Tuesday 1:15AM ET (Earth Time)
Nita surveyed Vinnie as she reached the bar, his bald head ruddy in the glow from the red Christmas lights that gave him a bloody, evil look. Her grandpa had put up the lights when he’d owned the bar, but they’d never made him look like a minion of Hell.
Behind Vinnie, in the shadow of the archway to the back room, a tall man in a suit leaned against the wall, his arms folded. The Early Asshat, she thought, and started with the devil she knew.
“Vinnie, I’m sorry about Jimmy.”
“He was a good guy.” Vinnie shook his head, as if he were trying to shake off grief. “Look, Spook, if I knew who killed him, I’d tell you.”
“But you do know, Vinnie,” the guy in the shadows said, and Nita leaned forward to look closer.
Oh, part of her said, the part that was low and common and responded to a beautiful man: close-cropped dark hair; intense, dark, hooded eyes; sharp cheekbones, and a mouth that made her want to bite into it. He appeared to be in his late twenties, wearing a suit jacket that had to be custom given those shoulders, tall and lean and relaxed and unsmiling.
The low, dumb part of her said, Oh, but the evolved, smart part of her said, Nope.
And then nope nope nope nope NOPE.
There was something off about him, something dead-eyed and not real.
“Something wrong?” he said, his low voice almost a drawl.
“Have you had a lot of work done?”
“You know, plastic surgery?” She looked him up and down. “All over?”
Button prodded her sharply from behind.
Right, she was pretending to be sober. “Who are you?”
“And you’re the Devil.”
“Good answer.” Nita turned again to Vinnie, who took a step back.
Behind her Mort whispered, “Get the shirt.”
Nita ignored him. “Vinnie, I’m sick, I’m tired, and you know who ordered the hit on Jimmy. Give me your hand.”
Vinnie scowled and then stuck out his hand. “I’m innocent.”
“You were never innocent.” Nita wrapped her hand around his.
She squinted to see the hallucination of bloodstains on Vinnie’s pudgy hand that would tell her he was guilty, but there was nothing. “Do you know who had Jimmy killed?”
“No.” Vinnie tried to take his hand back, but Nita held on. “It’s like I told Witherspoon, I don’t know nothing.”
“Witherspoon was the large detective?” the new guy said. “He only asked you one question.”
Nita stared at the new guy, startled. “Really?”
He nodded once, not smiling. “Vinnie said he didn’t know anything, and the detective left.”
“Get the shirt,” Mort whispered again.
“I don’t knownothing.” Vinnie tried to yank his hand back again, and Nita tightened her grip.
“Yes you do.” Nita leaned in. “Come on, Vinnie. Who had Jimmy killed?”
“I will tell her if you don’t,” the new guy said.
Vinnie gave up. “I mighta mentioned to Mr. Lemmon that Nick here was asking Jimmy to find out some stuff for him.”
Nita let go of his hand in surprise. “Mr. Lemmon’s back on the island?”
“Find out what stuff?” Button said from behind her.
“Could I have your shirt?” Mort said to the new guy.
“I’m Dr. Mort Dodd, the medical examiner. It’s evidence, Mr. Giordano.”
The new guy stood up and took off his jacket.
His white shirt was beautifully tailored, or had been before somebody had riddled it with bullets, the bottom half now shredded and hanging in tatters. No bloodstains. He unbuttoned the shirt and took it off and handed it to Mort.
Button said, “Oh.”
Statler said, “Fine-lookin’ man.”
Nita squinted at the half-naked new guy. “You look like an Abercrombie and Fitch ad. Where are the bullet holes?”
She pointed her finger at him. “You are suspiciously unperforated for a shooting victim. So you are not real.”
“Nita,” Mort said.
“I think he’s real,” Button said.
“Nope,” Nita said, as the new guy reached under the bar and took out one of Vinnie’s overpriced souvenir t-shirts. “There is no there there.”
The guy pulled the black t-shirt on and it stretched tight over his broad chest, making the little red demon dancing over the Hell Bar slogan—“You’ll have a DEVIL of a good time at HELL BAR!”–a lot broader, too. “So tell me,” he said to her. “Who’s Mr. Lemmon?”
Nita scowled at him. “Just to be clear, New Guy, I’mthe cop, you’rethe suspect, Iask the questions.”
He gave her that calm man-look that said, I’m being patient with you. “I was shot seventeen times. How am I a suspect?”
“Because I suspect you are not real,” Nita said as the phone rang.
“Can I talk to you for a minute,” Button said, poking her from behind again.
“No,” Nita said. “There’s something wrong with this guy.”
“Fine,” Button said. “Just stop saying that out loud.”
“I’m going to go log in this shirt,” Mort said to Button as the phone rang again. “Don’t let her do anything interesting until I get back.”
Vinnie answered the phone as Mort left and then handed it to the new guy. “It’s for you.”
The new guy blinked and then took the receiver, and Vinnie sidled behind him as he said, “Hello? Belia? How–” He listened, and then said, “Wait,” and turned back to Nita. “I need to talk to this person. Grill Vinnie.”
“Hey,” Nita said, but he’d already turned his back on her and was moving into the darkness of the archway into the back room, his head bent, speaking into the receiver in a low voice. “Hey, New Guy.”
“His name is Nick,” somebody said, and she turned and squinted at the kid blocking Vinnie from escaping into the back.
“Vinnie, get your ass back here.” Nita pointed at the kid. “You. Come over here.”
Vinnie sighed and moved back behind the bar as the kid flipped up the center section of the counter and came through toward her, young, stocky, blond, and cheerful.
“Nick will get back to you. He’s very efficient.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Rab.”
Nita took his hand. No hallucinated blood, no sign of guilt. “You work for Vinnie?”
He shook his head, disavowing all knowledge of Vinnie, which was smart. “No, I work for Nick. Did you see a bottle here anywhere?”
“It’s a bar,” Nita said.
“Right,” the kid said.
Button poked her in the back. “The murder.”
“You stay here,” Nita said to the kid and then went back to Vinnie. “So you’ve been meeting Mr. Lemmon?”
Vinnie shook his head. “No, no, I just e-mail him. He does everything in e-mail now.”
Nita closed her eyes and thought seriously about having one last toddy. Just one more to get her through the rest of the night that was now morning, surrounded as she was by idiots, tense people, fake people, and the insane. I get Vinnie the idiot to start the day, Button poking holes in my back, Fake Naked New Guy making things complicated, and my mother at dinner tonight.
And Jimmy’s dead.
“Vinnie, you have no idea who’s sending those e-mails.”
“No, no, it’s Mr. Lemmon. He’s the one who sent me the first e-mail and told me to get in touch that way. We been doing that for over a year now.” Vinnie’s face was blank with innocence.
“Have you ever discussed this with him in person?” Nita said, tired beyond words now.
“Have you talked to him on the phone and recognized his voice?”
“I never heard his voice,” Vinnie said.
“So it could beanybody.” Nita took a deep breath. Yelling at Vinnie for being thick was like yelling at the sky because it had clouds in it. “You think that whoever’s been calling himself Mr. Lemmon had Jimmy killed.”
“No,” Vinnie said. “Hethinks that.”
He jerked his head toward the archway, and Nita turned back to the new guy, still on the phone.
He truly was beautiful in a noir kind of way, that grim, chiseled handsomeness that would rock one of those thirties fedoras on some mean street. He might even have been distracting if he didn’t look so much like a mannequin. The guy not only didn’t have flaws, he didn’t have pores. He was talking into the phone, his voice low, but as Nita listened closer, there was an edge there that made her straighten a little.
He might not be real, but his voice was. Something was standing there with the phone in its hand. If that was a hand. That could be Cthulhu for all she knew.
She tried to picture the winged alien monster of the deep standing there with the phone in its claw, growling through its beard of tentacles.
Her head was pounding now. She rubbed her forehead, which made her bangs stick up as usual, so she smoothed them down and decided she needed another toddy if she was going to find out who killed Jimmy.
She walked through the opening in the bar to the business side, passing close to the new guy. He was very warm and she was always cold, so she hesitated next to him because the heat he was giving off felt so good. He was like a space heater in the form of an action figure.
He gazed down at her with no particular interest, and she looked up into his cold, dead eyes and thought, Nope, and moved down the bar. She flipped on the white ceiling light to exorcise the hellish red Christmas glow and plugged in her grandpa’s old electric kettle, then got a glass mug down from the shelf and polished it clean with the hem of her hoodie while she watched the new guy on the phone as he watched her.
Who are you? she thought. And why are you here? Because you are part of the wrongness on this island, I know it.
He was a mystery and she had no clue, so she got the dusty jar of honey off the shelf under the bar, started work on her toddy, and went back to questioning Vinnie and the new kid.
Nick had moved into the archway to the back room to take Belia’s call, but he kept his eyes on Vinnie and the drunk but observant detective. “Why are you calling me on a telephone?”
“You’re late for your twelve o’clock check-in.” Belia’s fruity voice stopped just short of accusatory. “You’re never late for anything. We already lost two demons down there, I’m not losing two more and you. Are Jeo and Rab okay?”
Her voice was so clear that Nick could almost see her: young, smart, dark-haired and bright-eyed, hunched over his desk in a frumpy green jumpsuit, probably eating her usual salad for lunch since it was noon in Hell and he heard some crunching in the background. “Yes. Don’t telephone me again. Imagine if they try to trace this call.”
“You left me in charge up here. How else was I supposed to reach you if you don’t check in? A burning bush? Are you in a strip joint? I could have done that if you were in a strip joint. Ha.”
“I’ve only been gone three hours your time, and you can run the place without me anyway. I’ll be back before the end of the day there.”
He watched as the detective walked toward him on her way behind the bar, the cold coming off her even more remarkable when she was close. She looked up at him, frowning, and he stared down into those black, black eyes, trying to figure out what was so damn different about her. She was not the great-great-granddaughter of Death, there was no demon or human form called Death. But she was . . . something.
And she smelled like peppermint.
She moved on, and he saw she was wearing some kind of soft pants under her hoodie, the fabric covered with pink and blue . . . “Poodles?”
“What poodles?” Belia said.
“Forget poodles,” he said. “Why are you calling me?”
“You should get back here. Mammon’s been talking to Moloch and Beelzebub, and you know what dickheads the Demon Firsters are, especially about taking orders from a woman–”
“Dickheads. It’s Earth slang. I got an A on my Advanced English mid-term.”
“Congratulations. Be, I left you in charge for a reason.”
“Really? What was it?”
“Wow. You sound cranky. You never get cranky.”
“That was for emphasis.”
“Must be pretty bad down there if it can make the dead cranky.”
“Right. Emphasis. Sorry. I’ll handle . . . whatever.”
“Good.” He glanced back at the bar where the detective was now stirring up something in a glass mug, watched by Rab with interest and by the little blonde with concern. “I’ve got a human down here giving off cold waves. Do we have anything like that up there?”
“Ice demons? Never heard of any but I can check with the guys in the ninth circle. They’ve got that frozen lake. And there’s always Niflhem, it gets chilly in there. Or maybe she’s a ghost.”
“No, she’s corporeal. Also there’s a new spirit coming your way, should be in Niflheim now, Jimmy Murdock, shooting victim. Let me know when he’s focused enough to communicate.”
“That’ll be awhile, especially if he was murdered. You know how long it takes to work through that even before they get to their own guilt.”
“Ask Thanatos to put some speed on it. It’s important.” He broke off as he saw Rab sit down across from the detective. “I have to go. I’ll get back to you this afternoon.”
“Wait! Wait! Tell Jeo that the picture he sent me was dark, but I’m pretty sure the demon is Ukobach Secundus, one of Moloch’s Demon Firster fan boys. I called in Max, but he says he’d never heard of him. I think he’s just grumpy because I woke him up. It’s hard to tell with Max. Plus you know. He lies.”
“Everybody lies,” somebody in the room with Belia said.
“Shut up, Max,” Belia said.
Nick frowned at the phone. “What demon?”
“Some guy in an SUV who shot some human, probably your Jimmy Whosis. I haven’t told Satan yet. You know how he gets when demons kill humans. I’ve got a lookout set for Ukobach, so I’ll get him as soon as he gets here. Are you going to make your next check-in?“
“Two hours from now?” He checked his double-faced watch, one side set to Earth Time, the other to Hell Time. “That’s twenty Earth hours so about nine tonight. Yes, I should be back in the apartment by then.”
“Okay. But don’t be late. I worry. And Stripe misses you, he keeps snuffling around trying to find you.”
“Why would he miss me? He’s Satan’s dog.”
“Yes, but he’s always liked you best. Maybe it’s because you’re human.”
“I doubt it.” Nick said. “He’s a Hellhound, he sees me as I really am.”
“Yeah, a big pile of bones.” Belia snorted, and he hung up on her and thought about Mammon and Moloch and the others.
Demon Firsters, the Haters of Hell. And then there was Beelzebub, the Crazy Racist Uncle of the Afterlife. All he needed in this Earth mess was them. Good thing they’re inept, he thought, and turned back to the bar.
Nita Dodd was talking to Rabiel, which was not a good idea. He watched her flip back her silky dark hair as she poured hot water into a cup, trying to connect her to whatever memory she evoked in him. He’d forgotten a lot in five hundred years, but he felt sure he’d have remembered somebody like her.
Vinnie eased past him, escaping through the archway to the back, and Nick didn’t stop him, deciding he’d rather have the detective to himself.
He looked back at her again.
She and Rab were nose-to-nose over the bar.
Please let that have been her idea, he thought and went to intervene.
“So,” Nita had said to Vinnie when she’d started making her drink. “Has this new guy explained why he’s not dead with seventeen bullets in him?”
“He says he isdead,” Vinnie said.
“Nick died over five hundred Earth years ago.” Rabiel sat down at the bar. “He was in a sword fight with three other guys in 1502. He lost.” He leaned closer to watch what Nita was doing. “What’s a toddy?”
“Well, he’s a very well-preserved five hundred.” Nita dripped honey into the glass mug. “A toddy is a hot drink made with alcohol, lemon, and honey. And if you’re sick to your stomach, tea.” She picked up the kettle and poured hot water over the honey, and then stirred it to make honey syrup, concentrating on her last drink of the day.
Well, maybe not the last one. It was already Tuesday morning so it was actually her first drink of the day, and she still had to deal with her mother that night. Happy birthday to me. She wasn’t generally a drinker but her mother could drive all of AAA to binge. No, that wasn’t right, AAA was cars. Well, Mom could drive them to drink, too.
She got a lemon out of the mini-fridge under the counter, cut it half, squeezed it into the syrup, and sliced the lemon peel into curls for garnish. Being plotzed didn’t mean you could skimp on the details.
“Now what are you doing?” Rab said.
“Dissolve the honey in hot water first to make honey syrup. Then add lemon, booze, and more hot water, and it’s a toddy.” She picked up the kettle again and poured in a scant cup.
“And tea,” Rab said, concentrating.
“We’re past the point of tea.” Nita stirred as she studied Rab. He seemed truthful. Straightforward. Possibly even normal. “So did this Nick mention who might be shooting at him?”
“He has enemies,” Rab said. “But they all know he’s dead, so whoever it was must’ve been shooting at Jimmy.”
“Because this Nick asked him to do something?”
“Nick did not want Jimmy harmed,” Rab said.
“He doesn’t seem upset about it.”
“He doesn’t get upset. He doesn’t have emotions. He’s dead. But he’s very smart and he’s . . .” Rab stopped, searching for the right word. “He’s intellectuallyjust. He looks at all aspects of a problem and solves it, calmly and logically. He’s a good boss. A good guy. Nobody to mess with, of course, but a good guy.”
“Uh huh.” Nita studied the golden color of the honey syrup and thought, Needs bourbon. “So he’s your boss. What company do you work for?”
“Not a company,” Rab said. “More an entity. He’s second in command to the Big Guy, but at midnight tonight, he takes over, so we’ll be gone from here pretty soon.”
“Midnight tonight,” Nita said. “Then I should get the thumbscrews out now.”
“Well, not midnight here,” Rab said. “Midnight our time.”
“Which is when here?” Nita said. “Where are you from?”
“It’ll be . . . huh, midnight Saturday here. April second.”
“There are no five-day time zones. Where are you from?”
Rab hesitated. “So this toddy is a traditional American drink?”
“You are avoiding my questions, much like your boss.” Nita turned to look up at Vinnie’s supply of top shelf booze—still abysmal—and saw that the little devil bear she’d put up there twenty-five years before was gone . “Binky?” She turned to Rab. “You don’t know where my grandpa’s devil bear is, do you, the one that was up there on the top shelf? His name is Binky.”
“Binky,” Rab said. “Uh, it caught fire. He caught fire. Binky spontaneously combusted. Kind of.”
“What?” She scowled at him, suspicious. “Binky just caught fire? All by himself?”
Rab nodded. “Sometimes things do that.”
“No, they don’t.” Nita stared at him, searching for that not-real vibe she’d gotten from the guy on the phone, and then leaned over the bar until her nose was almost touching his. He stood there unfazed as she examined him.
He was definitely real, unlike his boss.
“You look real.”
“I am real,” Rab said.
“But he’s not,” Nita said, pulling back to her side of the bar.
“Well, yes and no,” Rab said. “He’s dead. But he’s there. I mean, he’s Nick. He’s really there.”
“Yes,” the new guy said, from behind her. “Right here.”
Rab started to get up.
“No,” Nita said. “You sit right back down there, mister.”
“Rabiel,” the new guy said, and Rab got off his barstool and went through the opening in the bar into the archway, the new guy joining him there, speaking low as Rab winced.
“I don’t like that guy,” Nita said to Button and went back to her drink mixing.
Back up in Hell, Maxiel Quintus watched Belia Tertia stare at the papers in front of her as she munched on her salad, knowing that she knew something that he could turn to his advantage if she’d just tell him what it was. Something big is going on, he thought. Nick was on Earth and it had been Hell years since he’d done that. He was too busy to check in with his right-hand woman, so he had his hands full, which was not like the super-efficient fixer. One of Nick’s hallmarks was that he never got flustered, never gave up, never failed. If that was changing, if he had finally hit a problem he was having trouble solving—
“So this Ukobach,” Belia said, around a bite of romaine.
“I don’t know anything about him,” Max lied. “His dad is a pal of Mammon’s, but Young Ukobach I do not know.” Except as a sleazy moron who will do anything for money.
And who had evidently just done something bad on Earth, which was not his problem unless his boss had paid him to do something Nick wouldn’t like. Please don’t let Mammon have paid him.
“What happened with Ukobach?” Max said, keeping his voice light.
“Nothing you need to know about,” Belia said. “And you’re lying. If he’s a Demon Firster, you know him.”
“Nope,” Max lied. “The Firsters are like roaches, springing up all over the place. I do not hang out with those guys. They’re depressing reminders of how low the demon race can sink.”
“So why would you deny knowing Ukobach?” Belia said. “Unless Mammon hired him to kill a human being.”
‘Oh, Hell, no.” Max straightened in his chair. Not even Mammon is that out of control.
“I’m going to find out.” Belia fixed him with a focused eye that was entirely out of character with her schlubby, pant-suited demeanor but not out of character for the razor-sharp brain that lurked beneath the fluster.
“Probably,” Max said, planning on being far away when she did. “But for once I’m telling the truth: I don’t think Mammon hired him. He’s not that dumb.”
“Well, somebody did.” Belia went back to her salad and the papers in front of her.
Max waited until she was completely absorbed in her eating and reading and slid out of Nick’s office.
It was time to have a heart-to-heart with his boss. Of course, first he’d have to find Mammon’s heart . . .
I need a new job, he thought and went to find Mammon.
Back at Hell Bar, Nita ignored Button as she leaned closer.
“What are you doing?” Button whispered as Nita surveyed Vinnie’s deplorable store of liquor.
“Making myself a toddy,” Nita said. “Do not get in my way.”
“You really do not need a drink,” Button told Nita.
Nita ignored this as irrelevant and unhelpful and concentrated on the important stuff. “This is all wrong here, everything about this is wrong, especially that guy, and I’m not leaving until I get some answers. Especially about Binky. Devil bears do not just catch fire. That’s ridiculous.”
“Why do you keep saying he isn’t real?” Button said as Nita turned to get a bottle of bourbon. “He’s real. And hot.”
“Yeah, I could feel the heat coming off him, too.” Nita took a bottle off the top shelf, opened it, and poured a little into a shot glass. She took one sip and said, “Oh, for the love of god, Vinnie, your top shelf tastes like the well.” Then she looked up at the shelf again. “And I want to know what happened to my grandpa’s bear, Vinnie.”
She turned around, but Vinnie was gone, so she went back to her toddy.
“You’re not making any sense,” Button was saying. “And you should stop drinking.”
Nita looked over all the bottles and saw nothing but cheap stuff. Then behind everything else, she saw a bottle she didn’t recognize, a brown one with a stopper in it. She pulled off the stopper and sniffed it.
Strawberries and sunshine.
“My god.” She poured some into a new shot glass and sipped it and it exploded in her mouth like . . .. She knocked back the rest of the glass and let the glow spread. “This stuff is amazing. It’s like drinking summer.”
“Nita,” Button said.
Nita dumped two more shots into her cup with the honey, and topped it up with hot water.. One good stir made the cup brighten, so she added the lemon peel curls—“Devil Horns,” she told Button–and then held it up and inhaled the aroma. “Oh, marvelous.”
Then she took a sip.
It was wonderful, light on her tongue, tangy and sweet and warm all the way down, it made her warm, inside, where she’d never been warm before. “I love this stuff!” She held the cup out to Button. “God knows where Vinnie got it. Taste this.”
Button took a sip. “It’s okay.”
“Okay?” Nita took the cup back. “How can you say that’s just okay?”
“Well, you know, hot lemon and honey.”
“That’s all you got from that taste?” Nita took another sip and sighed as warmth and power settled in her veins. “I want gallons of this. I want this for breakfast every morning. I want–”
The New Guy came back to the bar, minus Rabiel.
“Where’s your buddy?” Nita said.
“He had to go somewhere else,” he said, staring at her with those hooded eyes.
He probably thought that was quelling. Amateur.
“The hell he did.” Nita raised her voice. “Rob?”
“Rab,” the new guy said. “And he’s–”
“About to be arrested for refusing to cooperate with an officer of the law.” Nita knocked back more of her toddy.
He gave her that look again.
She felt wonderful. “Get him out here, New Guy.”
“The name’s Nick,” he said, as the kid appeared from the back room. “Rab, Detective Dodd would like a word.”
“What would you like to know, Detective Dodd?” Rab sat down at the bar, keeping one eye on his boss.
“I would like to know why this guy . . .” Nita pointed at Nick. “. . . looks like bad CGI.”
“CGI?” Nick said.
“Movie special effects,” Rab told him. “I’m sure she doesn’t mean it.”
“I mean it,” Nita said. “You got a real uncanny valley thing going on there.” She sipped more of her toddy. Marvelous.
Nick looked at Rab.
“Uncanny valley. It’s when a fake human like a robot looks almost like a real human but not quite, so it’s creepy.”
Nick looked at Nita. “I’m creepy.”
“Yes,” Nita said. “You are not life-like.”
“No.” Button tried to take Nita’s mug from her. “He looks fine.”
“Hands off.” Nita knocked back the rest of her toddy, and slammed the mug back on the bar. “My god, that’s good.” She turned back to Rabiel. She likedRabiel.
And she lovedher toddy. She felt . . . sharper, not duller. She felt . . . good. Powerful. Screw everybody, I own the world. She picked up the brown bottle from the rail to pour again. “I’m feeling kind of invincible here, so don’t cross me. Now about Binky–”
“Where did you get that?” Nick said sharply.
Nita sloshed more summer into the mug. “Off the rail.”
Nick took the bottle from her and handed it to Rab.
“Hey,” she said.
“Imagine what I’m thinking,” he said to the boy, and Rab winced again.
“Why is he so lousyto you?” Nita said to Rab. “You seem like a nice guy. What’s his problem?”
“Don’t drink that,” Nick told her. “It’s pretty much tasteless anyway.”
Nita scowled at him in outrage. “It is not. It tastes wonderful. Like sunshine and strawberries.”
Nick and Rab were suddenly very still.
“Give me that,” Nick said quietly, holding out his hand for her mug.
“Fat chance.” Nita knocked it all back before he could grab the mug, licked the last of it off her lip, and sighed.
She felt fabulous.
Nick looked at Rab. “How much has she had?”
Rab shrugged, wide-eyed, and Button said, “She had a shot neat, and then she put two shots in her toddy, and she just slopped another two shots into that mug. Is she okay?”
“Maybe,” Rab said, looking terrified.
“I’m fine,” Nita said. “Actually, I’m amazing.”
Nick stood up and came around behind the bar, and she tensed, but he just leaned back against the rail and folded his arms again, his head bent, those hooded eyes on her.
“What?” Nita turned to frown up at him.
“I’m waiting for it to hit. That stuff packs a punch.” He tilted his head. “For some people. It’ll be interesting to know if you’re one of them.”
“One of who?”
“One of the people who goes to sleep for two days after one shot,” Nick said. “Drinking that stuff straight is unheard of. Five shots . . . . Don’t worry, I’ll catch you before you hit the floor, and we’ll look after you.”
She gave him her best fish eye. “Youlooking after me would be a worry, you being an early asshat and all.”
“Asshat?” Nick said.
Nita pointed at Rab. “You, I trust. You’re real. And a good person.” She squinted at him. The light in the bar was still bad even with the overhead on, but she could have sworn he was changing color. “And you’re kinda green. You feeling okay, baby?”
“Green,” Button said, as somebody came in from the back room. “He’s not green. Detective Dodd, it’s time to go home.”
Nita ignored her to look at the guy who’d come in. Young, like Rab. Taller. Slimmer. Dark hair. Korean, maybe.
The kid stopped when he saw her looking at him. “Hello.”
“Jeo, this is Nita,” Nick said. “Nita, this is Jeoseung.”
“Hello, Cho.” Nita squinted at him. “It’s not easy being green.”
“What?” Jeo said.
“We’re leaving now,” Button said to Nita, standing up.
“It’s Jeo, not Cho,” Rab said, and then turned back to his friend. “Nita just had some scupper.”
“Oh,” Jeo said, looking confused.
Rab held up his hand, his fingers spread. “Five shots.”
“Okay,” Jeo said, still confused.
“She said it tasted like strawberries and sunshine.”
“Ohhh.” Jeo smiled tightly at Nita. “How ya’ doing, Nita?”
“I’mdoing fine, it’s you guys who are green,” Nita said. “And this guy who isn’t re–” She turned to look at Nick and sucked in her breath.
He was a skeleton. He was a skeleton wearing dress pants and a Hell Bar t-shirt, but still . . . skeleton.
“What?” the skeleton said.
“Nice . . . cheekbones,” she said and turned back to Rab and Jeo, who were only green.
“I said we leave now,” Button said, and Nita squinted at her.
Button was not green.
“This is veryconfusing,” Nita said, and then the room began to slowly move. It wasn’t spinning, that would be a cliché, but it was shifting. Definitely going sideways.
Or maybe that was her.
She grabbed onto the edge of the bar.
“Here we go,” the skeleton said from behind her, and she turned to find him close.
“We’re not going anywhere,” she said to the skull.
“You’re going to pass out,” the skull said. “And then I’ll catch you and help your friend get you to a car, and she will take you home where you’ll sleep for a couple of days. You’ll be fine.”
Nita stared into his eye sockets. “You know what’s really weird?”
“Well, right now, everything. But the weirdest part of everything is that now that you’re a skeleton, I kind of trust you. Because you’re real now.”
“Right,” the skull said. “You and I are going to have a long talk when you wake up.”
“Count on it,” Nita said. “There’s something very wrong on this island—
“Tell me about that,” the skull said, sounding interested.
“–and I’m betting you—“ She poked him in the breastbone. “—are a part of it.”
“And I need to find out who killed Jimmy.”
“And who torched my grandpa’s bear.”
“That was me.”
“You bastard,” Nita said, and passed out.
Nick caught her before she hit the floor.
“There she goes,” Statler said, not judging.
“Been there,” Astoria said.
Waldorf shook his head and blew out his mustache in sympathy.
“I don’t know what got into her,” the little blonde was saying brightly. “She’s been very professional for as long as I’ve known her. Mostly.”
“Did you try the scupper?” Nick asked her, trying to balance the unaccustomed weight in his arms. He wasn’t used to holding things. People.
The blonde seemed anxious. “Is that what was in the bottle? I took a sip of her toddy. It tasted like lemon and honey to me. Is she okay?”
At least somebody in this bar is a live human. “You can drive then. Where’s your car?”
“Just down the street.”
“Pull it up to the door. We’ll carry her out.”
She seemed uncertain, but she went out, leaving Nick with the cold weight of Nita Dodd in his arms. He’d built minimal nerve endings into his façade, just enough that he wouldn’t do something stupid like put his hand on a hot stove and not notice, but he’d had to go for a full musculature so people wouldn’t brush by him and hit bone. The weight in his muscles felt . . . familiar. I remember this, he thought. Sort of. He didn’t remember women being this cold.
Not that he had any room to object. He was dead.
He checked to make sure shehadn’t died, but she was still breathing.
So something was going right for a change.
“I’m sorry,” Rab said into the silence, sounding miserable.
Nick looked down into Nita Dodd’s unconscious face. Even slack from the scupper, it was a face of character, pale and sharp and strong and tantalizingly familiar. “I’m not sure I am. I’d have preferred you not poison the police, but this is something we need to know.” He studied her. She was much more attractive now that she wasn’t scowling. Where have I seen you before? he thought, and then tightened his grip as she moved.
She opened her eyes and stared into his for a long moment, her eyes growing wider, and he realized she was looking at what he truly was and not the façade.
She was handling it pretty well, considering that she was in the arms of a skeleton, looking at a skull. Not screaming showed considerable strength of character.
She shook her head a little and then reached out and grabbed the edge of the bar to haul herself up and away from him. “Wow. That stuff doespack a punch.”
Jeo and Rab were both speechless, so Nick let go of her and said, “Yes. Yes, it does. Are you all right?”
She scowled at him. “Well, you’re still a skeleton and these guys are still green, so no. Now why the hell did you burn Binky?”
“Binky?” Nick said.
“My grandpa’sbear.” Nita pointed to the empty space on the shelf above them.
“Smite,” Rab said.
“What?” Nita tried to focus on him.
“He smote Binky,” Rab said. “And a precision smite it was, too. Sir.”
Nita looked back at Nick. “He’s babbling.”
“He does that,” Nick said, and then the door opened and the little blonde came in. “Here’s your ride, Detective Dodd. We’ll talk in the morning.”
He could see her thinking about arguing with him, but then she steadied herself, said “You better believe we will,” and walked around to the front of the bar.
“You okay?” Nick heard the little blonde ask her as they went out, casting one last suspicious glance back at the trio at the bar.
Rab waved good-bye, and then she was gone.
Rab and Jeo turned back to Nick.
“I have no idea,” he told them, his eyes still on the door.
Aside from the cold, she’d felt pretty good in his arms. There was another not-entirely-human besides him. They could compare notes on not belonging anywhere.
“Nick?’ Rab said .
“We have a new investigation,” he said. “Find out everything we can about Nita Dodd.”