When they went through the gate Nick opened to Hell Bar, Nick pointed to the big table that the boys had set up for Vinnie to feel important. “Sit.”
“Really,” Mammon began.
Nick glared at him. “Give me a reason to smite you both.”
Jeo and Rab stopped assembling Ikea and looked at Mammon and Max, appalled.
“Sit down, boss,” Max said, as he sat. “The Devil’s in a mood and we are not with friends.”
“He’s not the Devil yet,” Mammon said, losing his smile for a moment, but he sat as Nita came in, banging the door to the bar.
“New Guy,” she said. “I’ve been looking all over the island for you. I missed lunch. Where the hell have you been?”
“My name is Nick,” Nick snapped.
“I know,” Nita snapped back. “I said that to annoy you. Now that I have your attention, come with me or I’ll arrest you.”
“I like her,” Mammon said, smiling.
“Who’s the new talent?” Nita said to Nick. “Do not tell me they are demons, I have had it with that crap.”
Nick turned to Jeo, who was still staring appalled at Mammon. “I have to go with the detective now even though she will not arrest me because she has no grounds.”
Nita folded her arms. “I’ll think of something.”
“I repeat, no grounds,” Nick said. “I, too, have taken an Earth law course. Many, in fact.”
“Yay, you,” Nita said. “How about refusing to cooperate with a police investigation?”
“Right behind you,” Nick said.
“I’d prefer in front of me,” Nita said, and he turned back to Mammon.
“Do not leave this bar,” he told the demon and then looked past him to Max. “That goes for you, too.”
“Seems a shame,” Max said, cheerfully. “Looks like a nice little island.”
“Leave this bar and I will smite you into a scorch mark,” Nick said.
Mammon snorted. “Everybody knows you don’t smite living things.”
Nick looked at him with loathing. “I do. I just don’t advertise it. Your death, however, I will put on posters in Hell.”
Mammon started to say something, but Jeo said. “Don’t push it, Mammon, I know Satan wouldn’t like it if he did something to you, but he’s having a bad day.”
“I have Satan’s permission to smite him into briquettes if I want to,” Nick said.
“What’s a briquette?” Max said.
Nita cleared her throat, and Nick turned around to see her holding her handcuffs up between her thumb and forefinger.
“I really like her,” Mammon said, smiling at her.
“It’s fine with me if he makes you into briquettes,” Nita told Mammon.
“So you’ve met your soulmate,” Mammon said to Nick.
Nick thought about making them all briquettes.
Except for Jeo; Jeo was doing his best.
“Now,” Nita said.
And Nita Dodd, no matter how much he wanted to strangle her because Satan would probably take it badly if something happened to his damned daughter.
“What is this about?” he asked her.
“Mort has something weird he wants you to look at out at Motel Styx. I have questions, and while I never lose my temper, I do get annoyed, as I am now. Also my lieutenant would love to arrest you if she could only find a reason, and I missed lunch, so . . .”
Nick gave up.
“Let’s go,” he said. “Whatever you’ve got can’t be any worse than here.”
“Found the Devil,” Nita said to Mort when he answered the door at Motel Styx. “What’s going on?”
He stood aside so they could go into the room, holding an arcane looking box, an amalgamation of various colored metal panels, gears and weird symbols, with an equally weird combination lock on the front with more symbols. It looked like something that might have come from one of the higher end gift shops on the island.
“That’s an acamas box,” Nick said, and he didn’t sound happy about it.
“I can’t get it open,” Mort said, “and there’s something inside that moves. When I got my stethoscope, it sounds like something moaning in there. I figured the Devil could probably open it.”
“It moves?” Nita said.
Mort put it on the carpet.
The box slowly but surely moved to the north wall of the motel room and pressed itself against the radiator there, bumping up against the table under the window.
“Maybe the floor’s not level,” Nita said, but Nick had already crossed the room and picked up the box.
He slid two of the side panels, touched the symbols on the combination lock, and, as Nita drew close beside him so she could see, he opened the lid.
Something round and battered and bloody and green with black eyes began to rise up screaming—
Nita slammed the lid down again. “No, no, no!” She pressed down on the lid to keep it closed, her heart pounding. “What was that thing?”
“That’s Forcas’s head,” Nick said, his voice grim. “Damn it.”
“His head,” Nita said, nodding. “Okay. Okay, that’s a start. We have a murder. Where’s the rest of him? And why is that head screaming?”
“It’s trying to get back to his body.” Nick turn the combination lock and then took the box from her.
“That’s evidence,” Mort started and then stopped as Nick swung around to face him.
“This demon is my agent,” Nick said, fury in every word. “He is my responsibility and I’m going to take care of him.”
“Nita will drive,” Mort said, grabbing his EMT bag. “I’m coming, too, for the chain of evidence, but if this is a demon head trying to get back to its body, then when they’re reunited, will the body go back to Hell?”
“Yes.” Nick started for the door, and Nita said, “Wait a minute,” but he kept going and she didn’t catch up until they hit the parking lot.
She was breathing hard, but she said, “This is my car,” opening the passenger door of the black Prius next to him. “I’ll drive.”
“Go fast,” he said, and got in the front seat as Mort slid into the back.
Once in the car which was facing the southern, populated part of the island, Nita saw the box trying to press itself between the front seats to get to the back.
“Go north,” Nick said.
This is not real, Nita thought. “There’s nothing north but the Nature Preserve. It’s walled off. Whoever killed him couldn’t have gotten in there, Ranger Rich would stop them.”
“Look,” Nita began, and Nick let go of the box which slid up the seats and hurled itself toward the back, cracking her hatchback window as Mort ducked to the side.
“North,” Nick said.
“Fine.” Nita swung the car around just as Nick yelled, “Watch it!” and the box came hurtling into the front window and cracked it.
Nita sat there for a minute, trying to breathe. I’m angry, that’s all, she told herself, and then she thought, No, I’m terrified. “I should have seen that coming. But that’s a box with a disembodied head in it flying through the air.”
“Can you see to drive?” Nick said.
“Yes,” Nita said.
She hit the gas and headed toward the Nature Preserve, the box pressing against her cracked windshield. You’re a detective. Detect. That’s normal. “So this was the agent you’ve been looking for? Forcas?”
“Not was, is. If we can get him back to Hell, he’ll probably make it. But he’s been in that box trying to get back to his body for days . . .”
Nita stepped harder on the gas. I don’t believe in demons, I don’t believe in demons . . . Except that was a demon head in a box and it was still alive and the guy last night with two bullet holes in his head had disappeared and–
“What was his job here?” Mort said from the back seat.
“He was sent to find the illegal Hellgate and to bring back a missing agent.”
“Right, you have two missing agents,” Nita said, trying to slow her breathing. Hyperventilating was not going to help. “So you sent an agent to find the Hellgate and then he didn’t come back and you sent an agent to find that agent and the Hellgate, and then he didn’t come back, so you sent Jeo, and Rabiel to find two agents and the Hellgate?”
“She,” Nick said. “The first agent was Sadiel. And I sent Jeo and Rab ahead. They’ve been here a week. I came down yesterday morning because Jeo said things were strange.”
“Uh huh,” Nita said. “Sure.” I’m losing my mind. Demons aren’t real. That thing in the box is not real.
“And then Jimmy was shot,” Nick said, “by a demon, which is against all Hell’s laws. So now I have to deal with that demon as soon as Belia finds him in Hell, and I also have to find the guy who hired him to shoot Jimmy and who sent somebody to kill you and who decapitated Forcas and knew to put his head in an acamas box so he couldn’t get back to Hell and testify.”
“What’s an acamas box?” Mort said from the back seat.
“It’s a supernatural lock box used to hold horrors.”
“Horrors,” Nita said. “Good to know.” This isn’t real, this isn’t real, this isn’t real–
Nita slowed as they reached the turn down into the Preserve, passing the ugly yellow McMansion the Lemon family had built in the middle of wild beauty. She stopped in front of the metal gates and got her police card out of her bag to show it to the scanner on the key card post. It took a little while because her hand was shaking. Then the gates opened and she went through them.
The box was still pressed against the windshield.
She tried hard not to believe that was because it held a head trying to get back to its body.
“There aren’t that many roads in here,” she said, driving slowly now because of all the wildlife. “Somebody would have to have a key card to get in here with a car, and there aren’t many of those–”
“You have one,” Nick said.
“Police IDs work as key cards.”
“So any cop could get in here.” The box suddenly shifted to the right, and Nick said, “Turn here.”
There are a million ways he could be moving that box, Nita told herself, but she turned down the track.
“This is just a hiking trail,” she said as the car bumped along. “It leads to Demon Head . . .” Bad time to mention the name of the local landmark.
The box moved back to the center of the windshield.
Oh, god, it’s real, Nita thought. It can’t be real.
“There are other people with key cards,” Mort said from the back seat. “Some of the old families have them because they have houses out here.”
“People live here?” Nick said, peering out at the wilderness.
“They used to,” Mort said. “Nobody lives here now, the houses are falling apart—there!”
Mort stuck his hand between the seats and pointed past Nita’s nose, and she saw a white car, a hundred yards away to the left in an overgrown meadow under some trees.
The box began to slide toward her side of the car.
“Okay.” She pulled up as close as she could get, stopping at the edge of the meadow. “We walk the rest of the way. It’s only about–”
Nick grabbed the box and got out of the car, Mort right behind him with his kit. Halfway across the brush, the box burst from Nick’s hands and went crashing into the white car, and Nick and Mort ran to catch up.
“No,” Nita said, but it was useless. This is all real. This has been real the whole time.
There had to be an explanation, but the only one that was working was that demons were real. Which meant that Nick . . . .
She got out of the car and bent over and took a deep breath. Then she headed for Nick and Mort.
They had the car door open when she reached them, and Nita could see the headless body in the passenger seat.
Mort said, “Don’t open the box yet,” to Nick and took a picture with his cellphone while Nita squinted around him to see the decaying corpse.
It wasn’t decaying.
“Shouldn’t that be . . . kind of gross by now?” she said.
“He’s not dead.” Nick had the box on the ground and was moving side panels as he spoke. “Mort, get out of the way.”
Mort stepped aside.
Nita felt cold all over, much colder than usual. It’s fear, she thought. I’ve never been this afraid before.
Nick pushed down on the lock and opened the box, and the head flew out and onto the body and screamed again.
“Oh, god.” Nita looked away. A head that had been battering itself inside a box for several days was not a good look. Screaming made it worse. “Oh, god.”
Nick bent over the body and said, “Who?”
The body pointed to the top of the hill, to Demon Head, and Nita thought,
It’s real. It’s all real.
Think about the work.
“Fingerprints,” she said to Mort, her voice shaking. “You might get prints from whoever drove the car here. Or whoever opened it to put the body in.”
“Give him something for the pain,” Nick said to Mort.
Mort got a syringe from his bag, and Nick turned to her. “What’s up there?”
“Demon Head, the highest point on the island,” Nita said. “From New York on the other side of the lake, it looks like a face . . .” It’s real. It’s all real.
“Is there anything else up there?”
“The ranger station. Ranger Rich lives up there. I don’t–”
“How do I get up there?”
Nita took a deep breath. “The track we were on goes up there. We can’t drive it–”
He was gone, heading for the track.
“Are you okay here?” she said to Mort as he snapped the needle off the used syringe and the body stopped groaning.
Not the body.
“Yeah,” he said, his attention on Forcas.
Nita went after Nick.
The path up Demon Head rose a lot faster than Nick had expected when he’d started up the track. If he hadn’t been dead, he’d have gotten winded climbing the last hundred yards. But once on top, the view was striking: Pitchfork Lake, sparkling in the sunset around the jagged, lethal rocks that perforated it like teeth, and then beyond that, the dark, forested shore on the New York side.
“Okay,” Nita’s voice came from behind him, shaky and breathless. “What are we looking for?”
“Forcas pointed up here, so this is where we’ll find whoever cut off his head.”
“Don’t move,” Nita said.
Nick turned around.
A giant shaggy goat was standing at the top of the path they’d just climbed, larger than a cow, its curving black horns a good three feet in diameter.
“I said,” Nita said softly, “don’t move. That’s a-”
“Baphomet,” Nick said.
“It’s an island goat, but they can be–”
“It’s a goat from Hell,” Nick said.
“That’s what the tourists call them,” Nita began and then stopped. “Oh. You mean literally–”
“Some idiot brought baphomets through a hellgate to this island.” No, not some idiot, Moloch. Moloch when he figured out why people were dying, he brought them for food.
The baph put its head down and pawed the ground, and Nita said, “Keep your voice down.”
Nick snapped, “Baphomet down!” in Demonaic, and the baph raised its head, surprised. “Go!”
The baph looked at him unaffectionately for a moment, and then turned and lumbered back down the track.
“That’s a handy skill,” Nita began, and then stopped, alert again.
Somebody was coming up the path.
“Mort?” Nita stepped forward, but a stranger cleared the rise, dressed in a ranger’s uniform. “Rich! There’s a goat–”
“I saw him,” the ranger said, grinning at her. “You get real used to them out here.”
“I’ll never get used to them,” Nita said, her voice tight as piano wire.
“So what’re you all doing out here?” the ranger said.
“I came to see the baphomets,” Nick said.
“Really?” the ranger said. “Not a lot of people come all the way out here just to see a baph. . .”
He stopped, realizing his mistake.
Nick almost moved in front of Nita, remembering at the last minute that that hadn’t done a thing for Jimmy. “Nita, go back to the car.”
“You’re Nick Giordano,” the ranger said, ignoring Nita now as he unsnapped his holster and took out his gun. “Heard about you.”
“So you know I’m dead.” Nick moved away from Nita, hoping she’d have the brains to move toward the path. “Put the gun away, it won’t stop me.”
Nita began to sidle toward the path, but he saw her reach into jacket and pull out a short baton.
Run, you idiot.
The ranger began to turn toward her. “The gun won’t stop you, but if you want her alive, you’ll let me leave.
“And go where?” Nick shook his head. “It’s over, Richiel. If Satan doesn’t end you for what you did to Forcas, I will when I’m Devil.”
The ranger swung back to him. “You think you’re gonna be Devil?” He snorted. “Never gonna happen, human. All of Hell will rise up–”
“Of course, you’re a Demon Firster.” Nick shook his head. “All the whiners join that. Look, your only chance now is to make a deal. Who ordered Jimmy killed? Who set all of this up? Give me good info and I’ll see what I can do to keep Satan from smiting you.”
“You on this guy’s side, Nita?” the ranger said to her.
“I think you’re both nuts,” Nita said, her voice shaking as she held her baton hidden by her side. “I just want to get off this damn hill and get a drink.”
“Not gonna happen, honey,” the ranger said. “You’re my ticket out.” He swung the gun toward her. “We’re going down the path now. You just stay between me and the dead guy, and everything will be fine.”
Nick raised his hand, palm out, the hellfire leaping into the twilight. “Don’t go, Nita. He’ll kill you as soon as he’s out of my reach.”
“You know what’s interesting about Nick?” Rich said to Nita, aiming the gun at her as he moved toward her. “He doesn’t smite. He thinks life is too valuable to use the power Satan gave him, the coward.” He turned to Nick as he neared her. “You won’t do it, you wuss,” he said, and reached out for her as she swung her baton at his head.
Nick threw the fireball at him, and Rich went up screaming in a column of scorching, whooshing hell-red flame. It subsided almost immediately, leaving nothing but a black mark on the now-blasted stone, and Nita standing inches from the mark, still gripping her scorched baton, her eyes huge.
She turned to him, paper white, and then her knees gave out and she dropped to the ground.
She was on her knees.
She could feel the stone under her knees.
It hurt, so that was real.
But where Rich had been, there was just . . .
No, not nothing, there was a black scorch mark.
And some of the rock had splintered . . .
She turned her head slowly.
Nick was standing there, watching her, looming and terrifying and lethal, those black, hooded eyes fixed on her, the same guy she’d had breakfast with, the same guy . . .
Not the same guy.
He began to walk toward her, and she pulled back, and he stopped.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Nita,” he said, his voice the same low, steady sound it had always been.
That part of him that had always been real, his voice.
It was still him.
She just didn’t know who he was.
What he was.
She was pretty sure he wasn’t going to hurt her. If she did something bad, he’d burn her into a scorch mark, but she hadn’t done anything bad, so he wouldn’t.
“Nita?” he said, and took a few steps closer.
When he was about six feet away, she sucked in her breath and he stopped again.
“Not going to hurt you,” he said again, but he was really big and he had those eyes and those cheekbones that reminded her that he was really a skeleton and . . .
“You’re the Devil,” she said.
He crouched down, his elbows on his knees, still six feet away. “Not yet, but I will be.”
“That thing you did. That’s what you did to my grandpa’s bear. Binky.”
“Yes,” he said, those dark eyes watching her carefully.
“You sent Binky to Hell,” Nita said.
“No. Binky is gone.”
Nita swallowed. “You sent Rich to Hell.”
“No. Rich is gone. He doesn’t exist in any dimension any more.”
“You killed him,” she said, trying to wrap her head around everything.
“I did worse than that,” he said, still watching her. “I erased him from existence. No spirit. No afterlife. He’s just gone.”
Nita swallowed. “That’s bad.”
“Yes. It’s very bad.”
She took a deep breath. There was too much to deal with all at once. She just had to get things sorted. She just—
“Give me a minute here.”
He nodded and waited.
So first, everything he’d told her was true, so she just had to accept that. It wasn’t new information, she just had to move it from the “that’s ridiculous” column in her brain to the “this is real” column. It wasn’t like she had to absorb all of that, she’d absorbed it, she just had to accept it.
And since there wasn’t any other choice, she accepted it.
“You’re the Devil,” she said. “The next Devil. Jeo and Rab are demons. Hell is real.”
“Yes,” he said.
“And you’re dead.”
“Okay.” She let her breath out.
He started to speak, and she said, “Give me a minute,” and he stopped.
There were demons on her island.
Jeo and Rab were demons.
Rich had been a demon.
Mr. Lemon was probably a demon.
Mr. Crome was looking iffy.
That meant Jimmy’s death was a whole new ballgame. Because the shooter in the SUV had been green, a demon.
And the guy who’d tried to kill her had been green, a demon. Anybody could be a demon.
She drew a long shuddering breath and Nick said, “Nita?”
“Give me a minute,” she said, and he nodded.
But Rab and Jeo were demons and they were great. So there were good demons and bad demons which made them just a different color of people unless—
She met Nick’s eyes. “Can all demons smite?”
“No,” he said. “Just Devils. And me.”
“Okay,” she said.
So there wasn’t going to be a rash of smitings on the island. That was good.
Nick had killed Rich.
That was bad.
“You killed Rich.”
She remember Rich aiming the gun at her, reaching for her, which seemed the most plausible of all the things that had happened, so there was that. “I went out with him once.”
“It didn’t work out. We weren’t the same kind of people.” She started to laugh and then bit her lip.
He stood up and came over to her, and she stayed on her knees, not looking up.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. “But we need to get you back to town.”
“The Devil’s talking to me and saying ‘we,’” she said. “Who’d have thought I’d be a ‘we’ with the Devil?” She looked up then, into those dark dead eyes.
They didn’t look so dead any more.
“You killed Rich to save me.”
She thought about it. “You should have kept him alive. He could have told you everything.”
“But you killed him to save me.”
She tried to put that together with everything else screaming in her head. “You gave up a chance to find the hellgate.”
He looked at her for a long while, and then he said, “You were more important than the hellgate.”
“Oh.” She thought about that and then she picked up her charred baton and held up her hand, and he took it and pulled her to her feet.
His hand felt real, warm, strong, pulling her up, and she felt no nausea at all from being touched. Because he’s dead. But he looked almost real, more real than he had that first night in the bar. His ears were even sticking out a little, and she held onto that detail because it made him more . . . human. You’re not perfect, your ears stick out, you’re human.
More important, he’d been honest with her all along. And he’d saved her life. And her island was in danger.
“Okay, then,” she said, letting go of his hand. “We go find who’s behind all of this and stop them.”
He shook his head. “Not we. Me. This is not–”
“Listen, buddy,” she said, poking her finger in the vicinity of his breastbone to make sure she hit something real. “This is my fucking island and the Devil himself is not going to stop me from protecting it. Are you with me or not?”
He looked down at the finger poking into his shirt front. “So you’re feeling better.”
“Not really.” Nita pulled her hand back and saw it was shaking. “There will be screaming and sobbing later. But right now, I have to work my goddamn job. Are you with me?”
“Sure,” the Devil said. “Let’s clean up your island.” He pointed his finger at her. “But you will follow my lead and you will do what I say.”
“No way in Hell,” Nita said and started back down the path.