TUESDAY, 3AM ET
Chloe Button was having a trying day, and she was only three hours into it.
She took a deep breath to center herself as she got in her car, turned on the ignition and the defroster, and looked over at the woman getting into the seat next to her.
Detective Dodd was frowning at the windshield as she buckled her seat belt. The frown made her sharp face even scarier. She could at least get those pointed eyebrows plucked. And then there were those eyes, so black you couldn’t tell the irises from the pupil. Sunglasses, maybe? And she could get those bangs off her face so her hair didn’t look so much like a helmet. And maybe some blush and lipstick, color would be a big help in making her look less like the dead. Anything to make her less . . . weird. And cold. Spooky Dodd, the human air conditioner.
This is just great, Chloe thought, abandoning her make-over to turn up the heat. I’m partners with a cold, insane drunk, and she’s still my best career option. Sheliked to think she had an open mind, but she had a legacy to fulfill here. Clearly, lines would have to be drawn.
She pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. “Detective Dodd.”
“He is not real,” Dodd was saying to herself, staring intently through the defrosting windshield. “I do not know what he is, but he is not real.”
Oh, well, that’s just great, definitely hold onto thatthought. “Detective Dodd. We need to talk.”
“Yeah I know, you think he’s gorgeous and I’m a mental alcoholic.” The woman let her head fall back against the seat, her sharp profile illuminated by Hell Bar’s red neon. “But something is very wrong in there and he’s part of it. I understand why you’re upset, and if you want to ask for a new partner, I completely understand–”
“I asked to be your partner,” Chloe broke in. “When I got here yesterday, Captain Mann offered me the chance to be a detective if I partnered with you or Detective Witherspoon, and I picked you. There’s no way I’d get this promotion this young anywhere else, and I’m sick of working with men who pat me on the head, and he was a definite head-patter, so I picked you, but mostly I just want to be great at this job. My family’s history in law enforcement goes back to the seventeenth century. I want to be part of that.”
“The seventeenth century?” Dodd frowned, which made her look even scarier, those spooky eyes narrowed as her black helmet hair swung forward. “Really?”
“Yes, really,” Chloe said, trying to ignore the frown. “Why did you grab Vinnie’s hand when you questioned him? Are you psychic?”
The detective rolled her head again to look at the ceiling. “No. I had seizures when I was a kid, and I’d hallucinate. Now if I touch anybody who’s committed a crime, I subconsciously read the micro-signals and hallucinate blood on their hands. I didn’t see blood when that new guy caught me, which doesn’t mean he doesn’t know something. I wonder what it means that I saw a skeleton. That’s new.” She looked out the window. “Maybe that’s another reading of guilt. Or the booze. The stuff in that brown bottle was amazing.”
Okay, micro signals, that at least was logical. Chloe slumped down in the driver’s seat. She’d been wrestling with a decision ever since her conversation with Captain Mann the day before. Pick a side, she told herself, and considered which side would most likely guarantee a law enforcement career befitting a Button.
Obviously, the captain’s side.
On the other hand, Nita Dodd had a great arrest record. However strange the rest of the Demon Island force thought she was, they were clear on the professional part: she was a good cop. And while she was wrong about the very attractive Nick Giordano not being real, she was not incorrect about there being something very off about the way Detective Witherspoon was handling the shooting.
Buttons had had exemplary careers in law enforcement for three centuries, but not because they played politics. They solved crimes. They arrested lawbreakers. They shot the worst of humanity down like the rats they were. She had a legacy to uphold, and reporting on her crazy but effective partner was not the way to continue the Good Fight.
But there was also no point in burning bridges with the captain.
Be Switzerland, she told herself. All she had to do was stay out of the space between Detective Dodd and the new captain and make sure that the detective did not do anything too bizarre, and she’d come out on top.
But her partner deserved to know. Buttons did not deceive their partners.
“What I don’t understand,” Dodd was saying, “is why tell people he’s the Devil? He’s pretty enough he could just charm people. If he had a personality. I don’t think you can call ‘terrifyingly grim’ a personality. It’s more of a world view—”
Chloe cut in. “You may not be employed much longer if you don’t get a grip.”
Dodd turned to her, pointed eyebrows up in question. She still looked scary as hell, but Chloe was getting used to her.
She took a deep breath. “Captain Mann asked me to take notes on you and report back anything you did that was not . . . standard police procedure.”
“I hope you have a big notebook.”
“I think she wants to get rid of you.”
“I think that’s a fair assumption.”
Chloe frowned at her. “You don’t seem worried.”
“She won’t fire me,” Dodd said. “I annoy her, but I have a good record in the department, and we’re already in upheaval since Captain Witherspoon was forced into retirement after he embezzled the charity fund. He made things as awful as possible on his way out, so she’s inherited a mess, including a department where she doesn’t know who she can trust since Witherspoon still has a lot of friends on the force.”
“Witherspoon,” Chloe said. “That’s the name of the police chief who hired me.” And your ex-boyfriend?
“The police chief is Clive Witherspoon. The old embezzling captain is his brother, Ray Witherspoon. My ex-partner Jason Witherspoon is Clive’s son and Ray’s nephew. You can’t throw a rock in Demon Island government or law enforcement without hitting a Witherspoon, and god knows, I’ve wanted to. The point is, the new captain can’t afford to lose me.”
“She can afford to lose me,” Chloe said. “Policework is all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s what Iwas bornto do. So, please, no more poodle pants at a crime scene.”
Dodd nodded. “That’s fair. No more poodle pants.”
“And no more telling people they aren’t real.”
Dodd straightened. “I’m telling you, that guy is not real. He’s not a skeleton, either, I’m not insane. But he’s not real.”
She’s still drunk. Chloe put the car in gear, deciding to table that argument for a sober moment. “We’ll talk in the morning.” She pulled out and steered around the ME’s van where Mort Dodd was arguing again with Jason Witherspoon, who was possibly as corrupt as his uncle since he was trying to write off this investigation. The argument explained why Mort hadn’t come back to the bar. She waved to him and slowed so that he could see his sister, who waved, too, and then she sped up, anxious to get away before her new partner insulted anybody else.
“Thank you for telling me about the captain,” Dodd said after awhile.
“I don’t want any part of any war between the two of you,” Chloe said as she
drove down into the old residential section in the direction of the beat-up little shotgun house where she’d picked up the detective two hours earlier.
“That’s smart,” Dodd said.
“I just think we have to be honest with each other if we’re going to be partners,” Chloe said.
It was dark once they got away from the business district and not a little ominous. Chloe felt the weight of her gun in her shoulder holster and felt comforted. Demon Island might not be supernatural, but this old part with the rundown houses was creepy after dark.
Of course Spooky Dodd lived in a creepy part of the island.
And she wasn’t talking anymore. Chloe stole at look at her to see if she’d passed out.
Dodd was staring right at her.
Oh, well, that’s not terrifying.
“So why did you decide to come work on Demon Island?” Dodd said.
Oh, now you sober up. “I was invited to come, Captain Witherspoon recruited me right before he was fired. And I needed a change.”
“Why?” Dodd said.
Crap. “I shot somebody. It seemed like a good time to start over someplace . . . else.”
There wasn’t any condemnation in her voice, but Chloe felt guilty enough to explain anyway. “In my defense, he was committing a crime. I would never shoot anyone who wasn’t a criminal.”
“That’s important,” Dodd said.
The silence stretched out as they drove on, and Chloe knew Dodd was doing it deliberately so she’d get nervous and blurt something out.
“It wasn’t the first time I’d shot somebody,” she said finally.
“How many bad guys have you drilled, Detective Button?”
“Three,” Chloe said. “But they were all guilty and they were all ruled as good shootings, and none of them died, in fact, they all escaped from the ER, so they were fully ambulatory, and I’m not under investigation or anything.”
“Uh huh. You seem very young.”
“Not that young.”
“How long have you been on the force?”
“Almost two years,” Chloe said, trying to keep her voice light.
“You shot three people in two years.”
Oh, crap. Crap, crap, crap. “Yes.”
The silence stretched out again, and then Dodd said, “You know, there are no guns allowed on the island.”
“Except for the police.”
“I don’t carry a gun.”
Chloe looked at her in surprise. “You don’t carry?” Are you crazy?
“Button, given my temperament, would you want me armed?”
“No,” Chloe said.
“Well, there you go.”
This makes no sense. Nita Dodd was so paranoid she thought people weren’t real, but she walked around without any form of protection. “You really go out unarmed?”
“I have a baton. It telescopes. My sister Keres bought it for me for Christmas my first year on the job. I like it. It gets me results and it doesn’t kill people. So far.”
“What if somebody else has a gun?”
“There are no guns on this island. There’s a metal detector at the other side of the bridge before the tourists get on the trolleys that carry them across. Most people are grateful. It’s a safe island.” Dodd set her jaw. “And I intend to keep it that way.”
But the metal detector is not hard to circumvent if you’re driving across as a permanent resident. At least Chloe hadn’t had any problem getting her armory across once she’d flashed her badge. “So how did Jimmy get seventeen bullets?”
Dodd looked grim. “I plan to find that out by locating the person who ordered that hit and discussing things with him using my baton. I’m not against violence, I just think it should be up close and personal. It means something that way. That’s my house up there on the right.”
Chloe pulled up in front and parked.
“Detective Button,” Dodd said. “I would very much appreciate it if you didn’t shoot anybody on my island.”
“I don’t planto shoot people,” Chloe said. “It’s more of an instinct . . .” She leaned forward to look out at the treacherous night.
There was a light in the window, and somebody had just moved in front of it.
“You live alone,” Chloe said, every iota of her being focused on that light.
“Yes,” Dodd said.
Chloe pulled her gun from her shoulder holster, calm and steady, the Button Way, and got out of the car.
“Button, put the gun away,” Dodd said, opening her door.
“Stay there,” Chloe snapped.
First the poodle pajamas, then the whole that-guy-isn’t-real thing, and now her partner was unarmed during a home invasion.
Unbelievable,she thought and went toward the house.
Nick evicted the Hotels, locked the front door, and went upstairs with the five-shots-lighter bottle of scupper to the apartment he’d rented from Vinnie.
The mildewed nightmare of a kitchen, the first room inside the door, was almost completely gone except for a battered table and a stool that was worse than the ones downstairs. He looked through the door to the right and saw the bedroom in back was gutted and empty, too, and a glance into the bathroom showed the walls were also down to the brick and the studs, although the sink, toilet and shower head were still there. He went back into the kitchen where, through the wide archway into the empty front room, he could see more bare brick and the large multi-paned bay window on the street, now washed so that the dim light from the streetlamps no longer filtered through decades of grime. It was all bare and spare and clean and quiet, smelling of vinegar and soap and wood smoke from the small fire in the old fireplace.
He liked it. It had been awhile since he’d liked or disliked anything, but this felt right.
He put Rab’s bottle of scupper on the table as Jeo knocked on the open door.
“The rest of Rab’s scupper is in the vault in the storeroom.” He came in and handed Nick an old key. “That’s the only key to it we found.”
Nick pocketed the key. “Thank you.”
Jeo hesitated. “I think Rab’s right. I think we should take over this bar.”
Nick considered him. Taking over the bar was a ridiculous idea, but Jeo was not ridiculous. “Why?”
Jeo took a deep breath. “I want to stay here. On Earth. Permanently. And run this bar as a cover for an embassy. Hell’s embassy on Earth.” He sounded defiant but he also sounded nervous.
Nick shook his head. “Jeo, when I’m made Devil at midnight, I’m naming you my heir–”
“I don’t want it,” Jeo said.
Nick felt the same odd feeling he’d had when Belia had called on a phone, something he vaguely remembered from being alive, a feeling that things that weren’t working out as planned . . .
Surprise. That was it.
He frowned at Jeo again. “You’re telling me that you do not want to be the most powerful being in Hell and on Earth, you’d rather run a dive bar in New Jersey.”
Jeo hesitated and Nick waited.
“You know the diner next door,” Jeo said finally.
“You met the owner yesterday, Sandy. She really liked you.”
“She has a daughter named Daphne,” Jeo said.
“She’s really . . . great.”
Jeo looked at him, impatient. “Don’t you remember anythingabout being alive?”
“Not much,” Nick said. “You’d give up everything for this girl?”
“Yes,” Jeo said.
“She’s more important than ruling in Hell.”
“Hell, yes,” Jeo said.
“Jeo, you’re very young–”
“Nick, I’m two hundred Earth years older than you are.”
Nick leaned back against the archway and folded his arms. “Let’s say you stay here with this girl. She gets older, she dies, you go back to Hell where you end up working for me again, except you’ll have aged along with her on Earth, so when you get back you’ll be too old to be my heir. Eight years will have passed there, eighty years will have passed for you here, but in Hell you’ll look and feel like eight thousand years have passed because of the accelerated aging here. You’re going to give up thousands years of youth in Hell for a few decades with some girl on Earth?”
Jeo took a deep breath. “Yes.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s because you’re dead.” Jeo winced. “Sorry.”
Nick nodded. “What did she say when you explained all this to her?”
Jeo stuck his hands back in his pockets.
“You haven’t told her,” Nick said. “She doesn’t know you’re a demon.”
“I can’t even ask her out,” Jeo said. “What am I supposed to say? ‘I met you a week ago and I’m crazy about you and by the way, I’m a demon?’” He slumped against the archway. “She asked me to the movies yesterday. I had to tell her I couldn’t because my boss won’t let me date. That was impressive.”
“You know the rules,” Nick said.
“I wish you weren’t dead,” Jeo said. “I know there must be a guy still in you somewhere who’d understand all this, I’ve read your bio, but there’s no way I can explain this. This is . . . visceral. And you don’t have a viscera.”
Rab came through the door as Jeo spoke and stopped, shooting a sideways glance at his friend.
Jeo slumped again. “I apologize for my tone, sir.”
“You were frustrated,” Nick said. “This island frustrates me.”
“It does?” Rab sounded interested. “’Cause that’s an emotion. That would be new for you. Are you assimilating? You haven’t been here that long–”
“No,” Nick said, but Rab still looked intrigued, so he took out his pocket knife, opened it, and stabbed himself in the arm. He held up his wrist with the knife sticking out of it. “No pain.” He pulled the knife out. “No blood. I’m dead.”
“Right,” Rab said. “Please don’t do that again. It’s gross.” He opened his laptop on the table, turning it so Nick could see. “You need a better table in here to work on, And some chairs– No? Okay.” He pointed at the screen. “Amanita Angelica Dodd, born thirty-three years ago today on this island. Older sister named Mary Keres. Twin brother Morte Arthur Dodd. The Keres were Greek death spirits. ‘Morte’ with an ‘e’ means death in Latin. Amanita is the scientific name for the death-cap mushroom. ‘Dod’ means ‘death’ in Danish. Mary Keres Dodd runs the Dodd Funeral Home, which has been in business for over a hundred years.”
“Mort Dodd is the medical examiner,” Jeo said, coming to join them.
“And the Demon Island coroner,” Rab said. “And Amanita Dodd is one of two homicide cops on the island.”
“Family legend as self-fulfilling prophecy,” Nick said. “Great-Great-Grandma told everybody she slept with Death.”
“Aw, Vinnie told you that?” Rab said. “I wanted to surprise you.”
Jeo frowned. “Wait. Somebody told Grandma he was Death?”
“Yep,” Rab said. “Somebody conned double-great-grandma for sex.”
“So who is she?” Jeo said. “Nita Dodd, I mean, not Grandma.”
“No,” Nick said. “Whatis she?”
“If Grandpa Death was a lying demon, she’s about one sixteenth Hellish. Which isn’t that significant. It’s just interesting.” Rab was smiling again, his face lit with enthusiasm and curiosity. “The whole island thinks she’s psychic, but she denies it even though she sees blood on the guilty when she touches them, which is why they call her ‘Spooky.’ And she could see through our facades, see that we were green. And that you’re a skeleton. And–”
“Yes,” Nick said. “She’s odd, we understand.”
“Not odd, spooky,” Rab said. “So if she’s only one-sixteenth–”
“Rab, I don’t need her genealogy if we’ve established her as mostly human. Maybe she’s just abnormally susceptible to scupper; that’s when she could see past the facades.”
“She wasn’t out long,” Jeo said.
“Which supports the one-sixteenth demon idea,” Nick said. “Find out about her connection with Jimmy, but be careful. I sent Sadiel and Forcas down here to find the Hellgate and they disappeared. I sent Jimmy to find Sadiel and Forcas and he died. Now you’re investigating Jimmy’s death . . .” He stopped, remembering the detective’s dark eyes, focused on solving the problem of Jimmy’s death. “And Nita Dodd is looking into it, too. Somebody should be watching her.”
“Would that be you, sir?” Rab said, grinning.
“What?” Nick said.
“No emotions,” Jeo said to Rab. “He doesn’t get the whole attraction thing.” Rab darted a glance at Nick, and Jeo added, “Yeah, I told him about Daphne.”
“I understand attraction,” Nick said. “I don’t remember attraction, but I understand it.”
“If you don’t remember it, you can’t understand it,” Jeo said.
Jeo was unhappy, Nick realized. He was a good agent, smart, hardworking, trustworthy. He deserved to be, if not happy, at least not unhappy. “Okay, go to the movies with her, but you have to tell her you’re a demon first.”
“I’ll lose her,” Jeo said, anguish in his voice. “She told me she’d had to talk her mom into letting her go out with me because her mom wants her with a black guy. I almost said, ‘You think she’d take green instead?’” He looked at Nick. “That was a joke. Look I can’t tell her I’m a demon before she gets to know me.”
Nick shrugged. “She can’t know you until you tell her. I don’t understand why you’d give up a future as Devil for a woman you can’t be honest with.”
“That would depend on the woman,” Rab said.
Nick frowned at him. “Don’t tell me you’ve fallen for a woman here, too.”
“Not me,” Rab said. “Women are not my thing. Congratulations on your future as Devil, Jeo.”
“I don’t want it,” Jeo said.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t, either.” Rab looked at Nick. “You know who you should tag as the next Devil? Max.”
“Maxiel?” Nick said. “Mammon’s fixer? No.”
“Max is smart,” Rab said. “And devious. And it would shut up the Demon Firsters.”
“And hand Mammon all that power,” Nick said.
“No, it would hand Mammon’s fixerall that power,” Rab said. “Which would mean Mammon would be subject to Max. Payback.”
Nick looked at Rab, surprised again. “I didn’t know you could think like that. No. I’ll have five thousand Earth years to figure out a successor if Jeo doesn’t change his mind.” He started to say something else and Rab shoved his laptop closer to Nick.
“And now, back to Nita Dodd,” he said.
That was rude, Nick thought, and then realized that Rab was rescuing Jeo. He’s done that before and I missed it. Because without emotion, he couldn’t understand the little things. Like why I’d want to watch Nita Dodd.
He thought about her, those sharp, dark eyes trained on him, the set of that wicked jaw, the focused way she’d pursued him even though she was drunk, the cold, tense, muscular weight of her in his arms, the silky fall of her hair against his skin.
“She’s tough,” Nick said.
“I wouldn’t want to cross her,” Jeo said.
“She seemed nice,” Rab said.
Of course Rab would bond with the odd.
“I’ll do more computer searches on her, ” Rab went on. “And talk to Vinnie.”
“Be careful, he talks to Mr. Lemmon.”
“And go to the historical society,” Rab said.
“No,” Nick said. “I’ll go. I don’t want you two leaving the building. You’re my responsibility. It’s not safe and you have demo work here to do to find the gate.”
“Breakfast,” Rab protested.
“Fine, here and the diner next door.”
“And Mr. Shen’s Chinese for lunch? It’s next door, on the other side. It’s really good. You should try the Eggs Shen.”
“Fine,” Nick said. “You have this bar, the diner, and the Chinese place. That’s it.”
“There’s a place on the next block called The Devil’s Candy that has amazing ice cream–”
Nick looked at Rab and he shut up. “Our main focus is finding the gate and our agents and getting back to Hell by midnight there. That gives us until Saturday midnight here.”
“And fixing up the bar,” Rab said. “I used your credit card on Amazon to order a textbook about running a bar. You paid for overnight shipping.”
“I don’t care about the money, but we are not running a bar.” Nick stopped. He’d raised his voice. For emphasis, not from emotion, which he did not have because he was dead. “You will stay here and search, that’s it.”
Rab nodded. “Okay. But listen, if I got a table and some chairs in here, we could use this place as a conference room.”
“Fine.” At this point, it was easier to give in than to argue. If he hadn’t been dead, he’d have been exhausted. He yawned, and then stopped, surprised.
He hadn’t yawned in five hundred years.
“You want us to put a bed in here?” Rab asked, cautiously.
“The dead don’t sleep,” Nick said.
“You could stretch out and think,” Rab said. “Comfortably. And I could get a couple for Jeo and me, too, because if we can’t leave the building, we can’t go back to Motel Styx so . . .”
Nick looked around the empty front room as Rab babbled on. He remembered beds. What he couldn’t remember was sleep. He’d had to remember how to eat at Sandy’s the previous day so he could eavesdrop on the locals. Earth was so damn complicated.
“Sure, get beds.”
Rab nodded. “There’s an Ikea in Haven. I’ll call in an order and bribe somebody to deliver today. The delivery charges are gonna be more than the beds but–”
Nick waved that off. “I don’t care about the cost, but remember that we’re here to close the gate, find Sadiel and Forcas, and get the man who ordered Jimmy killed.”
“And figure out what Nita Dodd is,” Rab said, unquelled. “And maybe get you a new shirt. That t-shirt is not impressive–”
“We’ll leave now.” Jeo started to pull Rab back through the kitchen.
“Leave the laptop,” Nick said, and Rab came back and put it on the table again before he went out, closing the door behind him.
Nick sat down on the wobbly stool and began to scan through Rab’s research, frowning at the lack of light and the general cussedness of Earth in general. It had been a bad night and he was feeling . . . cranky.
You’re dead, he told himself.
Then he went back to Rab’s laptop and read everything about Nita Dodd.
Nita got out of the car in front of her house, trying to see Button through the moonless night. “Put. The gun. Away,” she whispered.
Button went up the concrete steps to the small yard and down the short walkway, moving soundlessly.
My partner is a ninja, Nita thought, and realized she was much drunker than she’d thought.
She went up the steps and caught up with Button on the porch. “Listen,” she whispered. “We don’t know who’s in there, so don’t shoot him. Or her. It could be my sister. Or my dad. Or some perfectly innocent burglar who deserves to be incarcerated, not shot. Or my mother.” She thought about dinner later that night. “You can shoot my mother.”
Button opened the screen door, which squeaked.
Whoever was moving around inside stopped and the light went off.
Nita nudged Button aside, opened the door and flipped on the light, stepping to the right as she did so she wasn’t framed in the doorway.
Her living room was even more of a mess than usual–drawers upended on the floor, cushions slashed on her thrift store furniture, her bowl of peppermints turned over on the floor, Joyce’s cat bed on its side–and standing in the middle of it all was a guy with a gun. He was green.
“Nothing personal, Nita Dodd,” he said and raised the gun.
Button shot him from the doorway.
“Button!” Nita said.
The green guy looked up from the hole in his shoulder, said, “Button?” in horror, and raised his gun again–
Button put two shots between his eyes, and he fell over backward.
“Oh, well, that’s just great,” Nita said, and sat down hard on the floor.
“You okay?” Button lowered her gun, completely calm.
Nita tried to organize things in her mind.
Dead green guy with gun on floor.
Live blonde with gun in doorway.
And there had been a skeleton who’d held her in its arms and it had felt kinda good.
“I really don’t know. It helps that I’m drunk.” She crawled over to the guy on the floor and looked at the two holes in his forehead. “Definitely dead. And he’s green, so I’m still hallucinating.”
“No,” Button said. “He looks green to me, too.” She frowned. You’re awfully calm. Somebody just tried to shoot you. I’d be . . . angry. Or something.”
“I don’t get angry. I am cool and collected at all times. Also I’m drunk, which tends to take the edge off, too. He looks green to you, too?” She looked at the green dead guy and then back at Button, still calm in the doorway and not green. “Maybe I’m hallucinating you.”
“Why would a guy put on make-up to shoot you?”
“Nobody wants to shoot me.” She sat back and bumped into the cat bed. “Or my cat. Joyce? Joyce?” She scrambled to her feet as Joyce came strolling out of the kitchen, looking like thirty pounds of white fluff-covered muscle.
“Oh, thank god you’re all right,” Nita said, scooping her up to cuddle her.
“That’s a cat?” Button said, her voice strangled.
She seemed to be having a much stronger reaction to the cat than the dead guy, but then the dead guy was her fourth shooting in two years. Joyce was one of a kind.
Button looked at her warily. “She looks like a nightmare with fur. I’ve never seen a cat with fangs before. Or red eyes. Or that size.”
“Those aren’t fangs, she has an overbite. The red eyes are because she’s albino. Forget Joyce, we have a problem here.” Nita frowned down over Joyce’s fluffy white butt at the dead guy. “This is another wrong thing. Nobody has any reason to want me dead. I mean, I can be annoying, I know . . .” She looked over at Button and realized another wrong thing.
Button had shot three people and come here to start over. She just saved my life, Nita thought. This is my responsibility. She put the cat down on the floor. “Give me your gun. Don’t pet Joyce.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Button kept an eye on Joyce as Nita took her gun. “What are you going to do with that?”
Nita fired another bullet into the dead guy.
“What are you doing?”
Nita smiled at Button and Button flinched. “Here’s what happened. You brought me into the house to make sure I was okay because I’m sick. I asked to see your gun, and you gave it to me, and that’s when this guy attacked and I shot him.” She looked down at the dead guy again, counting holes to make sure. “Four times. They’ll test my hand, the residue will be there, and this will be done.”
“Wait a minute,” Button said, coming to stand beside her, “you can’t–” and then somebody pounded up the walk to the porch.
“I shot him,” Nita said to her. “Put it in your notebook.”
Mort burst through the door as Nita and Button stepped in front of the body. “What the hell?” he said, looking frantic. “I pull up outside and hear a gunshot?”
“I shot an intruder,” Nita said, a lot more calmly than she felt, although the alcohol helped.
“Shot?” Mort said, and Nita stepped aside and pointed to the body with Button’s gun.
Mort stared at it for a moment, and then he took a plastic evidence bag from his pocket. “Give me that gun,” he said and Nita dropped it into the bag. “We’re contaminating a crime scene,” he said, and dragged her out onto the front porch, Button following.
“You’re overreacting,” Nita said when they were on the porch. “I shot a guy who was trying to kill me. It’s self defense. Also, it’s coldout here.”
Mort frowned at her. “Two between the eyes.”
“Yes,” Nita said defiantly.
“You’re a good shot,” Mort said to Button.
“I am,” Button said. “She’s not taking the fall for this.”
“Yes, I am,” Nita said. “Mort, I have no shootings on my record at all.”
“And I gather Button does.” Mort looked at Button. “Fine, Nita shot him.” He looked back at Nita as a patrol car pulled up in front. “I see the neighbors know how to dial 911. Why was he trying to kill you?
“I don’t know.” Nita shivered in the cold. It was enough to make her miss the skeleton guy. He was toasty. I’m drunk. I do not miss Skeleton Guy.
“She is not going to take the rap for me,” Button said firmly.
Nita sat down on the porch swing as Frank Wu got out of the patrol car with his gun drawn. “Oh, good,” she called down to him. “Just what we need. More firepower.”
Frank holstered his weapon and came up on the porch. “We got a call on shots fired. What the hell, Nita?”
“There was an intruder,” Nita said. “He attacked me. I’d been looking at Button’s gun, and I fired without thinking.”
“Youfired?” Frank said. “You hate guns.”
“Accident,” Nita said, brightly. Accidentally four times. Gonna need a better story.
“Wait,” Button said, and Mort nudged her so hard she staggered.
Frank ignored them both to concentrate on Nita. “So where’s the guy now?”
“In there on the floor.”
Frank went inside.
“Listen,” Button hissed, “you are not going to take the fall for me.”
“Nobody’s going to take a fall,” Mort said. “Just shut up and let this play out.”
Frank came back out. “There’s nobody in there.”
“What?” Nita went inside.
The body was gone.
She stared stupidly at the floor for another moment.
Yep, he was gone.
She looked up at Button, who’d followed her in and was also staring stupidly at the floor, and Mort, who didn’t look surprised.
“So where’s the guy you shot?” Frank said.
“He must have run away,” Nita said, thinking fast. “Only wounded. Went out the back. Maybe you should look around. He’s armed, though. Better get back-up.”
“He’sarmed?” Frank said.
“Well, I wouldn’t shoot an unarmed man, would I?” Nita said, outraged.
“No.” Frank took a step back. “No. No. Of course not.” He looked at Nita for a long moment, and she thought, He’s not buying it. Then he said, “The weirdest damn things happen to you, Spooky. Let me call this in.”
He retreated back out onto the porch and down the path, and Button went over and closed the door.
“He was dead,” Nita said. “He couldn’t have walked away while we were talking. He was dead.” She thought about it. “Somebody came in and took the body. There’s an accomplice. And I bet I know who sent him.” She shook her head, remembering all that traitorous warmth. “Never trust a good-looking guy.”
“No.” Mort picked up the bowl of peppermints, put them on the table nexxxt to her, and handed her one, abnormally calm. “The guy you shot was a demon. When demons die here, equilibrium sucks them back to Hell where they belong, so their bodies disappear. The body in the SUV is also gone, which is why I was stuck with Witherspoon for so damn long. It just took the SUV guy longer to get sucked back to Hell because it’s so cold outside.” He met Nita’s eyes. “The only mystery here is why this demon wanted you dead.”
“Stop it, Mort.” Nita unwrapped the peppermint as she sank down into the chair by the door. “This is not supernatural.” She thought about it for a minute. “We just have body snatchers.” She nodded at the thought and popped the peppermint into her mouth. No point in getting angry about body snatchers.
Joyce leaped into her lap, purring.
“I’m pretty sure that’s a supernatural cat,” Button said.
Mort showed the gun in the evidence bag to Button. “I’ll see it gets back to you. Might be awhile.”
“I have another,” Button said. “And this one.” She pulled up her pants leg to show an ankle holster.
“And now the possibility of homicidal body snatchers isn’t the thing I’m most worried about,” Nita said, as more feet crossed the porch. “Don’t shoot anybody else, Button.”
More cops hammered on the door and Button answered it, and Nita held Joyce close and looked back at the floor, which was still corpse-less.
Not a demon. Body snatchers. That skeleton in the bar.
Skeletal homicidal body snatchers.
She really had to stop drinking.
“I’m going to throw up now,” she told Mort, put Joyce on the floor, and left him to explain everything to Frank and the others.