Chloe Button was having a trying day, and she was only three hours into it.
She took a deep breath to center herself as she got in her car, turned on the ignition and the defroster, and looked over at the woman getting into the seat next to her.
Detective Dodd was frowning at the windshield as she buckled her seat belt. The frown made her sharp face even scarier. She could at least get those pointed eyebrows plucked. And then there were those eyes, so black you couldn’t tell the irises from the pupil. Sunglasses, maybe? And she could get those bangs off her face so her hair didn’t look so much like a helmet. And maybe some blush and lipstick, color would be a big help in making her look less like the dead. Anything to make her less . . . weird. And cold. Spooky Dodd, the human air conditioner.
This is just great, Chloe thought, abandoning her make-over to turn up the heat. I’m partners with a cold, insane drunk, and she’s still my best career option. Sheliked to think she had an open mind, but she had a legacy to fulfill here. Clearly, lines would have to be drawn.
She pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. “Detective Dodd.”
“He is not real,” Dodd was saying to herself, staring intently through the defrosting windshield. “I do not know what he is, but he is not real.”
Oh, well, that’s just great, definitely hold onto thatthought. “Detective Dodd. We need to talk.”
“Yeah I know, you think he’s gorgeous and I’m a mental alcoholic.” The woman let her head fall back against the seat, her sharp profile illuminated by Hell Bar’s red neon. “But something is very wrong in there and he’s part of it. I understand why you’re upset, and if you want to ask for a new partner, I completely understand–”
“I asked to be your partner,” Chloe broke in. “When I got here yesterday, Captain Mann offered me the chance to be a detective if I partnered with you or Detective Witherspoon, and I picked you. There’s no way I’d get this promotion this young anywhere else, and I’m sick of working with men who pat me on the head, and he was a definite head-patter, so I picked you, but mostly I just want to be great at this job. My family’s history in law enforcement goes back to the seventeenth century. I want to be part of that.”
“The seventeenth century?” Dodd frowned, which made her look even scarier, those spooky eyes narrowed as her black helmet hair swung forward. “Really?”
“Yes, really,” Chloe said, trying to ignore the frown. “Why did you grab Vinnie’s hand when you questioned him? Are you psychic?”
The detective rolled her head again to look at the ceiling. “No. I had seizures when I was a kid, and I’d hallucinate. Now if I touch anybody who’s committed a crime, I subconsciously read the micro-signals and hallucinate blood on their hands. I didn’t see blood when that new guy caught me, which doesn’t mean he doesn’t know something. I wonder what it means that I saw a skeleton. That’s new.” She looked out the window. “Maybe that’s another reading of guilt. Or the booze. The stuff in that brown bottle was amazing.”
Okay, micro signals, that at least was logical. Chloe slumped down in the driver’s seat. She’d been wrestling with a decision ever since her conversation with Captain Mann the day before. Pick a side, she told herself, and considered which side would most likely guarantee a law enforcement career befitting a Button.
Obviously, the captain’s side.
On the other hand, Nita Dodd had a great arrest record. However strange the rest of the Demon Island force thought she was, they were clear on the professional part: she was a good cop. And while she was wrong about the very attractive Nick Giordano not being real, she was not incorrect about there being something very off about the way Detective Witherspoon was handling the shooting.
Buttons had had exemplary careers in law enforcement for three centuries, but not because they played politics. They solved crimes. They arrested lawbreakers. They shot the worst of humanity down like the rats they were. She had a legacy to uphold, and reporting on her crazy but effective partner was not the way to continue the Good Fight.
But there was also no point in burning bridges with the captain.
Be Switzerland, she told herself. All she had to do was stay out of the space between Detective Dodd and the new captain and make sure that the detective did not do anything too bizarre, and she’d come out on top.
But her partner deserved to know. Buttons did not deceive their partners.
“What I don’t understand,” Dodd was saying, “is why tell people he’s the Devil? He’s pretty enough he could just charm people. If he had a personality. I don’t think you can call ‘terrifyingly grim’ a personality. It’s more of a world view—”
Chloe cut in. “You may not be employed much longer if you don’t get a grip.”
Dodd turned to her, pointed eyebrows up in question. She still looked scary as hell, but Chloe was getting used to her.
She took a deep breath. “Captain Mann asked me to take notes on you and report back anything you did that was not . . . standard police procedure.”
“I hope you have a big notebook.”
“I think she wants to get rid of you.”
“I think that’s a fair assumption.”
Chloe frowned at her. “You don’t seem worried.”
“She won’t fire me,” Dodd said. “I annoy her, but I have a good record in the department, and we’re already in upheaval since Captain Witherspoon was forced into retirement and made things as awful as possible on his way out. She’s inherited a mess, including a department where she doesn’t know who she can trust since Witherspoon still has a lot of friends still on the force.”
“Witherspoon,” Chloe said. “Isn’t that the name of the police chief?” And your ex-boyfriend?
“The police chief is Clive Witherspoon. The old captain was his brother, Ray Witherspoon. My ex-partner Jason Witherspoon is Clive’s son and Ray’s nephew. You can’t throw a rock in Demon Island government or law enforcement without hitting a Witherspoon, and god knows, I’ve wanted to. The point is, the new captain can’t afford to lose me.”
“She can afford to lose me,” Chloe said. “Policework is all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s what Iwas bornto do. So, please, no more poodle pants at a crime scene.”
Dodd nodded. “That’s fair. No more poodle pants.”
“And no more telling people they aren’t real.”
Dodd straightened. “I’m telling you, that guy is not real. He’s not a skeleton, either, I’m not insane. But he’s not real.”
She’s still drunk. Chloe put the car in gear, deciding to table that argument for a sober moment. “We’ll talk in the morning.” She pulled out and steered around the ME’s van where Mort Dodd was arguing again with Jason Witherspoon, who was possibly as corrupt as his uncle since he was trying to write off this investigation. The argument explained why Mort hadn’t come back to the bar. She waved to him and slowed so that he could see his sister, who waved, too, and then she sped up, anxious to get away before her new partner insulted anybody else.
“Thank you for telling me about the captain,” Dodd said after awhile.
“I don’t want any part of any war between the two of you,” Chloe said as she
drove down into the old residential section in the direction of the beat-up little shotgun house where she’d picked up the detective two hours earlier.
“That’s smart,” Dodd said.
“I just think we have to be honest with each other if we’re going to be partners,” Chloe said.
It was dark once they got away from the business district and not a little ominous. Chloe felt the weight of her gun in her shoulder holster and felt comforted. Demon Island might not be supernatural, but this old part with the rundown houses was creepy after dark.
Of course Spooky Dodd lived in a creepy part of the island.
And she wasn’t talking anymore. Chloe stole at look at her to see if she’d passed out.
Dodd was staring right at her.
Oh, well, that’s not terrifying.
“So why did you decide to come work on Demon Island?” Dodd said.
Oh, now you sober up. “I was invited to come, Captain Witherspoon recruited me right before he was fired. And I needed a change.”
“Why?” Dodd said.
Crap. “I shot somebody. It seemed like a good time to start over someplace . . . else.”
There wasn’t any condemnation in her voice, but Chloe felt guilty enough to explain anyway. “In my defense, he was committing a crime. I would never shoot anyone who wasn’t a criminal.”
“That’s important,” Dodd said.
The silence stretched out as they drove on, and Chloe knew Dodd was doing it deliberately so she’d get nervous and blurt something out.
“It wasn’t the first time I’d shot somebody,” she said finally.
“How many bad guys have you drilled, Detective Button?”
“Three,” Chloe said. “But they were all guilty and they were all ruled as good shootings, and none of them died, in fact, they all escaped from the ER, so they were fully ambulatory, and I’m not under investigation or anything.”
“Uh huh. You seem very young.”
“Not that young.”
“How long have you been on the force?”
“Almost two years,” Chloe said, trying to keep her voice light.
“You shot three people in two years.”
Oh, crap. Crap, crap, crap. “Yes.”
The silence stretched out again, and then Dodd said, “You know, there are no guns allowed on the island.”
“Except for the police.”
“I don’t carry a gun.”
Chloe looked at her in surprise. “You don’t carry?” Are you crazy?
“Button, given my temperament, would you want me armed?”
“No,” Chloe said.
“Well, there you go.”
This makes no sense. Nita Dodd was so paranoid she thought people weren’t real, but she walked around without any form of protection. “You really go out unarmed?”
“I have a baton. It telescopes. My sister Keres bought it for me for Christmas my first year on the job. I like it. It gets me results and it doesn’t kill people. So far.”
“What if somebody else has a gun?”
“There are no guns on this island. There’s a metal detector at the other side of the bridge before the tourists get on the trolleys that carry them across. Most people are grateful. It’s a safe island.” Dodd set her jaw. “And I intend to keep it that way.”
But the metal detector is not hard to circumvent if you’re driving across as a permanent resident. At least Chloe hadn’t had any problem getting her armory across once she’d flashed her badge. “So how did Jimmy get seventeen bullets?”
Dodd looked grim. “I plan to find that out by locating the person who ordered that hit and discussing things with him using my baton. I’m not against violence, I just think it should be up close and personal. It means something that way. That’s my house up there on the right.”
Chloe pulled up in front and parked.
“Detective Button,” Dodd said. “I would very much appreciate it if you didn’t shoot anybody on my island.”
“I don’t planto shoot people,” Chloe said. “It’s more of an instinct . . .” She leaned forward to look out at the treacherous night.
There was a light in the window, and somebody had just moved in front of it.
“You live alone,” Chloe said, every iota of her being focused on that light.
“Yes,” Dodd said.
Chloe pulled her gun from her shoulder holster, calm and steady, the Button Way, and got out of the car.
“Button, put the gun away,” Dodd said, opening her door.
“Stay there,” Chloe snapped.
First the poodle pajamas, then the whole that-guy-isn’t-real thing, and now her partner was unarmed during a home invasion.
Unbelievable,she thought and went toward the house.
Nick evicted the Hotels, locked the front door, and went upstairs with the five-shots-lighter bottle of scupper to the apartment he’d rented from Vinnie.
The mildewed nightmare of a kitchen, the first room inside the door, was almost completely gone except for a battered table and a stool that was worse than the ones downstairs. He looked through the door to the right and saw the bedroom in back was gutted and empty, too, and a glance into the bathroom showed the walls were down to the brick and the studs, although the sink, toilet and shower head were still there. He went back into the kitchen where, through the wide archway into the empty front room, he could see more bare brick and the large multi-paned bay window on the street, now washed so that the dim light from the streetlamps no longer filtered through decades of grime. It was all bare and spare and clean and quiet, smelling of vinegar and soap and wood smoke from the small fire in the old fireplace.
He liked it. It had been awhile since he’d liked or disliked anything, but this felt right.
He put Rab’s bottle of scupper on the table as Jeo knocked on the open door.
“The rest of Rab’s scupper is in the vault in the storeroom.” He came in and handed Nick an old key. “That’s the only key to it we found.”
Nick pocketed the key. “Thank you.”
Jeo hesitated. “I think Rab’s right. I think we should take over this bar.”
Nick considered him. Taking over the bar was a ridiculous idea, but Jeo was not ridiculous. “Why?”
Jeo took a deep breath. “I want to stay here. On Earth. Permanently. And run this bar as a cover for an embassy. Hell’s embassy on Earth.” He sounded defiant but he also sounded nervous.
Nick shook his head. “Jeo, when I’m made Devil at midnight, I’m naming you my heir–”
“I don’t want it,” Jeo said.
Nick felt the same odd feeling he’d had when Belia had called on a phone, something he vaguely remembered from being alive, a feeling that things that weren’t working out as planned . . .
Surprise. That was it.
He frowned at Jeo again. “You’re telling me that you do not want to be the most powerful being in Hell and on Earth, you’d rather run a dive bar in New Jersey.”
Jeo hesitated and Nick waited.
“You know the diner next door,” Jeo said finally.
“You met the owner yesterday, Sandy. She really liked you.”
“She has a daughter named Daphne,” Jeo said.
“She’s really . . . great.”
Jeo looked at him, impatient. “Don’t you remember anythingabout being alive?”
“Not much,” Nick said. “You’d give up everything for this girl?”
“Yes,” Jeo said.
“She’s more important than ruling in Hell.”
“Hell, yes,” Jeo said.
“Jeo, you’re very young–”
“Nick, I’m two hundred Earth years older than you are.”
Nick leaned back against the archway and folded his arms. “Let’s say you stay here with this girl. She gets older, she dies, you go back to Hell where you end up working for me again, except you’ll have aged along with her on Earth, so when you get back you’ll be too old to be my heir. Eight years will have passed there, eighty years will have passed for you here, but in Hell you’ll look and feel like eight thousand years have passed because of the accelerated aging. You’re going to give up thousands years of youth in Hell for a few decades with some girl on Earth?”
Jeo took a deep breath. “Yes.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s because you’re dead.” Jeo winced. “Sorry.”
Nick nodded. “What did she say when you explained all this to her?”
Jeo stuck his hands back in his pockets.
“You haven’t told her,” Nick said. “She doesn’t know you’re a demon.”
“I can’t even ask her out,” Jeo said. “What am I supposed to say? ‘I met you a week ago and I’m crazy about you and by the way, I’m a demon?’” He slumped against the archway. “She asked me to the movies yesterday. I had to tell her I couldn’t because my boss won’t let me date. That was impressive.”
“You know the rules,” Nick said.
“I wish you weren’t dead,” Jeo said. “I know there must be a guy still in you somewhere who’d understand all this, I’ve read your bio, but there’s no way I can explain this. This is . . . visceral. And you don’t have a viscera.”
Rab came through the door as Jeo spoke and stopped, shooting a sideways glance at his friend.
Jeo slumped again. “I apologize for my tone, sir.”
“You were frustrated,” Nick said. “This island frustrates me.”
“It does?” Rab sounded interested. “’Cause that’s an emotion. That would be new for you. Are you assimilating?”
“No,” Nick said, but Rab still looked intrigued, so he took out his pocket knife, opened it, and stabbed himself in the arm. He held up his wrist with the knife sticking out of it. “No pain.” He pulled the knife out. “No blood. I’m dead.”
“Right,” Rab said. “Don’t do that again. It’s gross.” He opened his laptop on the table, turning it so Nick could see. “You need a better table in here to work on, And some chairs– No? Okay.” He pointed at the screen. “Amanita Angelica Dodd, born thirty-three years ago today on this island. Older sister named Mary Keres. Twin brother Morte Arthur Dodd. The Keres were Greek death spirits. ‘Morte’ with an ‘e’ means death in Latin. Amanita is the scientific name for the death-cap mushroom. ‘Dod’ means ‘death’ in Danish. Mary Keres Dodd runs the Dodd Funeral Home, which has been in business for over a hundred years.”
“Mort Dodd is the medical examiner,” Jeo said, coming to join them.
“And the Demon Island coroner,” Rab said. “And Amanita Dodd is one of two homicide cops on the island.”
“Family legend as self-fulfilling prophecy,” Nick said. “Great-Great-Grandma told everybody she slept with Death.”
“Aw, Vinnie told you that?” Rab said. “I wanted to surprise you.”
Jeo frowned. “Wait. Somebody told Grandma he was Death?”
“Yep,” Rab said. “Somebody conned double-great-grandma for sex.”
“So who is she?” Jeo said. “Nita Dodd, I mean, not Grandma.”
“No,” Nick said. “Whatis she?”
“If Grandpa Death was a lying demon, she’s about one sixteenth Hellish. Which isn’t that significant. It’s just interesting.” Rab was smiling again, his face lit with enthusiasm and curiosity. “The whole island thinks she’s psychic, but she denies it even though she sees blood on the guilty when she touches them, which is why they call her ‘Spooky.’ And she could see through our facades, see that we were green. And that you’re a skeleton. And–”
“Yes,” Nick said. “She’s odd, we understand.”
“Not odd, spooky,” Rab said. “So if she’s only one-sixteenth–”
“Rab, I don’t need her genealogy if we’ve established her as mostly human. Maybe she’s just abnormally susceptible to scupper; that’s when she could see past the facades.”
“She wasn’t out long,” Jeo said.
“Which supports the one-sixteenth demon idea,” Nick said. “Find out about her connection with Jimmy, but be careful. I sent Sadiel and Forcas down here to find the Hellgate and they disappeared. I sent Jimmy to find Sadiel and Forcas and he died. Now you’re investigating Jimmy’s death . . .” He stopped, remembering the detective’s dark eyes, focused on solving the problem of Jimmy’s death. “And Nita Dodd is looking into it, too. Somebody should be watching her.”
“Would that be you, sir?” Rab said, grinning.
“What?” Nick said.
“No emotions,” Jeo said to Rab. “He doesn’t get the whole attraction thing.” Rab darted a glance at Nick, and Jeo added, “Yeah, I told him about Daphne.”
“I understand attraction,” Nick said. “I don’t remember attraction, but I understand it.”
“If you don’t remember it, you can’t understand it,” Jeo said.
Jeo was unhappy, Nick realized. He was a good agent, smart, hardworking, trustworthy. He deserved to be, if not happy, at least not unhappy. “Okay, go to the movies with her, but you have to tell her you’re a demon first.”
“I’ll lose her,” Jeo said, anguish in his voice. “She told me she’d had to talk her mom into letting her go out with me because her mom wants her with a black guy. I almost said, ‘You think she’d take green instead?’” He looked at Nick. “That was a joke. Look I can’t tell her I’m a demon before she gets to know me.”
Nick shrugged. “She can’t know you until you tell her. I don’t understand why you’d give up a future as Devil for a woman you can’t be honest with.”
“That would depend on the woman,” Rab said.
Nick frowned at him. “Don’t tell me you’ve fallen for a woman here, too.”
“Not me,” Rab said. “Women are not my thing. Congratulations on your future as Devil, Jeo.”
“I don’t want it,” Jeo said.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t, either.” Rab looked at Nick. “You know who you should tag as the next Devil? Max.”
“Maxiel?” Nick said. “Mammon’s fixer? No.”
“Max is smart,” Rab said. “And devious. And it would shut up the Demon Firsters.”
“And hand Mammon all that power,” Nick said.
“No, it would hand Mammon’s fixerall that power,” Rab said. “Which would mean Mammon would be subject to Max. Payback.”
Nick looked at Rab, surprised again. “I didn’t know you could think like that. No. I’ll have five thousand Earth years to figure out a successor if Jeo doesn’t change his mind.” He started to say something else and Rab shoved his laptop closer to Nick.
“And now, back to Nita Dodd,” he said.
That was rude, Nick thought, and then realized that Rab was rescuing Jeo. He’s done that before and I missed it. Because without emotion, he couldn’t understand the little things. Like why I’d want to watch Nita Dodd.
He thought about her, those sharp, dark eyes trained on him, the set of that wicked jaw, the focused way she’d pursued him even though she was drunk, the cold, tense, muscular weight of her in his arms, the silky fall of her hair against his skin.
“She’s tough,” Nick said.
“I wouldn’t want to cross her,” Jeo said.
“She seemed nice,” Rab said.
Of course Rab would bond with the odd.
“I’ll do more computer searches on her, ” Rab went on. “And talk to Vinnie.”
“Be careful, he talks to Mr. Lemmon.”
“And go to the historical society,” Rab said.
“No,” Nick said. “I’ll go. I don’t want you leaving the building. You’re my responsibility. It’s not safe and you have demo work here to do to find the gate.”
“Breakfast,” Rab protested.
“Fine, here and the diner next door.”
“And Mr. Shen’s Chinese? It’s next door, on the other side. It’s really good. You should try the Eggs Shen.”
“Fine,” Nick said. “You have this bar, the diner, and the Chinese place. That’s it.”
“There’s a place on the next block called The Devil’s Candy that has amazing ice cream–”
Nick looked at Rab and he shut up. “Our main focus is finding the gate and our agents and getting back to Hell by midnight there. That gives us until Saturday midnight here.”
“And fixing up the bar,” Rab said. “I used your credit card on Amazon to order a used textbook about running a bar. You paid for overnight shipping.”
“I don’t care about the money, but we are not running a bar.” Nick stopped. He’d raised his voice. For emphasis, not from emotion, which he did not have because he was dead. “You will stay here and search, that’s it.”
Rab nodded. “Okay. But listen, if I got a table and some chairs in here, we could use this place as a conference room.”
“Fine.” At this point, it was easier to give in than to argue. If he hadn’t been dead, he’d have been exhausted. He yawned, and then stopped, surprised.
He hadn’t yawned in five hundred years.
“You want us to put a bed in here?” Rab asked, cautiously.
“The dead don’t sleep,” Nick said.
“You could stretch out and think,” Rab said. “Comfortably. And I could get a couple for Jeo and me, too, because if we can’t leave the building, we can’t go back to Motel Styx so . . .”
Nick looked around the empty front room as Rab babbled on. He remembered beds. What he couldn’t remember was sleep. He’d had to remember how to eat at Sandy’s the previous day so he could eavesdrop on the locals. Earth was so damn complicated.
“Sure, get beds.”
Rab nodded. “There’s an Ikea in Haven. I’ll call in an order and bribe somebody to deliver today. The delivery charges are gonna be more than the beds but–”
Nick waved that off. “I don’t care about the cost, but remember that we’re here to close the gate, find Sadiel and Forcas, and get the man who ordered Jimmy killed.”
“And figure out what Nita Dodd is,” Rab said, unquelled. “And maybe get you a new shirt. That t-shirt is not impressive–”
“We’ll leave now.” Jeo started to pull Rab back through the kitchen.
“Leave the laptop,” Nick said, and Rab came back and put it on the table again before he went out, closing the door behind him.
Nick sat down on the wobbly stool and began to scan through Rab’s research on the shoddy table, frowning at the lack of light and the general cussedness of Earth in general. It had been a bad night and he was feeling . . . cranky.
You’re dead, he told himself.
Then he went back to Rab’s laptop and read everything about Nita Dodd.
Nita got out of the car in front of her house, trying to see Button through the moonless night. “Put. The gun. Away,” she whispered.
Button went up the concrete steps to the small yard and down the short walkway, moving soundlessly.
My partner is a ninja, Nita thought, and realized she was much drunker than she’d thought.
She went up the steps and caught up with Button on the porch. “Listen,” she whispered. “We don’t know who’s in there, so don’t shoot him. Or her. It could be my sister. Or my dad. Or some perfectly innocent burglar who deserves to be incarcerated, not shot. Or my mother.” She thought about dinner later that night. “You can shoot my mother.”
Button opened the screen door, which squeaked.
Whoever was moving around inside stopped and the light went off.
Nita nudged Button aside, opened the door and flipped on the light, stepping to the right as she did so she wasn’t framed in the doorway.
Her living room was even more of a mess than usual–drawers upended on the floor, cushions slashed on her thrift store furniture, Joyce’s cat bed turned over–and standing in the middle of it all was a green guy.
“Nothing personal, Nita Dodd,” he said and raised a gun.
Button shot him from the doorway.
“Button!” Nita said.
The green guy looked up from the hole in his shoulder, said, “Button?” in horror, and raised his gun again–
Button put two shots between his eyes, and he fell over backward.
“Oh, well, that’s just great,” Nita said, and sat down hard on the floor.
“You okay?” Button lowered her gun, completely calm.
Nita tried to organize things in her mind.
Dead green guy with gun on floor.
Live blonde with gun in doorway.
And there had been a skeleton who’d held her in its arms and it had felt kinda good.
“I really don’t know. It helps that I’m drunk.” She crawled over to the guy on the floor and looked at the two holes in his forehead. “Definitely dead. And he’s green, so I’m still hallucinating.”
“No,” Button said. “He looks green to me, too.”
“Really?” Nita looked at the green dead guy and then back at Button, still calm in the doorway and not green. “Maybe I’m hallucinating you.”
“Why would a guy put on make-up to shoot you?”
“Nobody wants to shoot me.” She sat back and bumped into the cat bed. “Or my cat. Joyce? Joyce?” She scrambled to her feet as Joyce came strolling out of the kitchen, looking like thirty pounds of white fluff-covered muscle.
“Oh, thank god you’re all right,” Nita said, scooping her up to cuddle her.
“That’s a cat?” Button said, her voice strangled.
She seemed to be having a much stronger reaction to the cat than the dead guy, but then the dead guy was her fourth shooting in two years. Joyce was one of a kind.
Button looked at her with distaste. “She looks like a nightmare with fur. I’ve never seen a cat with fangs before. Or red eyes. Or that size.”
“Those aren’t fangs, she has an overbite. The red eyes are because she’s albino. Forget Joyce, we have a problem here.” Nita frowned down over Joyce’s fluffy white butt at the dead guy. “This is another wrong thing. Nobody has any reason to want me dead. I mean, I can be annoying, I know . . .” She looked over at Button and realized another wrong thing.
Button had shot three people and come here to start over. She just saved my life, Nita thought. This is my responsibility. She put the cat down on the floor. “Give me your gun. Don’t try to pet Joyce.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Button kept an eye on Joyce as Nita took her gun. “What are you going to do with that?”
Nita fired another bullet into the dead guy.
“What are you doing?”
Nita smiled at Button and Button flinched. “Here’s what happened. You brought me into the house to make sure I was okay because I’m sick. I asked to see your gun, and you gave it to me, and that’s when this guy attacked and I shot him.” She looked down at the dead guy again, counting holes to make sure. “Four times. They’ll test my hand, the residue will be there, and this will be done.”
“Wait a minute,” Button said, coming to stand beside her, “you can’t–” and then somebody pounded up the walk to the porch.
“I shot him,” Nita said to her. “Put it in your notebook.”
Mort burst through the door as Nita and Button stepped in front of the body. “What the hell?” he said, looking frantic. “I pull up outside and hear a gunshot?”
“I shot an intruder,” Nita said, a lot more calmly than she felt, although the alcohol helped.
“Shot?” Mort said, and Nita stepped aside and pointed to the body with Button’s gun.
Mort stared at it for a moment, and then he took a plastic evidence bag from his pocket. “Give me that gun,” he said and Nita dropped it into the bag. “We’re contaminating a crime scene,” he said, and dragged her out onto the front porch, Button following.
“You’re overreacting,” Nita said when they were on the porch. “I shot a guy who was trying to kill me. It’s self defense. Also, it’s coldout here.”
Mort frowned at her. “Two between the eyes.”
“Yes,” Nita said defiantly.
“You’re a good shot,” Mort said to Button.
“I am,” Button said. “She’s not taking the fall for this.”
“Yes, I am,” Nita said. “Mort, I have no shootings on my record at all.”
“And I gather Button does.” Mort looked at Button. “Fine, Nita shot him.” He looked back at Nita as a patrol car pulled up in front. “I see the neighbors know how to dial 911. Why was he trying to kill you?
“I don’t know.” Nita shivered in the cold. It was enough to make her miss the skeleton guy. He was toasty. I’m drunk. I do not miss Skeleton Guy.
“She is not going to take the rap for me,” Button said firmly.
Nita sat down on the porch swing as Frank got out of the patrol car with his gun drawn. “Oh, good,” she called down to him. “Just what we need. More firepower.”
Frank holstered his weapon and came up on the porch. “We got a call on shots fired. What the hell, Nita?”
“There was an intruder,” Nita said. “He attacked me. I’d been looking at Button’s gun, and I fired without thinking.”
“Youfired?” Frank said. “You hate guns.”
“Accident,” Nita said, brightly. Accidentally four times. Gonna need a better story.
“Wait,” Button said, and Mort nudged her so hard she staggered.
Frank ignored them both to concentrate on Nita. “So where’s the guy now?”
“In there on the floor.”
Frank went inside.
“Listen,” Button hissed, “you are not going to take the fall for me.”
“Nobody’s going to take a fall,” Mort said. “Just shut up and let this play out.”
Frank came back out. “There’s nobody in there.”
“What?” Nita went inside.
The body was gone.
She stared stupidly at the floor for another moment.
Yep, he was gone.
She looked up at Button, who’d followed her in and was also staring stupidly at the floor, and Mort, who didn’t look surprised.
“So where’s the guy you shot?” Frank said.
“He must have run away,” Nita said, thinking fast. “Only wounded. Went out the back. Maybe you should look around. He’s armed, though. Better get back-up.”
“He’sarmed?” Frank said.
“Well, I wouldn’t shoot an unarmed man, would I?” Nita said, outraged.
“No.” Frank took a step back. “No. No. Of course not.” He looked at Nita for a long moment, and she thought, He’s not buying it. Then he said, “The weirdest damn things happen to you, Spooky. Let me call this in.”
He retreated back out onto the porch and down the path, and Button went over and closed the door.
“He was dead,” Nita said. “He couldn’t have walked away while we were talking. He was dead.”
“The guy in the bar said hewas dead,” Button said. “And he was walking. And talking.”
“Somebody came in and took the body,” Nita said. “There’s an accomplice. And I bet I know who sent him.” She shook her head, remembering all that traitorous warmth. “Never trust a good-looking guy no matter how hot he is.”
“No,” Mort said, abnormally calm. “The guy you shot was a demon. When demons die here, equilibrium sucks them back to Hell where they belong, so their bodies disappear. The body in the SUV is also gone, which is why I was stuck with Witherspoon for so damn long. It just took the SUV guy longer to get sucked back to Hell because it’s so cold outside.” He met Nita’s eyes. “The only mystery here is why this demon wanted you dead.”
“Stop it, Mort.” Nita sank down into the chair by the door. “This is not supernatural.” She thought about it for a minute. “We just have body snatchers.”
Joyce leaped into her lap, purring.
“I’m pretty sure that’s a supernatural cat,” Button said.
Mort showed the gun in the evidence bag to Button. “I’ll see it gets back to you. Might be awhile.”
“I have another,” Button said. “And this one.” She pulled up her pants leg to show an ankle holster.
“And now the possibility of homicidal body snatchers isn’t the thing I’m most worried about,” Nita said, as more feet crossed the porch. “Don’t shoot anybody else, Button.”
More cops hammered on the door and Button answered it, and Nita held Joyce close and looked back at the floor, which was still corpse-less.
Not a demon. Body snatchers. That skeleton in the bar.
Skeletal homicidal body snatchers.
She really had to stop drinking.
“I’m going to throw up now,” she told Mort, put Joyce on the floor, and left him to explain everything to Frank and the others.
TUESDAY 8:00 AM
Nita hit Sandy’s Diner after four hours of sleep, most of that uneasy because there had been a skeleton and then somebody had tried to kill her. Food first, she thought as she walked into the diner, its egg-yolk-yellow walls and shiny black and white tile feeling like home. And really, life was pretty good. She was still alive, it was getting warmer out, she was wearing her new birthday black cat over-the-knee socks from Keres—“Cat faces on the knees!” Keres had said when she’d handed her the package the day before. “Sadie at Demonista is a genius!”—her hangover was minimal, and she was about to have excellent eggs.
Except Jimmy was dead. She hadn’t been close to him, he was just a nice guy she knew, but the world needed nice guys. She was going to miss his big goofy face. “He looks like a giant thumb,” her sister Keres had said once, “but it’s a good thumb.”
Somebody called out her name, and she waved to the people she knew, which was pretty much everybody. Phronie Fernal at the counter called out “Happy Birthday, Nita,” and the Hotels waved as Statler said, “And many more, Spook!” Nita called back, “Thank you!” and took her favorite seat next to the radiator by the sunny window, dropping her black canvas messenger bag on the seat next to her. Sandy called, “Happy birthday, honey. Breakfast coming right up, we put it on as soon as you called!” and Nita waved her thanks again, closed her eyes, and sank into the heat, which grew even greater when somebody pulled out the chair across from hers.
Him, she thought and opened her eyes.
He was still absurdly good-looking in the daylight, all chiseled jaw and cheekbones, plus there was all that heat, so she said, “New Guy,” and let him sit down with his plate and large glass of orange juice.
“My name is Nick.”
Did you send somebody to kill me last night? she thought, but looking at him now, it seemed improbable. He looked like the kind of guy who’d do it himself. “Pull up a chair, Nick.”
The bell on the door behind her rang, Jeo and Rab walked in, and Nita looked past them, distracted by the tray that Sandy’s daughter Daphne was bringing. Hot food. Yes.
Daphne looked darling in a Rosie the Riveter red-dotted scarf wound round her head like a band, her curly black hair fanning out around it, and Jeo slowed and smiled at her, and she slowed and smiled, too, and Nita thought, Yeah, yeah, young love, bring me eggs. Rab grabbed a table in the back, whistling at Jeo as he jerked his head toward Nick, and Jeo sighed and walked back to him as Daphne came to the table and unloaded thick, white china plates, a pitcher, a mug, and two glasses onto the yellow Formica-topped table.
She smiled at Nita, looking like Sandy must have twenty years before. “Happy birthday, Neet! Eggs over easy. Bacon. Whole-wheat toast. French toast. Syrup. Ice water. Orange juice. Hot tea. Anything else, honey?”
“This looks wonderful, thank you,” Nita said, and then was distracted by Nick staring at her food.
Daphne looked at Nick with loathing and left, and Dorothy Idle got up from the next table, looking sad and defeated in her red puffy jacket.
Dorothy slowed as she reached their table. “Happy birthday, Nita.”
“Dorothy, I’m working on it, I swear,” Nita said, feeling guilty because she’d put Dorothy on the back burner to concentrate on Jimmy.
“You can’t fix everything, Nita.” Dorothy patted her shoulder, smiled wanly, and left, a shadow of her formerly effusive self.
“Dorothy?” Nick said.
“Dorothy has a problem. I’m on it.” Nita picked up a piece of toast. “What did you do to Daphne to make her look at you like that?”
“Jeo can’t date. She blames me.”
“Why can’t he—never mind, I don’t care.”
“What’s Dorothy’s problem?”
“She used to run the Idle Hand’s Gift Shoppe and then some off-islander bought it and is ruining it. There’s something hinky there” Nita stabbed her toast point into the middle of one of her eggs, sopping up the hot, golden yolk that burst out, thick and rich over the shiny, peppery white. When she bit into it, it was marvelously warm and savory and buttery and crunchy, and she closed her eyes at the sheer pleasure of all of it. “So you sent Jimmy out yesterday to get information for you. What was it?”
Nick was staring at her plate. “What kind of eggs are those?”
“These? Eggs over easy.” She looked at the pale slab of protein on his plate as she chewed. “What is that?”
“Egg white omelet.” Nick looked down at his plate with no enthusiasm. “I was told it’s healthy.”
“It is. That’s no reason to eat it. Don’t go giving a moral dimension to breakfast, you’ll ruin it.” Nita sopped up more egg yolk. “What did you send Jimmy after?”
He watched, fixated on the eggs. “I sent two agents to this island to find something. They both disappeared. I asked Jimmy to see what he could find out them.”
She stopped sopping egg yolk. “Two people disappeared here? Did you file missing persons reports?”
“No, we investigated. Sadiel, the first one, was staying at a bed and breakfast outside of town, the Inn Fernal, and Forcas was staying at Motel Styx. The trail goes cold there.”
Nita nodded over her eggs. “There’s nothing hinky about the Inn. It’s a family business, been on the island for years. Phronie, Euphronia Fernal, the woman who runs it now, is very nice, grew up here, came back to the island after she got her medical degree, runs a clinic out of the back of the Inn. She’s the one sitting over there at the counter next to Jeo’s table if you want to talk to her, pretty black woman in the blue dress. She did not make anybody disappear. But Motel Styx . . .” Nita stopped to dip her toast again. “Motel Styx is hinky. The Hotels used to run it, and it was tacky but fun, and then about a year ago an off-islander bought it, and the Hotels have been miserable ever since.”
Nick frowned. “Like Dorothy.”
“Exactly like Dorothy.” Nita finished the toast and picked up her fork. “I am not at all surprised somebody disappeared at Motel Styx. Did you file reports so we could look for these missing people?” She followed his eyes to her plate. “Why do you keep staring at my eggs?”
“I’ve never seen eggs like that before.”
She frowned at him, incredulous. “Where do you live, on the moon?”
“I used to live in Italy,” he said.
“They have eggs over easy in Italy.”
“And now I live in Hell.”
“Don’t we all. Stop staring at my breakfast and tell me about your missing people. Did you file missing person reports?”
He leaned back in his chair and waved to Sandy, and she came over, beaming at them both.
“Oh, this is nice, you two knowing each other,” she said. “What can I get you?”
Nick pointed at Nita’s plate. “Those eggs, please.”
Sandy beamed harder. “Oh, thank god. It really hurt me giving you those egg white omelets.”
When she was gone, Nita got back to her eggs and business. “So, these missing people.”
“Sadiel reported back once and went missing. Forcas came down and tried to find her and the gate. He reported three times and then went missing. I tried to talk to the Inn Fernal woman—”
“–about Sadiel, but she shut the door because I’m a stranger, and the Motel Styx guy just kept saying he didn’t remember any Forcas, although I know he stayed there. So I sent Jimmy out to ask questions.”
Nita nodded. “We’re careful on the island. We’ve had some off-island journalists make up stuff about demons, so we don’t talk to strangers much. If we want to talk to a reporter, we have our own.”
“You have a newspaper here?”
“The Demon Island Daily. Staff of three. Dom, the editor, is very smart, goof guy to have on your side.” She flipped the last of her egg onto her whole-wheat toast and made a sandwich. “What did Jimmy find out? Did you file a missing persons report?”
“I don’t know, we got shot. No, I didn’t file a report. Where can I get a copy of today’s Daily?”
“It comes out on Fridays.” Nita bit into her eggs-and-toast.
“The Demon Island Daily is a weekly.”
“In the winter, it’s a weekly,” Nita said when she’d swallowed. “May through October, it’s a daily.” The door behind her opened again. “Listen I can help you find your agents.” She picked up a piece of bacon and waved it at him. “You know. Because I’m the police.”
A brown-haired bear of a man stopped beside the table. “Yes, you are. So what happened last night?”
Nita looked up into the guy’s broad face. “Speak of the devil.” She looked at Nick. “Not you.” She looked back at the bear. “Nothing happened, Dom. Go away. Have some breakfast.”
The bear frowned down at her. “Cut me a break Nita. It’s March. You know what the news is like here in the winter, and then there are two shootings in one night?’
“Two shootings?” Nick stared at her.
“I’ve got the background on Jimmy,” Dom went on, “but I want to know about your exchange of gunfire, too. Since when do you shoot people?”
Nita shook her head. “I have no comment except that the Demon Island police are doing their usual fine job of protecting the populace. Go eat your breakfast.”
“Detective Nita Dodd refused to comment, perhaps because she has something to hide?”
Nita put her fork down. “Come on, Dom. I have nothing to hide.” Lie, she thought, but then everybody had something to hide.
“Everybody has something to hide.” Dom nodded to Nick. “Hi. I’m Dominic Brown, editor of the Demon Island News. You’re Nick Giordano? And the Devil, I hear.”
“Yes on Giordano, not yet on the Devil.” Nick looked at Nita. “Exchange of gunfire?”
“Somebody tried to shoot Nita last night,” Dom said helpfully.
“And now I’d like to eat breakfast,” Nita said, seeing the pit of her lies open before her. “Dom, Nick’s company sent two agents to the island who disappeared. Print that.”
Dom got out his notebook. “Let’s start with their names.”
“No,” Nick said. “We’re keeping that quiet until we find them.”
Dom looked at them both with equal disgust. “You know I’m going to get this stuff. Nobody on this island can keep a secret. Why don’t you guys just tell me the truth?”
“Because you’ll print it,” Nita said, as the door behind her opened again. “Go away, Dom. You’re ruining breakfast.”
Dom sighed and ambled over to the counter where Sandy greeted him with a big smile and a hot cup of coffee.
“He’s a good guy,” Nita said to Nick. “But he’s a demon about getting the news. That’s a metaphor, he’s not really a demon because demons are a myth. So about your missing agents. You need my help.”
Nick shook his head. “Thank you, no, we’ll find them. You shot somebody?”
“Forget the shooting, that’s over.” Nita shot a glance at Dom, who was now laughing with Sandy but not that far away, so she leaned forward, enjoying the extra heat, and lowered her voice. “We have two missing people and a murder, and it’s all tied up with you.”
Nick leaned in, too, bringing his heat with him. “That’s two shootings on an island that is supposed to be gun free. That’s not a coincidence.”
“I sincerely doubt Jimmy and I have a common enemy.” She took a bite of bacon and realized he wasn’t listening to her any more, looking past her instead.
“Don’t look around,” he said, and she resisted the urge to immediately look around. “There’s a man in a suit at the register, staring at you. Middle-aged, balding, round face, round glasses–”
“Looks very sweet, probably heading this way now,” Nita finished for him. “That would be the Mayor, here for breakfast as usual.” She dropped the bacon, wiped her fingers on her napkin, and pointed a finger at him. “Do notsay anything about the supernatural. Or about the guy who tried to shoot me last night. Especiallyabout the guy who tried to shoot me last night.”
She stood up and turned.
“Good morning, baby,” the Mayor said as he reached the table and opened his arms. “Happy birthday.”
“Hi, Daddy.” Nita hugged him. “This is the New Guy in town. New Guy, this is the Mayor.”
“Nick Giordano.” Nick stood to offer his hand.
The Mayor let go of her long enough to shake it. “Hello, Nick. How do you know my daughter?”
“Back up, Daddy.” Nita moved between him and Nick. “Did you see what happened to your streetlight? Big damage. Better get on that.”
He patted her on the shoulder. “Just looking out for my little girl.” He leaned around her to survey Nick. “So, Nick, staying on the island long?”
“And now it’s time for you to have breakfast.” Nita turned him gently back toward the rest of the diner. “Before I arrest you for harassing tourists.”
“So you’re a tourist, Nick,” the Mayor said, trying to turn back.
“Daddy,” Nita said and he kissed her cheek, said, “Happy Birthday, baby,” looked Nick up and down one more time, and then moved on to greet everybody else in the diner, one by one.
Nita sighed and sat down. “I have to finish this fast before the Mayor sits down beside Dom and finds out about the shooting.”
“Your father has very blue eyes,” Nick said.
Nita pulled her French toast over. “I’d fix the two of you up, but I don’t think he likes you.” She poured syrup over her toast, thick and sweet.
“There’s a lot of that this morning,” Nick said, watching her. “Why would somebody try to kill you if you’re this well-liked and the mayor’s daughter? That makes no sense.”
Nita picked up her fork. “What makes no sense is somebody killing Jimmy. Everybody liked Jimmy. So it has to be this job you sent him on. What were your agents looking for here?”
She cut into the thick egg-battered toast, and Nick said. “What is that?”
“Is this the first time you’ve ever had breakfast? Because French toast is not esoteric. Is this part of your con that you’re not human or are you just ducking my question?”
“I’m human, I’m just dead.” Nick frowned at her toast. “Usually I don’t eat when I’m on Earth, so I have to learn how to do it again. Explain French toast and then tell me about this shooting.”
He seemed genuinely curious, so she said, “It’s bread cooked in egg with butter and topped with syrup. Here.” She flipped a piece over onto his white omelet and shoved the syrup over to him. “Sandy puts the butter on for me so all it needs is syrup.”
He put a little syrup on the slice.
“You really have to slosh it on,” she said.
He held up his fork to silence her and then cut into the bread. After he chewed and swallowed, he picked up the syrup and sloshed it on.
“There you go.” Nita went back to her own breakfast. “So I will ask you once more politely, and then I get out the thumbscrews: What were your agents looking for?”
“A hellgate.” Nick chewed his toast and then nodded. “This is good. Who tried to shoot you?”
“You’re not helping,” Nita said.
Daphne brought Nick’s eggs over, scowling, slapped the plate down on the table with a new glass of orange juice, and left again.
Nick looked down at his eggs. “Do you have extra toast to dip in this?”
Nita shoved her toast plate across to him and signaled to Daphne, mouthing the word toast.
Daphne rolled her eyes.
Nita went back to her interrogation. “Okay, I promise not to arrest you for whatever weird con you were going to pull but now will not pull because I’m on to you, but I need to find out who ordered Jimmy killed, so stop ducking my questions.”
“I want the guy who ordered Jimmy killed, too.” He bit into his egg-drenched toast again and nodded at her. “This is really good. I don’t know who ordered the hit.” He stabbed his egg again. “Vinnie is bankrolled by Mr. Lemmon and tells him everything, so that’s who I’m going to track down today.”
“Good luck on that.” Nita sat back to chew on her bacon and missed his heat. In a way, it was a shame he wasn’t staying. This was the warmest meal she’d had in . . . forever. “Mr. Lemmon is not on the island, and there’s no guarantee that the guy e-mailing with Vinnie is him. You have to give up this hellgate con. I can’t help you if you don’t tell me the truth.”
“I can’t help you if you won’t accept the truth,” Nick said. “Can I try the bacon?”
“Oh, for the love of . . .” Nita handed him a piece of her bacon and flipped another piece of French toast on his plate. Then she signaled Sandy.
Sandy arrived with Nick’s whole wheat toast. “How’re we doin’?”
“More French toast and bacon,” Nita said. “He’s mooching.”
“Oh, good, we’ll have him eating like a real man in no time,” Sandy said, and Nick looked up from his plate, startled.
“If you’re dead, how come you’re eating?” Nita said when she was gone.
“It takes energy to maintain this facade, and burning food, especially sugar, is a way to maintain it, which is a hassle.” Nick bit into the bacon and chewed.
“And that’s why the gallons of juice. This is a very elaborate con.” She picked up her last strip of bacon. “Look, I have to get to work. If you have anything else to tell me, now’s the time. Like who you really are.”
“I’m Nicolas Giordano, I died five hundred years ago, I became Satan’s fixer, and I’m here looking for a hellgate, my two missing agents, and the guy who hired Jimmy’s killer.” He stopped and frowned. “And whoever sent the shooter to kill you last night.”
“Died five hundred years ago.” Nita shook her head. “You sound pretty modern for a five-hundred-year-old dead guy. How come you don’t say ‘forsooth’?”
“I never said ‘forsooth’.”
“I was Italian.”
Nita frowned at him, annoyed. “This whole story is so dumb and on top of that, I can’t see what it gets you. Lucifer’s errand boy is not exactly a power position.”
Nick shook his head. “Not Lucifer. Satan.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Lucifer was the first Devil. He tried a corporate takeover and God demoted him to Hell because humanity was starting to get prolific and organized, and the afterlife was getting out of hand. He managed Hell for five thousand Earth years, but people began to build civilizations, and he got annoyed at the complexity, and God told him he could retire if he picked a successor.”
“And he picked Satan,” Nita said, not believing a word of it.
“Beelzebub,” Nick said. “Is there any more bacon?”
“It’s coming.” Nita frowned at him. “You do know that Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Satan are all the same guy.”
“Not even close.” Nick reached for more toast. “Lucifer is lazy, arrogant, and intelligent. Beelzebub is incompetent, narcissistic, mean, and stupid. God stepped in a after a thousand years and booted him out of office and brought Satan down from corporate to clean up the mess he’d made. Satan is focused, ruthless, and very intelligent, and this Saturday night Earth Time, he retires and turns it all over to me. I am also focused, ruthless, and very intelligent. Tell me about this person who tried to shoot you.”
The door behind her opened again and Mort came to the table and pulled out a chair. “You okay?” he said to her as he sat down.
“Why does everybody assume I’m bad for you?” Nick said to Nita.
“They’re keen judges of character. Eat your toast.” Nita looked at Mort. “If this is about the guy last night, yes, I’m fine.”
“Not the demon yesterday, the doughnut yesterday,” Mort said. “You said it made you sick.”
Nick stopped chewing. “Demon?”
“I’m better today,” Nita said. “Also ix-nay on the last night stuff, Dad’s at the counter talking to Dom.”
“Demon,” Mort said to Nick, lowering his voice. “Tried to kill Nita, died instead. I’d offer to show you the body, but of course it’s gone. Tell Hell to look for somebody with four gunshot wounds, one chest, one shoulder, and double tap between the eyes.”
“Efficient.” Nick looked at Nita with respect.
“That would be Button,” Mort said.
Nick put his fork down. “Button?”
Mort nodded. “The little blonde with Nita last night. Her new partner. Chloe Button.”
“Your partner is a Button,” Nick said to Nita.
“Yes,” Nita said. “As opposed to a Zipper. And you’re both nuts.”
“Pay attention,” Mort said. “Those doughnuts were poisoned with iron filings. Two people have died.”
Nita frowned at him. “Iron doesn’t kill people.”
“Not usually. Thank god, Jimmy didn’t give any to little kids. But iron does kill–”
“Demons,” Nick finished for him.
Nita scowled at him. “Stop that.” She went back to Mort. “Who died?”
“Two elderly Ashtons.. The family refused autopsies, and while I was explaining that it was a crime and they couldn’t do that, the bodies disappeared.”
Nita stopped eating. “They stole the bodies?”
“When demons die, equilibrium sucks their bodies back to Hell,” Nick began and Nita pointed her fork at him.
“I have had it with this demon crap. You tell me right now what’s going on or we’re going to the station for an official talk.”
“About what?” Nick said. “I haven’t done anything.”
“Maybe, but you knowthings,” she began, and then the door behind her opened again, and she shut up until Sandy’s latest customer went past.
Instead, a kid in a hoodie lunged at Nick and then ran like hell out the door.
“What–” Nita looked back at Nick.
He was slumped over a knife sticking out of his chest.
“No,” she said and knocked over her chair running for the door.
The kid slowed a little as Nita pounded down the street after him. Then he looked behind in the next block, saw her almost on him, and picked up speed, but she grabbed him as he got to the cross street, yanking him back by the hood of his sweatshirt just as a white van pulled up, the door sliding open as it slowed. The kid jumped for the door, and Nita held onto his hoodie, yelling, “You’re under arrest!”
The kid looked back and snarled, “Demon lover.”
“Up yours. You have the right–”
She saw a gun barrel slide out from the side of the open van and tried to drag the kid to the pavement with her as she heard the first shot, but he shrugged out of his hoodie and leaped for the van. She lunged for him again, and there was another shot and somebody behind her cried out, and then the kid was in the van as it hurtled down the street.
There was mud on the license plate, too much to read the number.
Nita looked behind her and saw Mr. Alcevedo, the proprietor of The Devil’s Candy, slumped against his store front, bleeding onto a sign that said “Under New Management.”
“Damn it,” she said and ran to help him.
“It just grazed me,” the old man said, and then looked at his sign. “Lotta blood, though.”
“Sit down.” Nita got her phone out of her jacket and punched in 911 as she helped him ease himself on to his doorstep. “You’re going to be just fine,” she told him, wincing as she saw the gouge the bullet had taken out of his arm, and then she told the dispatcher to send EMTS and put out an APB for an unmarked white van, stopping any before they could get on the bridge off the island, while she put pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding.
Mort had lunged to help Nick, only to see him straighten and look down at the knife in his chest with a frown.
“Uh,” Mort said, shielding him from the rest of the diner.
Nick pulled the knife out. “That was annoying.”
“That went into your heart,” Mort said, looking ill. “I’d buy you’re a demon, but you put a knife in a demon’s heart, he dies. What the hell are you?”
“Dead human.” Nick shook his head at the knife. Very shoddy workmanship. “Do you have somewhere to put this?”
Mort pulled an evidence bag out of coat pocket and held it open, and Nick dropped the knife in.
Mort frowned at him. “I’m having a hard time with the dead human thing.”
“I died five hundred years ago. Satan kept my soul in my skeleton because I’m efficient, hardworking, and never complain, being dead.” Nick realized he’d snarled the last word. “That was for emphasis. What you’re looking at is a façade he gave me to maintain so as not to scare demons. Or humans. I’m not alive so stabbing me is, uh, pointless.” He looked down at the hole in Vinnie’s t-shirt and, under that, the hole in him. He drank some more orange juice and concentrated on filing in the wound.
“You’re a zombie.” Mort looked at the plate in front of him. “Sustained with French toast and bacon instead of brains.”
“I’m not a–” Nick began and then heard a sharp crack.
“Gunshot,” Mort said, but Nick was already out the door.
“It’s okay, really,” Mr. Alcevedo told Nita as she did her best to stop the bleeding. “Much worse during the war.”
Nita almost said, “Which war?” but there were so many and it didn’t matter. A gunshot was a gunshot.
And a stab to the chest was probably fatal.
“Damn it,” she said. She’d been starting to like the Devil. He’d been so warm. And kind of sweet the way he’d glommed on to breakfast. And so much fun to look at.
At least he had French toast before he died,she thought, and heard running, and looked up to see the Devil hammering down the pavement toward her.
He looked remarkably spry for a dead guy.
“Are you all right?” he said, slowing as he saw her. “I heard gunshots.”
“I’mfine,” she said, looking at his chest. There was a cut in his T-shirt, but otherwise—
Mort knelt beside her. “Mr. Alcevedo. How’s it going?”
“I got shot,” Mr. Alcevedo said, cheerful as ever.
“Son of a bitch.” Mort peeled back Nita’s hand to see the wound.
Nita stood up and squinted at Nick’s shirt. “How is it you are not dead? You’re wearing a vest? After last night, I’d be wearing one, too. Actually, after last night, I should be wearing one.”
Nick looked calm as ever. “Who shot at you just now? Demon?”
“Not unless demons drive unmarked white vans and pick up punks who call me a demon lover. I’m thinking human, but then that’s what I always think because demons aren’t real. I’m also thinking that those shots last night were for you, not Jimmy.”
“That make no sense,” Nick said. “I’m already dead.”
“You need a t-shirt with that on it.” Nita looked down at her most pressing problem: Mr. Alcedeveo, still clutching his sign as Mort cleaned his graze. “Wait a minute. What’s this mean, ‘Under New Management?’”
Mr. Alcedeveo sighed. “I am forced to sell.”
“No, you’re not,” Nita said, alarmed. “Who’s forcing you? No, you are not.”
“Not now, Nita,” Mort said.
“You said you’d never retire.” Nita bend down to the old man. “You said you wanted to be coated in chocolate and put in the front window when you died. What’s going on?”
“Oh, my arm,” Mr. Alcedeveo said, not convincingly, but then the EMTS pulled up with Frank right behind them in his squad car, and Nita got out of their way and brought Frank up to date, handing over the kid’s hoodie.
When Frank had gone with the hoodie to lead the search for a punk demon-hating kid and a white unmarked van with firepower, Nita turned back to Nick. “Can you tell me anything about the kid who stabbed you? Aside from the fact that he’s the most inept assassin ever, thank god?”
“No,” Nick said. “Never saw him before. Now about this demon last night–”
“No.” Nita gestured to Mr. Alcedevo, now being wheeled toward the ambulance. “I have to go to work to deal with this mess.”
Mr. Alcevedeo waved with his good arm.
“I’m going to be talking to you about this under new management stuff,” Nita called to him.
Mr. Alcevedeo moaned and closed his eyes, and Mort said, “Stop harassing my patient,” and went to talk to the EMTs.
Nita’s phone buzzed and she answered.
“Nita?” Sue Witherspoon, the desk sergeant said. “The captain is looking for you. She is not happy.”
“Tell her I’m on my way in from a crime scene. Another damn shooting. And . . .” She hesitated, looking at Nick.
He shook his head the way he had the night before, once to the right, once to left and then nothing but a stare.
“. . . and we’re going to have to take another look at the Jimmy Murdock shooting,” she finished. “I’m on my way.” She shut off the phone and said, “You don’t want me reporting the stabbing.”
He pulled up his T-shirt to show her his un-stabbed chest. As chests go, it was pretty damn good.
“No evidence,” he said. “Hard to explain.”
“You and me? We’re gonna have a long talk later.” Nita started down the street, turning so she was walking backward. “And you can pay for breakfast. You ate most of mine anyway.”
“Happy to,” he called back to her, looking beautifully real in the sunlight, and she turned and headed for her car.
At least she’d gotten a free breakfast out of the deal, eaten next to a radiator of a human being. Because he was a human being.
She was almost positive.