DIYUDAY, 8AM, HT (Hell Time)
Mammon scowled up at Nick front and center from the marble floor below, with the affable, treacherous Maxiel on one side and the moronic but still venal Ashtaroth on the other. Your ass is mine. Nick turned and looked up to the Emerati Gallery to make sure that Beelzebub wasn’t about to pour beer on him, and fair-haired Lucifer looked languidly down at him like the bored, dissolute aristocrat he was. Then Beelzebub waved to Nick over the rail up there, guzzling his beer and looking like one of those insane demi-gods with the crazy eyes who dropped lightning bolts on people for fun, probably because he was.
“Hello, Nicolas,” Satan said, from beside him in the Devil’s Chair.
Nick turned and dropped his two copies of Fenella’s book on the table beside the Devil. “What the hell am I doing in Hell?”
“No, dear boy.” Lucifer bent over the rail, his blue eyes narrowed. “What on Earth are you doing on Earth?”
Nick looked up at Lucifer, the laziest of all Devils, and said, “Oh, nowyou pay attention.”
“It’s an excellent question.” Satan’s eyebrows arched sharply under the black point of his widow’s peak. “What’s taking you so long on Earth? Usually you’re more efficient than this, Nicolas.”
“Usually all Hell is not breaking loose on Earth,” Nick said. “A demon shot a human last night. They both died. I’ve got Belia looking for them here, but then somebody took a shot at another human . . .” He remembered Nita at breakfast, seemingly unconcerned, those dark eyes zeroed in on finding out about Jimmy’s death. “She’s still in danger–”
“Have Rab and Jeo handle it,” Satan said. “We need you here.”
“Why?” Nick shook his head. “Belia can run this place without me. There’s no reason to pull me back.”
“Moloch felt you should be here since you’re taking over at midnight. I thought he had a point.”
Nick frowned at him, feeling what would have been exasperation if he hadn’t been dead. “I’d just found Cormes when you yanked me back, so we’ve probably lost him again. Sadiel and Forcas are still missing, and we haven’t found the Hellgate yet. And you brought me back because Molochsaid so?”
“Are you questioning me?” Satan’s eyes narrowed in his pale as death face, his irises as black as his pupils and his arched eyebrows even more pointed under his widow’s peak as he scowled, his wicked jaw and pointed chin going up–
“Oh, Hell,” Nick said, taking a step back as the enormity of the recognition hit.
Satan’s eyes were cold on Nick. “I beg your pardon,”
“You were on Demon Island thirty-three Earth years ago,” Nick snarled. Satan stood up, and Nick lowered his voice, still seething. “Thirty-three years and nine months ago.”
“I fail to see how that’s any concern of yours.” Satan leaned closer. “Have you forgotten who you’re talking to?”
“I know exactlywho I’m talking to,” Nick said, so softly that only Satan could hear. “You have a daughter.”
Satan drew back and sat down again.
And Nick took a deep breath. He wasn’t angry. He was dead. He was just feeling a fuck ton of emphasis. “Remember a woman named Mitzi Dodd?”
“She tried to kill me,” Satan said, gathering his thoughts.
“So of course you had sex with her,” Nick said, inches away from throwing him over the railing, the hell with the consequences.
“That was her idea.” Satan was frowning now. “A woman of strong convictions.”
“So’s your daughter.” Nick took a deep breath. “And now I have to go back down there and save her. Somebody tried to kill your kid last night.”
“I have a kid,” Satan said, bemused. “What’s she like?”
“All hell is breaking loose on that island, and you want to know what she’s like?” Nick gritted his teeth to keep from yelling again. “She’s fierce, she’s tough, she’s relentless, she’s a pain in the ass, I’ll bring you a picture. Now for the sake of Hell and Earth, let me go back down there so I can save her and clean up this mess.”
Satan leaned in again, his dark eyes full of the same intensity Nick had seen in Nita at breakfast, and he thought, How did I not see this from beginning?
“She’s fierce?” Satan said softly.
“She makes you look like a fuzzy bunny. We have bigger problems.”
“A fuzzy bunny?”
“Moloch killed people,” Nick said, “and I think Mammon helped him,” and Satan turned hellish eyes on Moloch and Mammon, below on the floor of the Pandemonium.
“Did he try to kill my daughter?” Satan asked.
“I don’t know. That’s what I was trying to find out when you yanked me up here at Moloch’s request, so you do the math.”
“Do the math?”
“English idiom. You make the connection.”
“I have a daughter,” Satan said.
“Sure, you concentrate on that.” Nick handed Satan one of his copies of Fenella’s book, said “Check out page 127,” and looked down over the rail at the demons gathered. “I’ll take care of Moloch and Mammon.”
Satan took the book. “I would not want something to happen to my child.”
“I wouldn’t, either. Which is why I need to get back down to Earth.” Nick leaned over the railing and snarled, “Mammon!”
Mammon’s fixer, Max, looked alarmed, but Mammon smiled up, confident and smug, and beside him Moloch smirked.
Die, asshats, Nick thought.
Five minutes earlier, Maxiel Quintus had watched Nick Giordano up in the Devil’s Gallery scowl at the Devil.
Nick was angry.
That was new.
How can I use this?
“Max,” Mammon said from beside him. “Find out what Nick is doing back here. He’s supposed to be on Earth.”
“Moloch had him brought back,” Ashtaroth said from Mammon’s other side. “Thought he should be here, so we can deal with him.” He tried to sound menacing but just sounded weasely.
Mammon was scowling. “Moloch should have asked me first. I want Nicolas on Earth.”
“Why?” Max said, pretty sure he wasn’t going to like the answer.
“I have plans for him.” Mammon was almost purring.
No, no. “Boss, these are plans you should have run past me.”
“Nonsense. Just a small move in our game of political chess.”
Max sighed in exasperation. “Nothingthat happens around Nick Giordano is small. And since I’m the one who fixes your screw-ups, it would be good if I had some advance warning that the screw was about to go up. Why do you want him down there?”
“I have put some things in motion that require that he be . . .” Mammon paused, probably for effect, his calculating face looking up at the Devil’s Chair. “. . . Earthbound.”
Mammon had been around for many millennia and it was showing in the sag along his jawline, but he still occasionally got that boyish light in his eyes that said, I have an idea. Hold my beer. That light was there now.
Fuck me,Max thought. “Boss, you need to tell me these things.”
“You watch your mouth, boy,” Ashtaroth said. “You’ll do what Mam tells you to do.”
Get smote, Ashtaroth. Max looked back up at the balcony where Nick was speaking now, Satan listening closely. “Nick’s smart. He’s thorough. He’s relentless. He’s a bad enemy to have.”
“He’s a dead human,” Mammon said, dismissively.
“Pile of bones,” Ashtaroth said. “Thinks he’s going to run Hell. I don’t think so.”
Max fought back the urge to kick Ashtaroth. “Being dead is what makes him dangerous. The guy has no emotions, he’s like a machine.” Except today, Nick was having emotions. “I think things might be finally breaking our way. I need to know–”
“Mammon,” Nick snarled from the balcony, and Max closed his eyes and thought, We’re dead.
“Yes?” Mammon said, his smile back in place.
Nick leaned over the rail of the balcony, looking positively devilish. “Two hundred years ago, you and three others opened a hellgate and established a colony on an American island.”
Mammon shrugged. “So.”
No, boss, Max thought. Do not shrug off the angry dead human who has the power to smite.
“That was illegal,” Nick said, softly now, which was much more frightening.
Mammon shrugged. “We harmed no one.”
“You killed eighty-seven humans,” Nick snarled.
“What?” Satan said, straightening in his chair.
Well, it was fun while it lasted, Max thought, and stepped in front of Mammon to shield him from whatever was coming next.
“No,” Mammon was saying to Satan. “We made an island and opened gates, we did not kill anybody.”
“Yousettledthat island.” Nick stared at him in fury, which was also new. “You drew people to that island three years running. The first two settlements died in bad winters, and so did half of the third settlement. Eighty-seven people.”
“You lie!” Ashtaroth said from Mammon’s other side.
Smite Ashtaroth, Max thought. Please. I’d be so grateful.
“Shut up, Ashtaroth,” Nick said without taking his eyes off Mammon. “The adults are talking.”
“Oh, yeah?” Ashtaroth said, swaggering.
“Ashtaroth!” Satan said, and the demons next to Ashtaroth drew away and left him and Mammon and Max alone in the middle of the marble floor. “Do you have proof of this lie?”
“He’s human?” Ashtaroth said, now clearly regretting his momentary power surge.
“Come on, boss,” Max whispered, trying to draw Mammon away.
“You are demons,” Satan said, in the voice that had quelled all creatures for thousands of years. “You do not scream insults and make unsupported accusations like humans. You are betterthan that.”
“Thanks,” Nick the dead human said, still staring at Mammon.
That was Nick for you, Max thought. He kept his eye on the ball. Too bad the ball is my boss.
“No.” Mammon sounded serious now. “I did not kill humans. We made the island as a private retreat. There were no humans on it. When I went back a couple of years later, there were people, but I assumed they’d just found it.”
“Somebodylured people to try to settle it,” Nick said. “Somebody interfered with human lives and caused the deaths of eighty-seven people.”
Oh, fuck. Max turned to look at Mammon and saw surprise on his face.
“Well?” Nick said from up on the balcony.
Mammon looked straight at Nick, his famous smile gone, “Nick, I swear, I didn’t.”
Nick stared down at Mammon for a long moment, and Max thought his façade was fading; he could see the skull behind those dark, hooded, dead human eyes.
And then Nick looked at him.
Max shook his head. He didn’t do it, Nick.
Nick looked back at Mammon. “I believe you,” he said, and Max let out his breath. “So one of the others did.”
“You can’t expect me to betray my partners,” Mammon said, smirking.
Nick didn’t blink. “Ashtaroth, Thanatos, and Moloch.”
Mammon lost his smirk, and Max thought, I told you so.
Then the list of Mammon’s partners registered. A weasel, a stoner, and Evil Incarnate. You really know how to pick a team, boss.
“And since Ashtaroth and Thanatos couldn’t lure pigeons to popcorn . . .” Nick went on.
“Oh, hey,” Ashtaroth whined.
“Moloch,” Satan called, and Moloch stepped into the empty space around Ashtaroth, his sleazy little smile in place over his popped-up collar.
“Look, it’s an island.” He spread his hands out. “So we lost some people building it, that’s human history for you.”
“No, that’s free will that’s been violated,” Nick said. “And now, thanks to you, we have an illegal gate, and one of you is killing people to cover up what you’re doing down there.”
“You lie!” Ashtaroth yelled again, and in the upper gallery, Lucifer waved his hand and Ashtaroth dodged a fireball just in time, screaming as he got a contact burn.
“Do it again!” Beelzebub bounced in his chair and pounded the table in front of him. “Do it again!”
And these are my people, Max thought.
“I suppose you felt you had to,” Satan said, looking up at Lucifer.
“He was rude.” Lucifer leaned back, heavy-lidded and detached. “I loathe the uneducated.”
“There’s an illegal gate,” Nick said, focused as ever as he stared down at Moloch, earning Max’s admiration. It took real power of concentration to stay on task with Lucifer and Beelzebub overhead. “I would like to know who opened the hellgates for you.”
“Oh, that was me,” Beelzebub said from above, and both Nick and Satan turned to look up at him. “Moloch asked and it seemed like a reasonable request.”
Beelzebub, Max thought. All of the power, none of the brains.
“You’re going to have to take care of that one,” Nick said to Satan. “Punishing Devils is above my pay grade.”
“He can’t do anything to me, either.” Beelzebub sat back. “Devils are above the law.”
Lucifer flicked his hand and set Beelzebub’s chair on fire.
“Hey!” Beelzebub got up and sloshed his beer on the fire. “Not funny.”
“I wasn’t trying to be amusing,” Lucifer said. “There are laws and there are unwritten laws.”
“And what unwritten law says you can set me on fire?”
“Lucifer’s Law,” Lucifer said. “Which says that moronic Devils who open unregistered hellgates for homicidal demons must burn.”
“That’s not a law.” Beelzebub swatted at a spark on his arm. “Tell him, Satan.”
Satan stared him down. “If you ever open a hellgate for anybody else, I’ll make that a law.”
Max rubbed his forehead. His boss’s bright idea now had three—no, four, if you counted Nick—Devils at odds with each other. He looked up at Nick’s face and saw the exasperation plain there, more emotion than the dead guy had ever shown before.
Well, things had never been this much of a mess before.
“Look, big deal,” Moloch said. “So he opened gates. Who cares?”
Nick turned on him. “I care. And you should, too. Sooner or later, some human is going to stumble through one and there’ll be Hell to save.”
“You’re afraid of the humans?” Moloch said, delighted to have found a weak spot.
“I think you’re not enough afraid of them,” Nick said. “I think you’re such a bigot you underestimate them.”
Sometimes it was hard being Nick’s opposite number, Max thought. He was right so much of the time.
“I’m afraid of mermaids.” Beelzebub sat back down in his still smoking chair. “I think it’s the tails.”
“Mermaids are an Earth myth, you beetlebrain,” Lucifer said.
“So are we,” Beelzebub said.
“Where’s the fucking gate, Moloch?” Nick said.
Moloch hesitated. “Which one?”
Max looked at Mammon. “More than one gate?”
“Seemed like a good idea at the time,” Mammon said.
“How many gates are there, Moloch?” Satan said softly.
“Four,” Moloch said. “We each had one. We felt–”
“I don’t care what you felt.” Satan looked at Nick. “You’ll have to close them. Get a list from–”
“We don’t know where they are now,” Moloch said.
Max tried to pull Mammon back into the crowd, although at this point, pulling him into the Ninth Circle probably wouldn’t save him.
Mammon shook off Max’s hand. “Of course, we know where they are.”
“No,” Moloch told him. “It’s been two hundred Earth years. The humans changedthings. They cut down the trees in Thanatos’s grove. When the natural arch went, the gate disappeared. Mine did, too; somebody built a house over it.”
“They paved over mine,” Ashtaroth said, sounding aggrieved, although Max thought that might have been because he was still smoking from Lucifer’s fireball.
Mammon looked back up at Nick. “Mine’s in my old house. A row house on Primrose Path.”
“It’s a bar now,” Nick said.
“That gate’s closed, too,” Moloch said. “I tried to use it when mine disappeared. It’s been bricked over.”
“Then how are demons getting on that island?” Nick said.
“Well, we only have your word that they are,” Moloch said.
Max yanked Mammon deeper into the crowd. “Never talk to that demon again.”
“Moloch.” Satan leaned over the rail. “You’re going back to Earth to show Nick where those gates were–”
“No,” Nick said. “Moloch is permanently banned from Earth. People die when Moloch goes to Earth.”
“Fine,” Satan said. “Mammon, you are going back to Earth with Nick where you willfind those gates. You opened them, you close them.”
“But–” Mammon began.
“Can I kill him if he crosses me?” Nick said.
“Yes,” Satan said.
“Nowwait a minute,” Mammon said, and Max kicked him on the ankle.
They were still alive. Take the win, boss.
Nick scowled down at them. Then he turned as someone tapped him on the shoulder, and Max saw Nick’s assistant Belia, looking worried, and heard her say, “Rab called up, Nita’s looking for you . . .”
“And look, he has a woman assistant who tells him what to do,” Ashtaroth said, trying for scorn and just sounding whiny. “Listening to a woman. And she’s not even sexy. Oh, yeah, he’s Devil material.”
She’s twenty times the demon you are, Max thought, and then watched as Nick’s face changed from angry to alert. Emotions,he thought. What happened to you on Earth?
Nick leaned over the rail. “We’re leaving in two minutes. Don’t screw with me, Mammon, or I will remove you from existence.”
Then he bent back to Satan, talking fast while Belia hovered in the background.
“So we’re going to Earth.” Mammon broke into a smile, his whole face lighting up. “This will be fun.”
It’s a good thing I like you, Max thought, exasperated, and looked up at the Devil’s Chair where Nick was looking at Satan with the same expression.
Yeah, I know, he thought, and went to get ready for a return to Earth.
Inside one of Motel Styx’s grubbier rooms, Mort said there, and Nita an arcane looking box on the table, weighted down with his medical bag. The box was an amalgamation of various colored metal panels, gears and weird symbols, with an equally weird combination lock on the front with more symbols. It looked like something that might have come from one of the higher end shops on the island, the Church of Satan Gift Shop or Demonista.
“I can’t get it open,” Mort said, “and there’s something inside that moves. When I got my stethoscope, it sounded like something moaning in there. I figured the Devil could probably open it.”
Mort put it on the carpet.
The box slowly but surely moved to the north wall of the motel room and pressed itself against the radiator there, bumping up against the table under the window.
“Maybe the floor’s not level.” Nita went over and picked it up. “What’s inside?”
“I can’t get it open.”
Nita squinted at the box and began to press pieces of it.“Okay, these panels move. Maybe you have to do something with them first . . .” After trying a few things, she slid the two side panels back simultaneously, and then other panels began to move on their own. When the box stopped moving, she turned the front knob, and the top of the box came open—
Something round and bloody and green with black eyes and a torn mouth rose upscreaming—
Nita slammed the lid down again. “No, no, no!” She pressed down on the lid to keep it closed, her heart pounding. “What was that?”
“That was a demon head,” Mort said, his voice grim.
“A demon head.” Nita nodded, trying to remain calm. “Okay. Okay. That’s not a help, we need reality here. So we have a murder, that’s normal. And this is the dead guy’s head. Okay. Where’s the rest of him?” And then reality overwhelmed her. “And why is this head screaming?”
“It’s trying to get back to his body.” Mort closed the latch and then took the box from her. “We have to find the Devil.” He picked up his bag. “I’m coming, too, for the chain of evidence, but that’s a demon head trying to get back to its body, and for that, we need the Devil.”
He started for the door, and Nita said, “Wait a minute,” but he kept going.
Demons are real.
No, they aren’t.
That was a demon head in that box
No, it wasn’t.
If demons are real, then Nick is—
She went out to find Mort sitting in her ancient black Prius.
This isn’t real. Nita got in the car and fastened her seatbelt.
Seatbelts were real.
“None of this is real,” she told Mort.
“Find the Devil,” he said, and she started the car.
When Nick brought Mammon and Max through the archway gate to Hell Bar, Jeo and Rab stopped assembling Ikea and gaped at them, appalled.
“Them?” Jeo said.
Nick pointed Mammon and Max to the big table the boys had set up for Vinnie to feel important. “Sit.”
“You can’t order–” Mammon began.
“Give me a reason to smite you both,” Nick snapped.
“Sit down, boss.” Max sat, keeping an eye on Jeo and Rab. “The Devil’s in a mood and we are not with friends.”
“He’s not the Devil yet.” Mammon lost his smile for a moment, but he sat as Nita came in, banging the door to the bar, wild-eyed and angry.
Something happened,Nick thought but before he could speak, she snarled at him.
“New Guy. I’ve been lookingfor you. Where the hellhave you been?”
“My name is Nick,” Nick snarled back.
“I know. Come with me right nowor I’ll arrest you.”
“I likeher,” Mammon said, smiling.
Nick turned to Jeo, who was still staring appalled at Mammon. “I have to go with the detective now even though she will not arrest me because she has no grounds.”
Nita folded her arms. “How about refusing to cooperate with the police in the investigation of a crime?” She drew a deep, shuddering breath. “A murder.”
She was more than upset, he realized. She was shaken. Something very bad had happened.
Nick turned to Mammon. “You may look for hellgates, but nothing else on this island.” Then he looked past him to Max. “That goes for you, too.”
“Seems a shame,” Max said, cheerfully. “Looks like a nice little island to explore.”
“If you cause any more trouble here, I will smite you into a scorch mark,” Nick said.
Mammon snorted. “Everybody knows you don’t smite living things.”
Nick looked at him with loathing. “Your death I will put on posters in Hell.”
Nita cleared her throat, and Nick turned around to see her holding her handcuffs up between her thumb and forefinger.
“So you’ve met your soulmate,” Mammon said to Nick.
“Now,” Nita said, and he heard the tremble in her voice.
“What’s wrong?” he asked her.
“There’s something we need you to look at.” She swallowed, and he could see her trying to get control of herself. “And I missed lunch.”
“You missed lunch?” Nick gave up. “Let’s go. Whatever you’ve got can’t be any worse than here.”
“Don’t bet on it,” Nita said, and left the bar.
Nita handed Nick the box when they were in the car. “There’s a head in there, don’t open it,”, but of course he did, and the head rose up screaming again, and he slammed the lid down.
“Forcas,” he said, so much rage on his face he looked like Hell unleashed.
“Don’t let go of it,” she told him. “It moves.”
Nick let go of the box and it hurtled toward the back, narrowly missing Mort to smash into the hatchback glass.
“I told you,” Nita began.
“Turn around. We’re going north.”
“So,” she said, gripping the steering wheel. “You know who the . . . head . . . is? Okay. Okay, that’s a start. We have a murder. Where’s the rest of him? And why is that head screaming?”
“It’s trying to get back to his body.”
Mort spoke up from the back seat. “When the head’s with the body, will the body go back to Hell?”
“Okay.” Nita took a deep breath. “Okay. There’s nothing north but the Nature Preserve. It’s walled off. I don’t think–”
“North,” Nick said.
“Okay.” Nita swung the car around just as Nick yelled, “Watch it!” and the box came hurtling into the front window and cracked it.
Nita sat there for a minute, trying to breathe. I’m angry, that’s all, she told herself, and then she thought, No, I’m terrified. “I should have seen that coming. But that’s a box with a disembodied head in it flying through the air.”
“Can you see to drive?” Nick said.
“Yes,” Nita said.
She hit the gas and headed toward the Nature Preserve, the box pressing against her cracked windshield. You’re a detective. Detect. That’s normal. “So this was the agent you’ve been looking for? Forcas?”
“Not was, is. If we can get him back to Hell, he’ll probably make it. But he’s been in that box trying to get back to his body for days . . .”
Nita hit the gas harder. I don’t believe in demons, I don’t believe in demons . . . Except that was a demon head in a box and it was still alive and the guy last night with two bullet holes in his head had disappeared and–
“So you have two missing agents.” Nita tried to slow her breathing. Hyperventilating was not going to help. “But you haven’t found the first one and you don’t know where he is.” Not in a box, please not in a box.
“She. The first agent was Sadiel.”
“Uh huh,” Nita said. “Sure.” I’m losing my mind. Demons aren’t real. That thing in the box is not real.
“It has to be a demon who decapitated Forcas,” Nick said, “because he knew how to put his head in an acamas box so he couldn’t get back to Hell and testify.”
“What’s an acamas box?” Mort said from the back seat.
“A supernatural lock box.”
“Good to know,” Nita said. This isn’t real, this isn’t real, this isn’t real–
She slowed as they reached the turn down into the Preserve, passing the ridiculous yellow McMansion the Lemmon family had plopped in the middle of all the wild beauty there. She stopped in front of the metal gates and got her police card out of her bag to show it to the scanner on the key card post. It took a little while because her hand was shaking. Then the gates opened and she went through them.
The box was still pressed against the windshield.
She tried hard not to believe that was because it held a head trying to get back to its body.
The box slid to the right, and Nick said, “Turn here.”
There are a million ways he could be moving that box, Nita told herself, but she turned down the ancient gravel road.
“This is just a hiking trail,” she said as the car bumped along. “It leads to Demon Head . . .” Bad time to mention the name of the local landmark.
The box moved back to the center of the windshield.
Oh, god, it’s real, Nita thought. It can’t be real. It must be real.
“There.” Mort stuck his hand between the seats and pointed past Nita’s nose, and she saw a white car, a hundred yards away off to the left in an overgrown meadow under some trees.
The box began to slide toward her side of the car.
“Okay.” She pulled up as close as she could get, stopping at the edge of the meadow. “Okay. We walk the rest of the way. It’s only about–”
Nick grabbed the box and got out of the car, Mort right behind him with his kit. Halfway across the brush, the box burst from Nick’s hands and went crashing into the white car, and Nick and Mort ran to catch up.
“No.” Nita sagged back against the car seat. This is all real. This has been real the whole time.
There had to be an explanation, but the only one that was working was that demons were real. Which meant that Nick . . . .
She got out of the car, leaned on the door, and took a deep breath. Then she headed for Nick and Mort.
They had the white car’s door open when she reached them, and Nita could see the headless body in the passenger seat.
Mort said, “Don’t open the box yet,” and took a picture with his cellphone while Nita squinted around him to see the decaying corpse.
It wasn’t decaying.
“Shouldn’t that be . . . kind of gross by now?”
“He’s not dead.” Nick had the box on the ground and was moving side panels as he spoke. “Mort, get out of the way.”
Mort stepped aside.
Nita felt cold all over, much colder than usual. It’s fear, she thought. I’ve never been this afraid before.
Nick opened the box, and the head flew out and onto the body and screamed again.
“Oh, god.” Nita looked away. A head that had been battering itself inside a box for several days was not a good look. “Oh, god.”
Nick bent over the body and said, “Who?”
The body pointed to the top of the hill, to Demon Head, and Nita thought, It’s real. It’s all real.
I’ve lost my mind.
Think about the work.
“Fingerprints,” she said to Mort, her voice shaking. “You might get prints from whoever drove the car here. Or whoever opened it to put the body in.”
“Give him something for the pain,” Nick said to Mort.
Mort got a syringe from his bag, and Nick turned to her. “What’s up there?”
“Demon Head, the highest point on the island.” Nita swallowed hard. “From New York on the other side of the lake, it looks like a face . . .” It’s real. It’s all real.
“Is there anything else up there?”
“The ranger station. Ranger Rich lives up there. I don’t–”
“How do I get up there?”
Nita took a deep breath. “The track we were on goes up there. We can’t drive it–”
He was gone, heading for the track.
“Are you okay here?” she asked Mort as he snapped the needle off the used syringe and the body stopped groaning.
Not the body.
“Yeah,” he said, his attention on Forcas.
Nita went after Nick.
The path up Demon Head rose a lot faster than Nick had expected when he’d started up the track. If he hadn’t been dead, he’d have gotten winded climbing the last hundred yards. But once on top, the view was striking: Pitchfork Lake, sparkling in the sunset around the jagged, lethal rocks that perforated it like teeth, and then beyond that, the dark, forested shore on the New York side. The top had been cleared, and a small log cabin sat to one side.
“Okay,” Nita’s voice came from behind him, shaky and breathless. “What are we looking for?”
“Forcas pointed up here, so this is where we’ll find whoever cut off his head.”
“Don’t move,” Nita said.
Nick turned around.
A giant shaggy goat was climbing to the top of the path they’d just climbed, larger than a cow, its curving black horns a good three feet in diameter.
“I said,” Nita said softly, “don’t move. That’s a-”
“It’s an island goat, but they can be–”
“It’s a goat from Hell.”
“That’s what the tourists call them,” Nita began and then stopped. “Oh. You mean literally–”
“Some idiot brought baphomets through a hellgate to this island.” No, not some idiot, Moloch. Moloch when he figured out why people were dying, he brought them for food.
The baph put its head down and pawed the ground, and Nita said, “Keep your voice down.”
Nick snapped, “Baphomet down!” in Demonaic, and the baph raised its head, surprised. “Go!”
The baph looked at him unaffectionately for a moment, and then turned and lumbered back down the track.
“That’s a handy skill,” Nita began, her voice too high, and then she stopped, alert again.
Somebody was coming up the path.
“Mort?” Nita stepped forward, but a stranger cleared the rise, dressed in a ranger’s uniform. “Rich! There’s a goat–”
“I saw him,” the ranger said, grinning at her. “You get real used to them out here.”
Richiel, Nick thought. You are going straight to Hell, you bastard.
“I’ll never get used to them,” Nita was saying, her voice tight as piano wire.
Richiel transferred his smile to Nick. “So what’re you all doing out here?”
“I came to see the baphomets,” Nick said.
“Really? Not a lot of people come all the way out here just to see a baph . . .
Richiel stopped, realizing his mistake.
Nick began to move in front of Nita and then remembered that hadn’t done a thing for Jimmy. “Nita, go back to the car.”
“You’re Nick Giordano,” Richiel said, ignoring Nita now as he unsnapped his holster and took out his gun. “Heard about you.”
“So you know I’m dead.” Nick moved away from Nita, hoping she’d have the brains to move toward the path. “Put the gun away, it won’t stop me.”
Nita began to sidle toward the path, but he saw her reach into jacket and pull out a short baton.
Run, you idiot.
The ranger began to turn toward her. “The gun won’t stop you, but if you want heralive, you’ll let me leave.”
“And go where?” Nick shook his head. “It’s over, Richiel. If Satan doesn’t end you for what you did to Forcas, I will when I’m Devil.”
The ranger swung back to him. “You think you’re gonna be Devil?” He snorted. “Never gonna happen, human. All of Hell will rise up–”
“Of course, you’re a Demon Firster.” Nick put a lot scorn in his voice, hoping that would make Richiel angry and careless. “All the whiners join that. Look, your only chance now is to make a deal. Who ordered Jimmy killed? Who set all of this up? Give me good info and I’ll see what I can do to keep Satan from smiting you.”
“You on this guy’s side, Nita?” Richiel said to her.
“I think you’re both nuts.” Nita’s voice shook, but she held her baton firmly, hidden by her side. “I just want to get off this damn hill and get a drink.”
“Not gonna happen, honey. You’re my ticket out.” Richiel swung the gun her way and began to move sideways toward her, keeping his eyes on Nick. “We’re going down the path now. You just stay between me and the dead guy, and everything will be fine.”
Nick thrust out his hand, flattened, and hellfire leaped into the twilight. “Don’t go, Nita. He’ll kill you as soon as he’s out of my reach.”
“You know what’s interesting about Nick?” Rich said to Nita, close to her now. “He doesn’t smite. He thinks life is too valuable to use the power Satan gave him, the coward.” He turned to Nick. “You won’t do it, you wuss,” he said, and reached for her as she swung her baton at his head.
She connected, hard, and Richiel staggered back, and Nick threw the fireball at him.
The demon went up screaming in a column of scorching, whooshing Hell-red flame that subsided almost immediately, leaving nothing but a black mark where he’d stood, shards of blasted stone sticking up around the mark.
Nita turned to Nick, paper white, and then her knees gave out and she dropped to the ground.
She was on her knees.
She could feel the stone under her knees.
It hurt, so that was real.
But where Rich had been, there was just . . .
No, not nothing, there was a black scorch mark.
And some of the rock had splintered upward, like the pitchfork rocks in the lake . . .
She turned her head slowly.
Nick was standing there, watching her, looming and terrifying and huge and lethal, those dark, hooded eyes fixed on her, the same guy she’d had breakfast with, the same guy . . .
Not the same guy.
He began to walk toward her, and she pulled back, and he stopped.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Nita,” he said, his voice the same low, steady sound it had always been.
That part of him that had always been real. His voice.
It was still him.
She just didn’t know who he was.
What he was.
She was pretty sure he wasn’t going to hurt her. If she did something bad, he’d burn her into a scorch mark, but she hadn’t done anything bad, so he wouldn’t.
“Nita?” He took a few steps closer.
When he was about six feet away, she sucked in her breath and he stopped again.
“Not going to hurt you,” he said again, but he was really big, and he looked king of like that woodcut Button had showed her, and he had those eyes and those cheekbones that reminded her that he was really a skeleton and . . .
“You’re the Devil.”
He crouched down, his elbows on his knees, still six feet away. “Not yet, but I will be.”
“That thing you did. That’s what you did to my grandpa’s bear. Binky.”
“Yes.” His dark eyes watched her carefully.
“You sent Binky to Hell.”
“No. Binky is gone.”
Nita swallowed. “You sent Rich to Hell.”
“No. Rich is gone. He doesn’t exist in any dimension any more.”
“You killed him,” she said, trying to wrap her head around everything.
“I did worse than that,” he said, still watching her. “I erased him from existence. No spirit. No afterlife. He’s just gone.”
Nita swallowed again. “That’s bad.”
“Yes. It’s very bad.”
She took a deep breath. There was too much to deal with all at once. She just had to get things sorted. She just—
“Give me a minute here.”
He nodded and waited.
So first, everything he’d told her was true, she just had to accept that. It wasn’t new information, she just had to move it from the “that’s ridiculous” column in her brain to the “this is real” column. It wasn’t like she had to absorb all of that, she’d absorbed it, she just had to accept it.
And since there wasn’t any other choice, she accepted it.
“You’re the Devil. The next Devil. Jeo and Rab are demons. Hell is real.”
“And you’re dead.”
“Okay.” She let her breath out.
He started to speak, and she said, “Give me a minute,” and he stopped.
There were demons on her island.
Jeo and Rab were demons.
Rich had been a demon.
Mr. Lemmon was probably a demon.
Mr. Crome was looking iffy.
That meant Jimmy’s death was a whole new ballgame. Because the shooter in the SUV had been green, a demon.
And the guy who’d tried to kill her had been green, a demon. Anybody could be a demon.
She drew a long shuddering breath and Nick said, “Nita?”
“Give me a minute,” she said, and he waited.
But Rab and Jeo were demons and they were great. So there were good demons and bad demons which made them just a different color of people unless—
She met Nick’s eyes. “Can all demons smite?”
“No. Just Devils. And me.”
So there wasn’t going to be a rash of smitings on the island. That was good.
Nick had killed Rich.
That was bad.
“You killed Rich.”
She remember Rich aiming the gun at her, reaching for her, which seemed the most plausible of all the things that had happened, so there was that. “I went out with him once.”
“It didn’t work out. We weren’t the same kind of people.” She started to laugh and then bit her lip.
He stood up and came over to her, and she stayed on her knees, not looking up.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, his voice steady as always. “But we have to get you back to town.”
Nita laughed and it didn’t sound right. “The Devil’s talking to me and saying ‘we.’ Who’d have thought I’d be a ‘we’ with the Devil?” She looked up at him then, into those dark dead eyes, shadowed by that broad body backlit by the sunset.
His eyes didn’t look so dead any more.
“You killed Rich to save me.”
She thought about it. “You should have kept him alive. He could have told you everything.”
She tried to put that together with everything else screaming in her head. “You gave up a chance to find the hellgate.”
He looked at her for a long while, and then he said, “You were more important than the hellgate.”
“Oh.” She thought about that, and then she picked up her baton and held up her hand, and he took it and pulled her to her feet.
His hand felt real, warm, strong, pulling her up. He looked almost real, more real than he had that first night in the bar. He did have a widow’s peak, after all. His ears were even sticking out a little, and she held onto that detail because it made him more . . . human. You’re not perfect, your ears stick out, you’re human.
Dead, but human.
More important, he’d been honest with her all along. And he’d saved her life.
And her island was in danger.
“Okay, then.” She let go of his hand. “Now we find who’s behind all of this and stop them.”
He shook his head. “Not we. Me. This is not–”
“Listen, buddy.” She poked her finger in the vicinity of his breastbone to make sure she hit something real. “This is my fucking island and the Devil himself is not going to stop me from protecting it. Are you with me or not?”
He looked down at the finger poking into his shirt front. “So you’re feeling better.”
“Not really.” Nita pulled her hand back and saw it was shaking. “There will be screaming and sobbing later. But right now, I have to work my goddamn job. Are you with me?”
“Sure,” the Devil said. “Let’s clean up your island. But you will follow my lead and you will do what I say.”
“No way in Hell,” Nita said and started back down the path.