Nick evicted the Hotels, locked the front door, and went upstairs with the much-lighter bottle of scupper to flip on the light inside 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 shabby table and a stool that was worse than the ones downstairs. Through the wide archway to his left 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 in the front room.
He liked it. It had been awhile since he’d liked or disliked anything, but this felt good.
He put Rab’s bottle of scupper on the table as Jeo knocked on the open door.
“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. “Nick, I think Rab’s right. I think we should take over this bar.”
Nick frowned at him. “Why? And don’t tell me it’s to find demons on the island. That would be a waste of you and Rab.”
Jeo took a deep breath. “Okay. I want to stay here. On Earth. I want to stay on Earth. Permanently.” He sounded defiant but he also sounded afraid.
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 called, 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. “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 anything about being alive?”
“Not much,” Nick said. “You’d give up everything for this girl?”
“Yes,” Jeo said, emphatically.
“She’s more important than ruling in Hell.”
“Hell, yes,” Jeo said.
“Jeo, you’re very young–”
“Nick, I’m two hundred years older than you.”
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. You’re going to give up thousands years of youth in Hell for a few decades with some girl on Earth?”
“Yes,” Jeo said.
“I don’t understand,” Nick said.
“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. “Everything okay?”
Jeo slumped again. “I apologize for my tone, sir.”
“You were frustrated,” Nick said. “This island frustrates me.”
“Really,” Rab said, interested. “’Cause that’s an emotion. That would be new for you.”
Nick looked at him, and Rab shut up and opened his laptop on the breakfast bar, turning it so Nick could see.
“You need a solid table in here to work on,” Rab said. “And some chairs– No? Okay.” He pointed at the screen. “The internet comes through again. 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, frowning. “Nita Dodd, I mean, not Grandma.”
“No,” Nick said. “What is 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 out 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 pointed out.
“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, confused.
“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.
He was unhappy, Nick realized. Jeo was a good worker, 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 cut the ground out from under Green Power.”
“And hand Mammon all that power,” Nick said.
“No, it would hand Mammon’s fixer all that power,” Rab said. “Which would mean Mammon would be subject to Max. Perfect payback.”
Nick looked at Rab, surprised again. “I didn’t know you could think like that. But no. I’ll have two thousand 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 just 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 dogged way she’d pursued him even though she was drunk, the cold, tense, muscular weight of her in his arms.
“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 said. “And talk to Vinnie.”
“Be careful, he talks to Mr. Lemon.”
“And go to the historical society,” Rab said.
“No,” Nick said. “I’ll go. I’ve changed my mind about you two investigating, I don’t want you leaving the building. It’s not safe.”
“Breakfast,” Rab protested.
“Fine, here and the diner next door.”
“And Mr. Shen’s Chinese? 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 an ice cream place called Snowball’s Chance down the block–”
Nick glared at him and he shut up. “Our main focus is solving our problems and getting back to Hell by midnight there. That gives us until Friday midnight here.”
“And fixing up the bar,” Rab said. “I used your credit card on Amazon to order a used 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 this place, 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. Earth was so damn complicated.
“Sure, get beds.”
Rab nodded. “There’s an Ikea in Haven and I can order online. 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 had Jimmy killed.”
“And figure out what Nita Dodd is,” Rab said, unquelled. “And maybe get you a new shirt. That t-shirt is ugly–”
“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 bar 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 on the shoddy table, frowning at the lack of light and the general cussedness of Earth in general. It had been a bad night and he was feeling odd. Almost . . . tired.
You’re dead, he told himself.
Then he went back to Rab’s laptop and read all he could find 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 waved her off and 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, Joyce’s cat bed turned over–and standing in the middle of it all was a green guy.
“Nothing personal, Nita Dodd,” he said and raised a 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 then 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 said, completely calm.
“Well . . . .” 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.”
“Really?” Nita 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 got 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 in two years. Joyce was one of a kind.
“She looks like a nightmare with fur,” Button said. “I’ve never seen a cat with fangs before. Or red eyes. Or that size.”
“Those aren’t fangs, she has an overbite.” Nita frowned down over Joyce’s fluffy 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,” she said, and then added. “Don’t try to pet Joyce.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Button said, keeping 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. “Your neighbor reported shots fired. It came over the radio–”
“I shot an intruder,” Nita said, a lot more calmly that she felt, although the alcohol helped. “A green one.”
“Shot?” Mort said, and Nita stepped aside and pointed to the body.
Mort stared at it for a moment, and then he said, “We’re contaminating a crime scene,” 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.”
“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. “Why was somebody 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, she thought. 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 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. “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.” She showed him the gun and he took a step back.
“You fired?” 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.” Nita gestured with the gun and he went inside.
“Listen,” Button hissed, but Mort said, “No,” and took a plastic evidence bag from his pocket. “Give me that gun,” he said and Nita dropped it into the bag.
Frank came back out.
“There’s nobody in there,” he said.
“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 that surprised.
“Where’s the guy you shot?” Frank said.
“He ran,” Nita said. “Out the back. Maybe you should look around. He’s armed, though. Better get back-up.”
“He’s armed?” 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. Uh, 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.”
“The guy in the bar said he was dead,” Button said. “And he was walking. And talking.”
“Somebody came in and took the body,” Nita said. “There’s an accomplice. And I bet I know who sent him. That guy in the bar. Nick.” She shook her head, remembering all that traitorous warmth. “Never trust a good-looking guy no matter how hot he is.”
“No,” Mort said, abnormally calm. “The guy you shot was a demon. When demons die here, they get sucked back to Hell, 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 sank down into the chair by the door. “This is not supernatural.” She thought about it for a minute. “We just have 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.”
Somebody hammered on the door and Button answered it, and Nita looked back at the floor, which was corpseless.
Not a demon. Body snatchers. Probably 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, and left him to explain everything to Frank.
Nita hit Sandy’s diner at 7:30 after four hours of sleep, most of that uneasy because there had been a skeleton and then somebody had tried to kill her. Food first, she thought as she walked into the diner, its egg-yolk-yellow walls and shiny black and white tile feeling like home. And really, life was pretty good. She was wearing her new birthday black cat over-the-knee socks from Keres—“Cat heads on the knees!” Keres had said when she’d handed her the package the day before. “Sadie at Demonista is a genius!”—she hadn’t been shot by a guy dressed up like a demon the night before, and she was about to have excellent eggs.
She waved to the people she knew, which was almost everybody, and took her favorite seat next to the radiator by the window. Sandy called, “Coming right up, honey, we put it on as soon as you called.” Nita said, “Thank you!” and closed her eyes and sank into the heat, which grew even greater when somebody pulled out the chair across from hers.
Him, she thought and opened her eyes.
He was still absurdly good-looking in the daylight, all chiseled jaw and cheekbones, so she said, “New Guy,” and let him sit down with his plate and large glass of orange juice. Did you send somebody to kill me last night? she thought, but looking at him now, it seemed improbable. He looked like the kind of guy who’d do it himself.
“My name is Nick,” he said. “You look ill.”
Thanks, Nick. “I had a bad night.”
He picked up his fork. “I know, I was there.”
“It got worse.”
“Worse?” He frowned and leaned forward a little, and Nita felt warmer. “What happened?”
“Somebody tried to shoot me,” Nita said, watching for his reaction.
His face hardened. “Who?”
“No idea,” Nita said, trying to sound breezy.
“Demon?” Nick said.
“Demons are a myth,” Nita said.
The bell on the door behind her rang and Jeo and Rab walked in. Rab said hi, and Nita waved, distracted by the tray that Sandy’s daughter Daphne was bringing. Hot food.
Daphne looked darling in a Rosie the Riveter red-dotted scarf wound round her head like a band, her black curly hair fanning out around it, and Jeo slowed and smiled at her and she slowed and smiled, too, and Nita thought, Yeah, yeah, young love, bring me eggs. Rab grabbed a table in the back, whistling at Jeo as he jerked his head toward Nick, and Jeo walked back to him as Daphne came to the table and unloaded thick, white china plates onto the yellow Formica-topped table.
Daphne beamed at Nita, looking like Sandy must have twenty years before, and said, “Eggs over easy. Bacon. Home fries. Whole-wheat toast. French toast. Syrup. Orange juice. Hot tea. Anything else, honey?”
“This looks wonderful, thank you,” Nita said, and then was distracted by Nick staring at her food.
Daphne looked at Nick with loathing and left.
“You’re going to eat all of that?” Nick said.
“What did you do to Daphne?” Nita said, picking up a piece of toast.
“Jeo can’t date. She blames me.”
“Why can’t he—never mind, I don’t care.” Nita stabbed her toast point into the middle of one of her eggs, sopping up the hot, golden yolk that burst out, thick and rich over the shiny, peppery white. When she bit into it, it was marvelously warm and savory and buttery and crunchy, and she closed her eyes at the sheer pleasure of all of it.
When she opened them, Nick was still staring at her plate.
“So you sent Jimmy out to get information for you,” she said. “What was it?”
“What kind of eggs are those?”
“What? These? Eggs over easy.” She looked at the pale slab of protein on his plate as she chewed. “What is that?”
“Egg white omelet.” Nick looked down at his plate with no enthusiasm. “I was told it’s healthy.”
“True,” Nita said. “That’s no reason to eat it. Don’t go giving a moral dimension to breakfast, you’ll ruin it. What did you send Jimmy after?” She sopped up more egg yolk.
He watched. “I sent two agents to this island to find something. They both disappeared. I asked Jimmy to see what he could find out. Tell me about the shooting.”
She stopped sopping egg yolk. “Two people disappeared here? Did you file missing persons reports?”
“No, we investigated. Sadiel, the first one, was staying at a bed and breakfast outside of town, the Inn Fernal, and Forcas was staying at Motel Styx.”
Nita nodded over eggs. “There’s nothing hinky about the Inn. It’s a family business, been on the island for years. Phronie Fernal, the woman who runs it now, is very nice, came back to the island after she got her medical degree, runs a free clinic out of the back of the Inn. She’s the one sitting over there at the counter next to Jeo’s table if you want to talk to her, pretty black woman in the blue dress. But Motel Styx . . .” Nita stopped to dip her toast again. “Motel Styx is hinky. The Hotels used to run it, but about two years ago they sold it to some off-islander and they’ve been miserable ever since, hence the drinking. It was always kind of a dump, but it was a friendly dump. Now it looks like Norman Bates runs it. Did you file reports so the police could look for these people?” She followed his eyes to her plate. “Why do you keep staring at my eggs?”
“I’ve never seen eggs like that before.”
She frowned at him, incredulous. “Where do you live, on the moon?”
“I used to live in Italy,” he said.
“They have eggs over easy in Italy.”
“And now I live in Hell.”
“Don’t we all,” Nita said. “Stop staring at my breakfast.”
He leaned back in his chair and waved to Sandy, and she came over, beaming at them both.
“Oh, this is nice, you two knowing each other,” she said. “What can I get you?”
“Those eggs, please,” he said, pointing at Nita’s plate.
“Oh, thank god,” Sandy said. “It really hurt me giving you those egg white omelets.”
When she was gone, Nita said, “So, these missing people.”
“Sadiel reported back once and went missing. Forcas came down and tried to find her and the gate. He reported three times and then went missing. I tried to talk to the Inn Fernal woman—”
“–about Sadiel, but she shut the door because I’m a stranger, and the Motel Styx guy just kept saying he didn’t remember any Forcas, and nobody else would talk to me at all, so I sent Jimmy out to ask questions.”
Nita nodded. “We’re careful on the island. We’ve had some idiot journalists make up stuff about demons, so we don’t talk to strangers much.” She flipped some egg onto her whole-wheat toast and made a sandwich. “What did he find out?”
“I don’t know, we got shot.”
Nita nodded as she chewed and the door behind her opened again. “I can help you find your agents,” she said when she’d swallowed. She picked up a piece of bacon and waved it at him. “You know. Because I’m the police.”
“Thank you, but no, we’ll find them. What’s that you’re eating?”
“Bacon,” Nita said. “So we have two missing people and a murder, and it’s all tied up with you.”
“Yes, but I was shot, too,” he said. “That smells good.”
“It tastes divine, but it’s bad because pigs are very intelligent and I shouldn’t be eating them.” Nita looked at the strip in her hand. “I’m working on giving it up.” She took a bite and realized he wasn’t listening to her any more.
“Don’t look around,” he said, and she resisted the urge to immediately look around. “There’s a man in a suit at the register, staring at you. Middle-aged, balding, round face, round glasses–”
“Very sweet looking, probably heading this way now,” Nita finished for him. “That would be the Mayor, here for breakfast, as usual.” She dropped the bacon, wiped her fingers on her napkin, and pointed a finger at him. “Do not say anything about the supernatural. Or about the guy who tried to shoot me last night. Especially about the guy who tried to shoot me last night.”
She stood up and turned.
“Good morning, baby,” the Mayor said as he reached the table and opened his arms.
“Hi, Daddy,” Nita said and hugged him. “This is the New Guy in town. New Guy, this is the Mayor.”
“Nick Giordano,” Nick said, standing to offer his hand.
The Mayor let go of her long enough to shake it. “Hello, Nick. How do you know my daughter?”
“Back up, Daddy.” Nita moved between him and Nick. “We’re just having breakfast. Nothing to see here. Move it along.”
He patted her on the shoulder. “Just looking out for my little girl.” He leaned around her to survey Nick. “So, Nick, staying on the island long?”
“And now it’s time for you to have breakfast.” Nita turned him gently back toward the rest of the diner. “Before I arrest you for harassing tourists.”
“So you’re a tourist, Nick,” the Mayor said, trying to turn back.
“Daddy,” Nita said and he kissed her cheek, said, “Happy Birthday, baby,” looked Nick up and down one more time, and then moved on to greet everybody else in the diner, one by one.
Nita sat down.
“Your father has very blue eyes,” Nick said.
Nita pulled her French toast over. “I’d fix the two of you up, but I don’t think he likes you.” She poured syrup over her toast, thick and sweet.
“There’s a lot of that this morning,” Nick said. “What is that?”
“Is this the first time you’ve ever had breakfast?” Nita said. “Because French toast is not esoteric. Is this part of your con that you’re not human?”
“I’m human,” Nick said. “Usually I don’t eat when I’m on Earth, so I have to learn how to do it again. Explain French toast.”
He seemed genuinely curious, so she said, “It’s bread cooked in egg with butter and topped with syrup. Here.” She flipped a piece over onto his white omelet and shoved the syrup over to him. “Sandy puts the butter on for me so all it needs is syrup.”
He put a little syrup on the slice.
“You really have to slosh it on,” she said.
He held up his fork to silence her and then cut into the bread. After he chewed and swallowed, he picked up the syrup and sloshed it on.
“There you go.” Nita went back to her own breakfast. “So you sent two people to the island to find something for you and they disappeared. What were they looking for?”
“A hellgate,” Nick said.
“You’re not helping,” Nita said.
Daphne brought Nick’s eggs over, scowling, slapped the plate down on the table, and left.
Nick pulled the plate over. “I’m trying to help, but you keep denying reality. Do you have extra toast to dip in this?”
Nita shoved her toast plate across to him and signaled to Daphne, mouthing the word toast.
Daphne rolled her eyes.
Nita went back to her interrogation. “I promise not to arrest you for whatever weird con you’re pulling here, but I need to find out who ordered Jimmy killed.”
“I want that, too.” He bit into his egg-drenched toast and nodded at her. “This is good. I don’t know who ordered the hit.” He stabbed his egg again. “Vinnie is bankrolled by Mr. Lemon and tells him everything, so that’s who I’m going to track down today.”
“Good luck. Mr. Lemon is not on the island, and there’s no guarantee that the guy e-mailing with Vinnie is him.” Nita sat back. “You have to give up this hellgate con. I can’t help you if you don’t tell me the truth.”
“I can’t help you if you won’t accept the truth,” Nick said. “Can I try the bacon?”
“Oh, for the love of . . .” Nita handed him a piece of her bacon and flipped another piece of French toast on his plate. Then she signaled Sandy.
“How’re we doin’?” Sandy said when she arrived with Nick’s whole wheat toast.
“More French toast and bacon,” Nita said. “He’s mooching.”
“Oh, good, we’ll have him eating like a real man in no time,” Sandy said, and Nick looked up from his plate, startled.
“If you’re dead, how come you’re eating?” Nita said when she was gone.
“It takes energy to maintain this facade, and burning food is a way to maintain it.” Nick bit into the bacon and chewed. “This is good. Maybe it was a very old pig and it was time for him to die and now he’s happily in the Elysian Fields.”
“I’m sure that’s it.” Nita picked up the last of her bacon. “Look, I have to get to work. If you have anything else to tell me, now’s the time. Like who you really are.”
“I’m Nick Giordano, I died five hundred years ago, I’m the Devil’s fixer, and I’m here looking for a hellgate, my two missing agents, and the guy who hired Jimmy’s killer.” He stopped and frowned. “And whoever sent the shooter to kill you last night. That’s it, that’s everything.”
“Died five hundred years ago,” Nita said. “You sound pretty modern for a five-hundred-year-old dead guy. How come you don’t say ‘forsooth’?”
“I never said ‘forsooth’.”
“I was Italian.”
The door behind her opened again and Mort came to the table and pulled out a chair.
“You okay?” he said to her as he sat down.
“Why does everybody assume I’m bad for you?” Nick said to Nita.
“They’re keen judges of character. Eat your toast.” Nita looked at Mort. “If this is about the guy last night, yes, I’m fine.”
“Not guy, demon, and no, this is about the doughnut yesterday,” Mort said. “You said it made you sick.”
Nick stopped chewing. “Demon?”
“I’m better today,” Nita said.
“Demon,” Mort said to Nick. “Tried to kill Nita, died instead. I’d offer to show you the body, but of course, it’s gone. Tell Hell to look for somebody with four gunshot wounds, one chest, one shoulder, and double tap between the eyes.”
“Efficient,” Nick said, looking at Nita with new respect.
“That would be Button,” Nita said.
“Button?” Nick said, putting his fork down.
“The little blonde with me last night. My new partner. Chloe Button.”
“Your partner is a Button,” Nick said.
“Yes,” Nita said. “As opposed to a Zipper. Why is that interesting?”
Nick opened his mouth to say something, and then Sandy was there, putting a plate of French toast and bacon on the table. “Mort! What can I get you?”
“Can’t stay,” Mort said, picking up a piece of bacon from the plate. “Got a morgue full of doughnut-poisoned bodies.”
“What?” Nita said, and Nick moved his surprise from her to Mort.
“Wow,” Sandy said. “I bet it was those free green ones. Who’d eat a green doughnut?”
Nita raised her hand. “I would.” She looked at Mort. “How many bodies?”
“Two,” Mort said. “Okay if I have some of this French toast?”
“Henry Ashton and his son Henry, Jr.,” Mort said.
“What kind of poison?” Nick said.
“Strangely enough, it appears to be iron,” Mort said, reaching for the syrup.
“Iron doesn’t kill people,” Nita said.
“Usually not,” Mort said. “Thank god, Jimmy didn’t give any to little kids. The sick people were mostly under seventy and will recover. Henry and Henry Junior at 110 and 85, did not. This looks great, Sandy, but then it always does.”
“I’ll get more bacon,” Sandy said and went back to the grill.
“Iron kills demons,” Nick said.
Mort nodded. “That’s what I figured when the bodies disappeared.”
“Stop that, both of you,” Nita said. “There was iron in those doughnuts?”
“On top,” Mort said. “The black sprinkles? Those were iron filings.”
“Not that much iron, then,” Nick said. “Who’d want to make demons sick?”
“Stop it,” Nita said. “Who gave the doughnuts out? Besides Jimmy, I mean.”
Mort stole her fork. “Just Jimmy. We have butter here?”
“Lotta people got sick and they all got their doughnuts from Jimmy.” Mort cut into her toast. “Nobody knows who hired him.”
“And then had him killed?” Nita said.
“And had the guy who shot him killed,” Mort said. “My report is not complete because writing ‘Deceased is a murdered demon’ will not do my career any favors, but I did note that the neck injury was not consistent with the accident. Somebody snapped it for him.” He squinted at Nick. “That wouldn’t have been you, would it?”
“No,” Nick said. “I would have questioned him and then slung him into Hell where Satan would have dealt with him for killing a human. About this guy who tried to kill Nita. He was a demon?”
“Back to reality,” Nita said. “Somebody on this island is poisoning people and killed Jimmy, and you think the same guy killed the guy in the van to cover it up? And Jason is closing the case.” She put her head in her hands. “Breakfast was supposed to be the good part of my day.”
Her phone buzzed and she picked it up and read the text message from Sue Harvey, the desk sergeant: Lt wants u NOW.
“Jason?” Nick was saying to Mort.
“Detective Witherspoon,” Mort said. “Big guy. Nita’s ex. Asshat.”
“Ah. He came into the bar and didn’t question Vinnie.” Nick looked at Nita. “Are you going to finish your French toast? Mort is eating mine.”
Nita pushed all her plates across the table to him. “Knock yourself out, I have to go deal with reality, which in this case is missing people and poisoned doughnuts. Don’t leave town, I want to talk to you again. And you can pay for breakfast. You ate most of mine.”
Nick waved his fork at her. “Happy to. You have a good day, Detective Dodd.”
‘Happy birthday, honey.” Mort poured more syrup on his French toast. “Don’t forget dinner with Mom at eight.”
“I keep trying to,” Nita said and headed out the door as Nick started on the last of her French toast, bartering with Mort for more bacon as Daphne slapped another giant glass of orange juice down in front of him.
Oh, yeah, you’re the Devil, she thought, and went to work.