnight Hell Time, not Earth Time. But–”
Nick looked at him.
Rab shut up.
Vinnie looked from green Daglas and green Rabiel to dead Nick, and then he deflated. “You’re gonna kill me.”
“No,” Nick said.
“Demons can’t harm humans,” Dag told him, his voice steady and reassuring. “It’s against our laws. You’re safe from Rab and me. Nick, however . . .”
“He can’t kill you, either,” Rab said helpfully. “Not until midnight Hell time.”
Nick smiled at Vinnie. “We need to take your bar apart to find the gate. If necessary, I will take you apart to find Joey’s killer.”
Vinnie frowned at him. “But you can’t kill me . . .”
“I have a vast array of things I can do to you that will leave you breathing,” Nick said. “Satan gives me a lot of leeway.”
“Nick’s like a son to Satan,” Rab said, still helpful.
Vinnie took a deep breath. “I told you, I change this bar, I lose it.”
“Then you’re going to lose this bar,” Nick said.
“Well, wait,” Rab said.
Nick looked at him, but Rab was too caught up in his own enthusiasm to notice.
“I don’t think that’s legal,” Rab told Vinnie. “Earth legal, I mean. I think if you fight that contract, you’ll win.” He leaned over the bar to make his point. “My last earth law survey class was awhile ago, but I’m pretty sure that’s an invalid clause . . .”
He went on, but Nick was distracted: Rab had a brown bottle jammed in his jacket pocket.
That was odd.
And Rab and the odd in close proximity was never good.
“Rabiel, what’s in the bottle?”
Rab looked around as if he weren’t quite sure and then felt his pocket. “Oh, yeah. I put it in there to remember to tell you.” He pulled the bottle out. “I had this great idea.”
Nick looked at Dag.
“He did not tell me about it,” Dag said, taking a step back to disavow all knowledge.
“Yeah, I kept this one to myself because some people have no imagination,” Rab said, rolling his eyes at Dag.
“That would be me,” Nick said. “Can this wait? I’m threatening Vinnie here.”
“Oh, now, look,” Vinnie began.
“No, you’re gonna love this.” Rab put the brown glass bottle on top of the graffiti-gouged wood bar, his round face beaming. “See, the amusement park here opens to tourists on May first.”
“Rab, is this going to help me find the gate and Joey’s killer?” Nick said.
“Yes. So on April 30, they close the bridge and shut down the airport so it’s only island people, and they throw this big party, and hundreds of people come, and they have free punch and hot dogs.”
“That’s true,” Vinnie began.
Nick looked at him.
Vinnie shut up.
Nick looked back at his personal loose cannon. “And your plan has something to do with hundreds of innocent humans in one place. What could possibly go wrong?”
“Nothing,” Rab said. “That’s why it’s genius. See, we spike the punch, and since humans aren’t affected by scupper, it’ll only hit the demons, and that way we can find whoever on this island opened the gate. I brought enough to bring the punch up to about twenty proof, so that’ll knock them on their cans, and then we just–”
Nick straightened. “There’s scupper in that bottle? You brought scupper to Earth?”
Dag took two steps back and then sideways behind the bar and Vinnie.
“It’s part of my plan,” Rab said, less enthused now. “That’s how we’ll know who’s a demon–”
“Because the demons will drink it and go into an alcoholic coma at the biggest event the island has?” Nick loomed over him. “Which might cause some concern among the humans when people they think are human start passing out around them. Especially if one of the demons dies because then equilibrium will overcome resistance and the body will get sucked back into Hell, which will look like it disappeared into thin air.”
Rab swallowed, shrinking a little in Nick’s shadow. “Well, there is that.”
Vinnie turned his head and spoke out of the corner of his mouth to Dag. “What’s scupper?”
“Liquor from Hell,” Dag whispered. “Knocks demons cold. Tastes great though.”
Vinnie nodded. “Think we could sell it here?”
“No point,” Dag said,. “Humans can’t taste it, has no effect on them.”
Nick swung around and glared at Dag, who shut up and then held up his hand, asking for permission to speak.
“What?” Nick said.
“Rab’s plan can still work, we just need to scale it back.”
“Yeah,” Rab said, eager for any lifeline.
“I think we should take over operating this bar,” Dag said.
“No,” Vinnie said.
“For once, I’m with Vinnie,” Nick said.
“When people come in here for a drink, we put some scupper in their glasses. One at a time. A controlled experiment. If they don’t pass out, they’re not demons. If they do, we drag them in the back, question them about Forcas and Sadiel and Joey, you open a gate, we push them through, and Thanatos can take it from there.”
“Thanatos?” Vinnie said.
“Gatekeeper to Niflheim,” Rab said. “Really nice guy. Tall, thin, gray, kinda half-stoned most of the time because of the air in Niflheim, so sometimes you have to repeat things, but–”
Nick looked at him.
Rab shut up.
“If there are demons hiding on this island,” Dag said, “they know where the gate is because they came through it. They probably know where Forcas and Sadiel are. Maybe even about Joey. We just need to find them.”
“By giving them a demon mickey. No.” 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. “You know. Some.”
“Uh . . . five gallons. Maybe twenty. I got it in the storeroom here. But I’ll pour it down the drain, I promise–”
Nick thought about kicking Rab’s ass back to Hell. Instead he said, quietly, “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. It might destroy the entire planet. Remember Beelzebub and the dinosaurs? We don’t want that again, do we?”
“No. No. No, we do not.” Rab swallowed again, put his 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.”
“Daglas,” Nick said.
“Yes, Nick,” Dag 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.”
“And lose the green,” Nick said, and Dag and Rab morphed back into normal looking college guys.
“You gotta admit, it was a great idea,” Rab said.
Nick looked at Rab: round-faced, enthusiastic, and completely without boundaries. Someday, he would make a great agent. If he lived that long.
“Rabiel, you will not have any more great ideas. Ever. In your lifetime.”
“A demon’s lifetime is pretty long,” Rab began, but Dag 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 for you,” Nick said, turning back to Vinnie. “Who did you tell–” He stopped as he saw Rab’s bottle of scupper on the bar. “I’m going to kill him.”
“Who?” Vinnie said in alarm.
“Rabiel, who left Chekhov’s bottle on the bar.”
Nick picked up the bottle and walked around to the business side of the bar, thinking seriously about sending Rab back to Hell.
Vinnie took two steps back as Nick joined him behind the bar. “Who’s Check-off? And what makes you think you can kill him?”
“Well, at midnight tonight in Hell, I’ll be the Devil and then I can do pretty much as I please.” Nick surveyed the abysmal variety of liquor at the back of Vinnie’s bar. Even the bottles were dingy. He shoved some of those in the back to one side to make room and stashed Rab’s brown scupper bottle there.
“Well, if you can’t kill me–” Vinnie began.
Nick turned and let the skull beneath his façade show through, and Vinnie grew pale and took another step back.
“I am capable of many things,” Nick said.
“Mr. Lemon,” Vinnie said.
“Mr. Lemon. He’s like a silent partner. He gives me the money, and he just wants to know anything I hear. Don’t kill me.”
“I couldn’t yet anyway,” Nick said, trying to put “Mr. Lemon” into the jigsaw of miscellaneous clues the last two investigators had left. “I’m new here, Vinnie, who the hell is Mr. Lemon?”
The street door opened, and Vinnie looked past Nick and said, “Oh, fuck.”
“Now what?” Nick said, turning to look over the bar.
“Spooky Dodd,” Vinnie said, his voice full of dread.
Three people paused just inside the door: a tall, dark-haired woman in an over-sized black hoodie, a dark-haired man who looked a bit like her, and a shorter, pretty blonde in glasses who didn’t look anything at all like her.
“Spooky Dodd?” Nick said.
“Island cop.” Vinnie said out of the side of his mouth. “Psychic. She knows if you did something bad. ‘Cause her great-great grandpa was Death.”
“Death,” Nick said, “is not a person.”
Vinnie shrugged. “Her great-great-grandma thought he was.”
Nick looked closer as they approached, Spooky Dodd in front.
She was pale as death, her silky black hair cut straight below her ears, black bangs cut straight across her sharply arched eyebrows, black eyes looking straight past him at Vinnie, the irises as black as her pupils. She had a thin face, a wicked jaw, and a pointed chin that went up as she reached the bar. And the air was noticeably colder when she got close.
She seemed familiar, even though he’d never seen her before. And whatever she reminded him of, it was dangerous.
“Hello, Spooky,” Vinnie said, his voice a little too high, and Nick realized he was more afraid of this cold woman than he’d been of the Devil’s Fixer who’d set his bar on fire.
Mr. Lemon could wait another couple of minutes. Nick leaned back against Vinnie’s shelf of bad booze and folded his arms to watch.