THIS BOOK TAKES PLACE IN 2011.
TUESDAY 12:30 AM
At half past midnight on her thirty-third birthday, Detective Nita Dodd squinted through a freezing-rain-streaked car window at the worst dive bar on Demon Island, drank the awful coffee her new partner handed her, and shivered while she tried to sober up. She was always cold, she’d been born cold, but this was extra, courtesy of the drop in March temps and the bourbon in her blood.
Okay, she told herself. No weirdness. Look at the facts. Don’t share any ideas you’ll regret with the new kid who already thinks you’re an idiot lush. Professional, that’s what we’re going for here, Dodd. Look sharp, be sharp. And don’t throw up in her car.
Across the street, Hell Bar glowed red in the darkness thanks to the pitchfork-shaped red neon letters in the bay window of the old brick row house. The blue light from the squad car flashing over the icy cobblestones didn’t improve it any, nor, as she leaned forward to see better, did the sheet-covered body on the pavement in front.
“What are we doing here?” the woman sitting next to her said.
Nita focused on her new partner in anti-crime.
Detective Chloe Button. Young. Blonde. Round blue eyes behind rounder glasses. Moderately hostile in spite of her perky little voice. And the kid was new in town.
Nita pointed her coffee cup toward the bar. “We are across the street from Hell Bar, a once great dive bar in the old part of Deville, the main town on Demon Island, home of the world-semi-famous Devil’s Playground Amusement Park and many other tourist traps with equally stupid names. Welcome to the island.”
“Thank you,” Detective Button said, her voice flat.
Nita nodded. “Judging by the size of the body on the pavement, the bar’s owner, Vinnie Smith, has left one Hell for another. His criminal activity on the island is legendary, and he deserved to die for that neon alone, but that does not mean it is okay that somebody offed him. We must find the off-ee.” No, that wasn’t right. “The off-er.” That didn’t sound right either. “The guy who killed him.”
“Detective Dodd, this is not our case,” Button said, with admirable focus.
Nita pointed her cup at the SUV that had crashed into one of the mayor’s prized antique streetlights a short way down the street. “See the guy in the jacket that says ‘Demon Island Medical Examiner’ up there beside the wrecked van? The one with the big cop yelling at him?”
Button squinted through the rain-streaked windshield. “Yes?”
“The non-yelling-person is my brother, Dr. Mort Dodd, who texted me that he needed me here, leading me to drunk dial you by accident because you were the person who called me last. I apologize for missing your call. The big shouting guy is Detective Jason Witherspoon, who is not happy with me at the moment, so I will wait until he leaves.”
Up the street, Jason Witherspoon turned and strode off looking disgusted, and Mort put his head back into the van window.
“And there he goes.” Nita put her empty cup back in the cup holder. It was time to fight crime. Solve evil. Whatever. She opened the passenger door, letting in more late March cold.
Nita turned back.
“Detective Dodd, it’s not a good idea for us to be here.” Button was probably trying to be stern, but she was too much of a human dandelion to pull it off. “This appears to be Detective Witherspoon’s case. And you’re wearing pajamas.” She paused. “They have poodles on them.”
“I did not realize I’d be getting out of the car at a murder scene, Detective Button. I thought my brother needed a ride, not professional help.” Nita closed the door again and pulled out the front of her oversized black hoodie, so Button could see it better. “I felt this hoodie would be sufficient to obscure the poodles. And let’s be positive; I’m not wearing my bunny slippers.” She hesitated. “Although I am wearing my Bad Ass socks.”
“Pardon?” Button said.
“My Bad Ass socks. They say ‘Bad Ass’ on the back with arrows pointing up. I think they’re a good subliminal message. Or body shaming. I’m not sure which–”
“This is a crime scene,” Button said, an edge to her voice.
Don’t be odd, Dodd. Nita nodded, trying to look focused and sober.“Yes. The two bodies were dead giveaways, assuming there’s one in that SUV. Which is why I must talk to Mort.”
Button nodded. “Just not tonight. We should talk about this in the morningand make a plan so I can provide back-up.”
Nita blinked at this evidence of clear-thinking. “You are going to be an excellent partner. I apologize again for drunk-dialing you. I don’t usually drink. I had a bad doughnut this afternoon, and it made me sick and I made some tea toddies to feel better–”
“I don’t care. I just don’t want you to hurt your career. Or mine.”
“Drunk. At a crime scene. In poodle pajamas,” Button said, enunciating the words carefully.
“Oh.” Nita thought about mentioning the Bad Ass socks again and decided it wouldn’t be helpful. Think sober. Act sober. Be normal.
“I talked to some of the guys at the station this afternoon,” Button went on. “They called you Spooky Dodd and said that you’re psychic, that you can tell if somebody is guilty if you shake hands with him..”
Nita closed her eyes. “I’m not psychic.”
“And they said your brother believes demons are real.”
Nita nodded, trying to look sane. “That is a thought he’s had. But he’s sound on everything else. I consider it a delightful personality quirk.”
“So I got the impression that things might be a little dicey for you at the station.”
“Oh,” Nita said, remembering the new captain scowling at her that morning. “Not really.”
“Which means poodle pants are not a good move for you.” Button handed her a Styrofoam cup.
Nita straightened and pried off the lid. “Didn’t I just drink this?”
“I thought two might be good.”
“I hate coffee.”
“Drink it anyway,” Button said.
Nita blinked at the menace beneath the fluff. “Iron Butterfly. Steel Magnolia. Unobtainium Button.”
Button didn’t look amused.
Normal, damn it. Nita drained the cup and handed it back to her, grimacing. “And now I must go.”
“Wait,” Button said.
“No.” Nita opened the door and put one foot out into the cold, and then stopped as somebody came to stand next to the car. “Hello?”
A patrolman stooped to look inside. “Ma’am, you’ll have to move . . .” he began, and stopped. “Nita?”
“Hi, Frank. Mort texted me to come. Don’t tell Jason I’m here.”
“Uh,” Frank said and then smiled past her. “Hey, Chloe!”
“Hi, Frank.” Button pushed her glasses back up to the bridge of her nose and beamed at him like a little sun. “Could you be a sweetie and ask Detective Dodd’s brother to come over here?”
“You bet, Chloe.” Frank winked at her.
When he was gone, Nita closed the car door, wrapped her hoodie closer around her, and regarded Button. “How friendly did you get this afternoon?”
“Not that friendly,” Button said, her voice flat again.
“Frank was damn near licking the doorframe.”
Button shrugged. “Men like me. They say I’m cute as a button. Then they tell me things. So I go with it.”
Nita thought about it. “Nobody ever tells me I’m cute as a button.”
Button surveyed her. “Well, you got that black helmet hair and those pointy eyebrows and you don’t smile. You’re not selling the cute thing.”
“I smile.” Nita smiled.
Button pulled back a little. “We should leave–”
The back door opened, letting in another blast of cold air, and Mort climbed into the back seat, his narrow face cheerful as a lock of brown hair fell into an upside down question mark over his forehead.
“Happy birthday, honey,” he said to Nita. “Did you see the streetlight? The Mayor’s going to have a coronary. Also, Mom called. We’re having dinner with her tonight. Why aren’t you out there fighting crime with me?”
Nita sighed. “Happy birthday, I saw the streetlight, I don’t want to have dinner with Mom. I’m in here because I’m wearing poodle pajamas, and my new partner does not approve. Also I’m sick from a bad doughnut.”
“There is no such thing,” Mort said.
Nita turned to Button. “Button, this is my brother Mort. Mort, this is Detective Chloe Button. Do not tell her she’s cute as one.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Mort stuck his hand over the seat. “Pleased to meet you, Detective Button.”
Button pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and shook his hand awkwardly. “Uh, happy birthday? To both of you?”
“Twins.” Mort transferred his attention back to his sister. “So there’s a guy in the bar who says he’s the Devil, and I want you to shake his hand and get his shirt.”
“The Devil?” Button said.
“Tall. Dark. Silent.” Mort shrugged.
“We get this all the time,” Nita told Button. “Once the park opens in May, every asshat tourist in green make-up will swear he’s a demon.”
“It’s March.” Button tried to hand her a cup of coffee.
“So we got an early asshat.” Nita frowned at the cup. “I just drank that.”
“I bought three. You were really drunk on the phone.” Button shoved the cup into Nita’s hand, and then the back door on the other side opened and Jason Witherspoon folded his six-foot-plus bulk into what was left of the back seat, bringing a lot more cold air with him.
“So of course youshow up,” he said to Nita.
“I suppose Frank ratted us out.,” Nita said. “Button, this is the partner who preceded you. Jason, this is the partner who succeeded you. Talk amongst yourselves while I think about throwing up in the street. Or maybe peeing. I’ve had a lot of coffee.” She looked at the cup in her hand and gave it back to Button.
Jason leaned forward. “I said–”
Nita scowled t him. “I heard what you said. Say hello to Button.”
“Hello, Chloe,” Jason said.
“Hello, Jason,” Button said cheerfully, doing the sun thing and making the entire back seat smile.
“Really,” Nita said to Button.
“What the fuckare you doing here?” Jason said to Nita.
Nita frowned at him. “Don’t say ‘fuck’ in front of Button. She’s just a child.”
“Are you drunk?”
“Yes. Are you annoying?”
Mort shrugged at Chloe. “They used to be a thing.”
“A long time ago,” Nita said.
“Seven weeks ago,” Jason said.
“Moving on,” Mort said to Jason. “Nita’s here because I called her because you are screwing this up.”
Jason and Mort began to argue, and Nita’s head began to pound. This is a bad place for me to be. I should leave.
The voices in the back seat got louder, and she said, “Hey!” and they stopped in mid-sentence. “Mort, if Jason has this solved, why do you need me?”
“Excellent point,” Button said and started the car.
The heater kicked on and Nita thought, Oh, yes, heat, thank you.
“He doesn’t have it solved,” Mort said. “For one thing, he can’t explain how the Devil got shot seventeen times.”
“Shot?” Nita turned around to see the back seat better. “Shot? With a gun?”
Button looked at her as if she were demented, but Jason said, “Yes, with a gun.”
“How the hell did somebody get a gun on this island?”
“That’s what bothers you?” Mort said. “Somebody snuck a gun past the metal detector? Not the Devil getting shot seventeen times?”
Nita blinked at Mort. “I thought the Devil was the guy in the bar.”
“He is. He’s talking to Vinnie and the Hotels.”
Nita shook her head. “If Vinnie’s inside talking to the Devil, who’s that in front of the bar?”
Nita went cold, even colder than before, and straightened in her seat. “Jimmy? I just talked to Jimmy today. He gave me my doughnut. I yelled at him because it made me sick. He can’t be dead. I haven’t apologized for that yet.”
“And now he’s been murdered,” Mort said, “and Jason is going to close the case.”
“What?” Nita stared at Jason. “Why?”
“It’s open and shut,” Jason said, exasperated. “The guy in the SUV shot him and then died in the crash.”
Nita fought through her bourbon fog. “Nobody would kill Jimmy. He’s the nicest bouncer Vinnie’s ever had. This is another wrong thing. Nobody would kill Jimmy.”
“Somebody did,” Jason said. “And we got the shooter. Case closed.”
Nita set her jaw and concentrated on clarity. “Get out of this car so I can figure this out. This car is only for people who want to solve this crime. Like me.”
“And me,” Mort said.
Button sighed and turned off the ignition. “And me.” She turned to Mort in the back seat. “The Devil caught seventeen bullets and lived. What killed Jimmy?”
“The seventeen bullets that went through the Devil and hit Jimmy,” Mort said. “Which were fired by the guy in the SUV, which is why we need Nita, who is good with the weird. I took a picture of the shooter. He’s green.”
He held out his phone and Nita squinted at the screen. She’d never seen the guy before. “He used the green make-up as a disguise? What an idiot.”
“Demon,” Mort said.
“No. Stop that.” Nita thought about Jimmy’s sweet goofy face and felt rage fight its way through the bourbon. “A fucking gun. This is wrong.”
“We have the Devil in the bar who took seventeen bullets,” Button said, “which went through him and hit Jimmy and left him alive. That’s the part that seems wrong to me. What did you mean by another wrong thing?”
“Wrong things have been happening for the past year,” Nita said. “Weird minor crime that makes no sense like random vandalism and dumb graffiti about demons. Fights between people who are friends or at least have no reason to fight. People selling businesses they loved and looking miserable. The whole island’s off, and I’ve been trying to figure out why, but people won’t talk, and now there’s a damn gun on my island—”
“Oh, god, this again,” Jason said, disgust in his voice. “Nothing is wrong on the island. And this fake Devil guy is lying about getting shot seventeen times. No witnesses at all, just his word? Come on.”
“I need his shirt,” Mort said. “If it has his blood on it, then he got shot. If it doesn’t, then he’s a demon. Although even demons bleed in this dimension, they just bleed green–”
“He’s not a demon, demons aren’t real, damn it.” Nita looked at Button. “Give me that coffee.”
Button passed the third cup over, and Nita drained it. It was vile.
“This is not your case,” Jason said. “I’ll file a complaint if you interfere.”
“If you’re not going to help, get out,” Nita snarled.
“Yeah, you’re good at telling people to leave.” Jason got out and slammed the door behind him.
“Much better,” Mort said.
“For the record,” Nita said to Button, “I did not tell him to leave. I left. He stayed where he was.”
“I don’t care,” Button said. “I care about the shooter. . .”
She began to question Mort, and Nita leaned back in her seat and tried to get a grip on the situation.
This is going to be bad. I have to sober up and figure this out and it’s going to be bad. And now there was Button, new in town. This kid should not be part of my bad. “Detective Button, it’s time for you to go home. Something very wrong is happening on my island, and it is my responsibility to fix it, starting with talking to Vinnie, which will cause trouble with Jason, which will cause trouble with the new captain, which you do not need your first week on the job. Request another partner in the morning. Nobody will be surprised.” She handed Button her empty cup and opened the car door, bracing herself against the cold.
Nita stopped, one foot out the door, and looked back at Button.
Even in the dim light from the streetlights, there was a lot of steel in that blue gaze, and while the chin was round, the jaw was set.
Button pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose again. “I’m coming with you. Buttons do not walk away from their partners.”
Nita started to say no, but Button plowed on.
“I don’t know much about being a homicide detective yet, so I’ll watch while you interview this Vinnie and Dr. Dodd gets the shirt, and then we’ll go home and get some sleep, and in the morning, we can figure it all out.”
“Oh,” Nita said, taken aback. “All right. Thank you for saying ‘get some sleep’ instead of ‘sober up.’”
Button shrugged. “Same thing.”
Nita nodded. She wasn’t sure what to say next, so she got out of the car, the cold night air hitting her like a shovel. She started carefully across the icy cobblestones toward the bar, Button’s and Mort’s doors slamming behind her, a one-two punctuation that was kind of comforting.
Jason yelled, “Do not go into that bar.”
“I’m goin’ into that bar,” Nita yelled back and remembered she was still drunk. No yelling. No yelling. Act sober.
Jason glared at her from across the street, furious. “Go to hell, Nita Dodd!”
“That’s my plan,” Nita said, and opened the door.
Fifteen minutes earlier in Hell Bar, Nick Giordano had answered the very few questions a large detective named Witherspoon had asked him and then watched as the detective had asked even fewer of the bar’s owner, Vinnie Smith, which was surprising since Vinnie was clearly guilty of something.
When the detective left, Nick said, “Vinnie, we need to talk.”
“I got nothin’ to say.” Vinnie hunched his aging bulk over his drink, his bald head bent in the red glow of the many elderly Christmas lights strung across the speckled mirror behind the bar. He was breathing heavily, his face the color of the faded red-devil-teddy bear on the shelf over his head, and Nick tried to decide if that was a manifestation of guilt or Vinnie’s general lousy health. Either way, Vinnie was going to answer some questions.
“Vinnie, why did you tell the large detective that I was the Devil?”
Vinnie looked away. “I just said them boys who work for you call you the Devil. I know you ain’t the Devil.” He looked at Nick out of the corner of his eye, as if he wasn’t sure.
“That wasn’t helpful, Vinnie. Don’t say that again.” Nick sat down on an ancient bar stool that was an insurance claim waiting to happen. “I asked Jimmy to look into something for me yesterday. I think he told you what he was doing. I think you told somebody else. I think that somebody had him killed.” He fixed the barkeep with the stare that made demons go cold. “Who did you tell, Vinnie?”
Vinnie flinched and called down the bar to his left at the three morosely tanked senior citizens who were his last customers, raising his voice so they could hear. “Hotels, you need another?”
“I’m good,” the thinnest of the drinkers called back, his seamed face wrinkling more as he squinted past his friends: a stocky white-haired black man running his finger over his thick, white mustache and a nervous woman of indeterminate age hunched under an improbably red beehive, pursing her equally red lips as she ignored them all.
The mustache spoke to Nick. “Heard you’re the Devil.”
“No,” Nick said, staring at Vinnie, who looked away.
“Shut up, Waldorf,” Vinnie said to the mustache.
“He’s a good-looking devil,” the thin one said.
“Shut up, Statler,” Vinnie said, “Have some respect. Jimmy just died.”
Waldorf raised his glass and blew out his mustache. “To Jimmy. A damn fine bouncer. Never left a mark on anybody.”
The three of them clinked glasses and drank.
“Thank you, Waldorf,” Vinnie said, looking wobbly again.
“I skinned my knee once,” the woman said.
“You fell down after he helped you out the door,” Statler said, looking sternly at her. “Don’t you put that on Jimmy.”
“That’s fair,” she said.
Then, as if he couldn’t help it, Vinnie came back to Nick. “Don’t make me no trouble. I run a nice place here.”
Nick turned to look at the rest of the bar, its walls covered with decades of scuffed and dirty amusement park memorabilia—Have A Hell Of A Good Time at The Devil’s Playground!!!!–and dirtier graffiti over red vinyl booths with the padding erupting out, its sticky floor crowded with splintered black tables and chairs. And then there were the Hotels. The only thing the bar had going for it was that it was dark.
Nick turned back. “Who did you tell, Vinnie?”
“Fuck off.” Vinnie knocked back the last of his bad booze, spilling a little as two boys in hoodies and jeans came clattering down the back stairs and through the archway into the bar. Nick saw them for the moment as Vinnie must be seeing them: typical twenty-something college kids, one medium height, dark-haired and Asian, the other stocky, blond, and Nordic.
“We’re done upstairs,” the taller one said to Nick. “No gate.”
“Thank you, Jeo.” Nick turned to the stocky blond, but he’d moved down the bar to the three senior barflies.
“Hotels!” he said, smiling at them. “Looking good, Astoria.”
“You go on now,” the woman said, smiling faintly at him.
“You’re lookin’ good, too, Robbie,” Statler said.
“Rab,” Nick said to the kid.
Rab waved to the three and came back to stand with Jeo. “So it’s real nice up there now that it’s all gutted,” he said, proud as a puppy. “Super clean.”
“What?” Vinnie for a moment looked more alarmed than grief-stricken. “Wait a minute, I rented you that apartment, I didn’t say you could change things. You gutted it? You get out, all of you!”
“Don’t you talk to Robby like that,” Statler said.
“I’m not goin’ anywhere,” Astoria said.
Waldorf blew out his mustache, possibly in protest.
“Tomorrow,” Nick said, ignoring everybody but Jeo, “gut everything down here until you find the gate. Somebody just shot Jimmy, so we’re close.”
Rab lost his smile. “We heard. I liked Jimmy.”
Jeo nodded. “Everybody liked Jimmy.”
“Tha’s right,” Statler said and Waldorf and Astoria nodded.
“You ain’t gonna do nothing here,” Vinnie said, trying to talk over them all.
“Maybe if you told Vinnie what’s going on,” Jeo said to Nick.
Nick considered it. Generally, he didn’t explain things, but in this case, it might be more efficient.
He turned to Vinnie, dropping his voice so the Hotels couldn’t hear. “I’m here to find an illegal Hellgate which we believe is in your building. That is normal. I sent two agents down, and they disappeared. That is not normal. I sent down my best agent team a week ago and they couldn’t find the gate or the agents. That is very much not normal. I came down, and Jimmy was killed. That is an abomination. I have a responsibility to find that gate, my missing agents, and the person who ordered Jimmy’s death. When I have done that, we will leave.”
“You’re crazy,” Vinnie said. “You get out of here!”
“Jeoseung and Rabiel are my best team,” Nick went on. “The smart one who will probably survive this mission is Jeoseung.”
Jeo held out his hand. “Pleased to meet you, sir,” he said, and Vinnie shook his hand, still stunned.
“And this is Rabiel.”
Rab stuck out his hand and shook Vinnie’s with enthusiasm. “I’m enjoying taking your place apart, Vinnie. I’m an Earth Studies major and–”
Nick looked at him.
Rab shut up.
“And I’m Satan’s fixer.” Nick smiled at Vinnie, which made him step back. “Who did you tell, Vinnie?”
Vinnie shook his head. “Demons ain’t real.”
“Drop the facades,” Nick said to the boys.
Jeo and Rab stared at each other in surprise and then, turning their backs to the Hotels, they dropped their facades and became green-skinned, black-eyed versions of their former selves.
Vinnie’s mouth dropped open.
The Hotels continued to drink.
“Demons,” Nick said.
Vinnie turned shocked eyes to Nick. “You’re a demon?”
“No. I’m human.” He nodded to the boys, and they hid the green and looked human again.
Vinnie’s eyes dropped to the bullet holes in Nick’s shirt, now covered by his suit jacket. “Then why ain’t you dead?”
“I am dead, Vinnie. That’s how I got to Hell.”
“And now he runs the place,” Rab said cheerfully. “Or at least, he’s gonna at midnight Hell Time, he’s the Devil’s fixer now, but Satan already gave him a façade and the power to smite and open Hellgates, so he’s the Devil in all but name–”
Nick looked at him.
Rab shut up.
Vinnie deflated. “You’re gonna kill me.”
“No, no, it’s against our laws to kill humans,” Jeo told Vinnie, his voice steady and reassuring. “And we’re law-abiding. But some of the demons who come through the gates aren’t.” He shook his head. “That’s why we have to close the gate that’s here in your bar. Somewhere.”
“Nick can’t kill you, either,” Rab said helpfully. “Not until midnight Hell time, but we’ll be out of here before that because I have this great idea.”
“Not now, Rab,” Nick said, staring at the barkeep. “I’m threatening Vinnie here.”
Vinnie stepped back.
Rab took a brown glass bottle from his pocket and put it on the bar, his round face beaming. “So my plan is that we take over this bar–”
“No,” Vinnie said.
“For once, I’m with Vinnie,” Nick said.
Rab charged on. “—and when people come in here for a drink, we put some scupper in their glasses.”
Nick switched his focus to Rab. “There’s scupper in that bottle?”
“Yes!” Rab beamed. “A hundred proof. If they drink it and don’t pass out, they’re not demons. If they do, we drag them in the back, bring them around, question them about the gate and Forcas and Sadiel and Jimmy, then you open a gate, we push them through, and Thanatos can take it from there . . .” He glanced at Nick and faltered.
“Thanatos?” Vinnie said.
“Gatekeeper to Niflheim,” Rab said, keeping an eye on Nick. “Tall, thin, gray, half-stoned most of the time because of the Dreamtime air in Niflheim, so sometimes you have to repeat things, but niceguy–”
Nick frowned at him.
Rab shut up.
“So your plan,” Nick said to him, “is to dope unsuspecting customers with 100 proof scupper, and the ones who are demons will drink it and go into an alcoholic coma and possibly die, after which equilibrium will suck them back into Hell, and it will look to humans as though their bodies have disappeared into thin air.”
Rab swallowed, shrinking a little under Nick’s shadow. “Well, there is that.”
Vinnie spoke out of the corner of his mouth to Jeo. “What’s scupper?”
“Demon liquor,” Jeo whispered. “Very potent, usually cut to ten or twenty proof. Tastes great though.”
Vinnie nodded. “Could we could sell it here?”
“No point,” Jeo said. “Humans can’t taste it. No effect on them. Like drinking water.”
Nick looked at Jeo, who shut up. Then he turned back to Rab. “How much scupper did you bring with you?”
“Oh . . .” Rab cast his eyes around as if hoping a gate would appear and he could lunge through it. “Five gallons. Maybe twenty. But I’ll pour it down the drain, I promise–”
Nick shook his head once. “Do not pour it down the drain, Rabiel. We don’t know where it will go. It might do something bad to the wildlife. Or to the ecosystem in the lake, which is already disturbing. Remember Beelzebub and the dinosaurs? We don’t want that again, do we?”
“No. No. No, we do not.” Rab swallowed again, put the bottle on the bar, and nudged it toward Nick with his fingertips. “So there’s this bottle. And . . . uh . . . what do I do with the rest? Sir.”
“Jeo,” Nick said.
“Yes, Nick,” Jeo said.
“Take the twenty gallons of potential disaster from your idiot friend and put it somewhere under lock and key. Do not tell him where. Give me the key.”
“You gotta admit, it was a great idea,” Rab said.
Nick surveyed Rab: round-faced, enthusiastic, and completely without boundaries. “Rabiel, you will not have any more great ideas. Ever. In your lifetime.”
“A demon’s lifetime is pretty long,” Rab began, but Jeo said, “You got it, Nick,” grabbed Rab by his hoodie, and yanked him through the archway into the safety of the back room.
“And now, Vinnie.” Nick flipped up the middle section of the bar that was hinged as a pass-through and walked around to the business side of the scarred counter.
Vinnie took a step back. “Listen, mister, you don’t scare me–”
“Then you’re not paying attention.” Keeping his back to the Hotels, Nick flattened his hand, palm up. A flame sprang up, bright red, dancing on his palm.
Rab came out of the back room and said, “Sorry, sorry, I left the bottle–” and then stopped.
“That’s just a trick,” Vinnie said, watching the flame. “That’s just–”
Nick threw his hand at the faded red teddy bear overhead, and the little devil bear whooshed up, burning hotter than Hell for a second and then subsiding to nothing but a pile of ash, everything around it untouched.
“Wow,” Statler said.
“Now that was a precision smite,” Rab said. “Sir.”
Nick turned to him, hellfire burning on his palm again.
“Never mind,” Rab said and went back through the archway.
Vinnie jerked his head back to look at Nick, and Nick let the skull beneath his façade show through.
Vinnie went sheet white and took two steps back.
“Who did you tell?” Nick said.
“Mr. Lemmon,” Vinnie said fast. “I told Mr. Lemmon. He gives me money, and he just wants to know anything I hear. Don’t kill me.”
“I can’t kill you, I’m not the Devil yet.” Nick closed his fist to extinguish the flame and tried to put “Mr. Lemmon” into the jigsaw of miscellaneous clues the last two agents had left. “I’m new here, Vinnie, who’s Mr. Lemmon?”
The street door opened, and Vinnie looked past Nick. “Oh, hell.”
A woman paused inside the door, tall and pale and dark-haired in an over-sized black hoodie.
Statler called out, “Spooky!” and raised his glass, and the mustache guy, Waldorf, said, “Spook! Long time no see!”
“Hotels,” the woman said, her voice low as she strode toward the bar.
Nick picked up Rab’s bottle of scupper and shoved it into the miscellany of bottles on Vinnie’s back rail. “Who’s she?”
“Island cop.” Vinnie said out of the side of his mouth. “Psychic. Her great-great grandpa was Death.”
“Death is not a person.”
Vinnie shrugged. “Her great-great-grandma thought he was.”
The woman reached the bar, pale as death, her silky black hair cut straight below her ears, black bangs cut straight above her sharply arched eyebrows, black eyes looking straight past him at Vinnie, her irises as black as her pupils. She had a thin face, a wicked jaw, and a pointed chin that went up as she saw them. And the air was noticeably colder when she got close.
She seemed familiar. Where have I seen you before? he thought, and then two more people came through the door, a brown-haired, thin-faced man who looked a little like her, and a shorter, pretty blonde in glasses who didn’t look anything at all like her.
“Spooky,” Vinnie said, his voice too high, and Nick realized the barkeep was more afraid of this cold woman than he was of two demons and the Devil’s fixer.
Mr. Lemmon could wait. He folded his arms and leaned back against Vinnie’s shelves of bad booze to watch.
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 the lights up 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. “I’m sorry, who are you?”
“And you’re the Devil.”
“Good answer.” Nita turned 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!”–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, 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 of 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 to 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 check-in.” Belia’s fruity voice stopped just short of accusatory. “You’re never late for anything. I set an alarm just to make sure I caught your call and you didn’t call. 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. “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 to the back of 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.
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 looking happy and Max is looking edgy, which means something’s wrong. 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 somebody 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, one of Moloch’s Demon Firster fan boys. I asked Max, and he said he’d never heard of him, but he was just grumpy because I woke him up. It’s hard to tell with Max. Plus you know. He lies.”
“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. When will you call again?“
“This afternoon.” He checked his double-faced watch, one side set to Earth Time, the other to Hell Time. “Give me till noon here. That’s ten Earth hours from now so about an hour Hell time.”
“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 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 lapse. 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.
Button leaned over the bar. “What are you doing?” she said as Nita surveyed Vinnie’s deplorable store of liquor.
“Making myself a toddy,” Nita said. “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 crap. 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 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.”
She put the bottle on the bar, and Nick picked it up 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, hardworking, respectful. 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, Joe.” 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 Joe,” 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 his 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.”
“But first 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 bodies being this cold.
Not that he had any room to object. He was dead.
He checked to make sure shehadn’t died, she was that cold, 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’s bear.” 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.”