THIS BOOK TAKES PLACE IN 2011.
TUESDAY, March 28, 12:30 AM Earth Time
At half past midnight on her thirty-third birthday, Detective Nita Dodd squinted through an ice-streaked car window at the worst dive bar on Demon Island, drank the awful coffee the stranger beside her handed her, and shivered while she tried to sober up. She was always cold, she’d been born cold, but this was extra, courtesy of the drop in March temps and the bourbon in her blood.
Okay, she told herself. Whatever is going on here, you can fix it. In the meantime, do not share any ideas you’ll regret with the new hire who already thinks you’re an idiot lush. A professional first impression, that’s what we’re going for, Dodd. Look sharp, be sharp. And don’t throw up in her car.
“Detective Dodd, what are we doing here?” the woman beside her said.
Detective Chloe Button. Young. Blonde. Round blue eyes behind rounder glasses. Moderately hostile in spite of her perky little voice. She already thinks I’m weird, Nita thought and sighed. Well, she’d fit right in with everybody else then.
Nita pointed her coffee cup across the street at the old brick row house, now glowing red in the darkness thanks to the pitchfork-shaped neon letters in its bay window. “We are across the street from Hell Bar, a once great dive in the old part of Deville, the main town on Demon Island, home of the semi-world-famous Devil’s Playground Amusement Park and many other tourist traps with equally stupid names. Welcome to the island.”
“Thank you,” Detective Button said, her voice flat.
“Judging by the size of the body on the pavement there in front, the bar’s owner, Vinnie Smith, has left one Hell for another. His criminal activity on the island is legendary, and he deserved to die for that neon alone, but that does not mean it is okay that somebody offed him. We must find the off-ee.” No, that wasn’t right. “The off-er.” That didn’t sound right either. “The guy who killed him.”
“Detective Dodd, this is not our case,” Button said, with admirable focus.
Nita pointed her cup at the SUV that had crashed into one of the Mayor’s prized vintage streetlights a short way down the cobblestone street, now partially blocked by a big guy in a jacket looming over a smaller guy in uniform. “This case undoubtedly belongs to the large detective yelling at the patrolman over there. The detective is Jason Witherspoon, and he is not happy with me at the moment, so we are avoiding him. It appears he is also not happy with Frank Wu, although why he’s yelling at Frank is beyond me. Frank’s a good guy. When Jason is done bellowing and goes elsewhere, I will go into Hell Bar to find out what the hell is going on and fix it.”
Up the street, Jason Witherspoon turned and strode off, looking disgusted. Frank Wu shrugged and headed in the other direction.
“And there he goes.” Nita opened the passenger door, letting in more late March cold.
Nita stopped, one foot outside the door.
The new kid was frowning, probably trying to look stern and just looking cute. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to be here. This is not our case. And you’re wearing pajamas.” Detective Button paused. “They have poodles on them.”
“I know, but this was an emergency and I was in a hurry.” Nita closed the door again and pulled out the front of her huge black hoodie, so Button could see it better. “I thought this hoodie would be sufficient to obscure the poodles. And let’s be positive; I’m not wearing my bunny slippers.” She hesitated. “Although I am wearing my Bad Ass socks.”
“Pardon?” Button said.
“My Bad Ass socks. They say ‘Bad Ass’ on the back with arrows pointing up. I think they’re a good subliminal message. Or body shaming. I’m not sure which–”
“This is a crime scene,” Button said, an edge to her voice.
Don’t be odd, Dodd. Nita nodded, trying to look focused and sober. “Yes. Vinnie’s body was a dead giveaway.” She frowned. “I don’t think he’s the one who texted me for help, though. He’s more likely to just bash whoever—”
Button took a deep breath. “Look, I understand that you want to help. So we should talk about this in the morning and make a plan so I can provide back-up.”
Nita blinked at this evidence of clear-thinking. “You are going to be an excellent partner. I apologize again for calling you. It was a mistake. I got this mystery text that said the Devil was in the bar and the texter was afraid, and I tried to call the number back to find out who it was and what was going on and accidently hit your call in ‘Recents’ and–”
“I don’t care. I just don’t want you to hurt your career. Or mine.”
“Drunk. At a crime scene. In poodle pajamas,” Button said, enunciating the words carefully. “Not to mention, investigating the Devil, who I’m pretty sure is a myth.”
Nita nodded, trying for sober and adult this time. “I don’t usually drink this much. At all, actually. I had a tea toddy because I was sick from a bad doughnut this afternoon and then my mother called and said I had to have dinner with her tonight because it’s my birthday, so I had another . . .” Nita let her voice trail off as Button looked exasperated. “As for the Devil in the bar, when the park opens in May, every asshat tourist in green make-up will swear he’s a demon, so that’s pretty much business as usual around here.”
Nita shrugged. “So we got an early asshat.”
Button frowned at her, looking like a disapproving dandelion. “I talked to some of the guys at the station this afternoon. I got the impression that things might be a little dicey for you there.”
Nita remembered the new captain scowling at her that morning. “Not so much.”
“Which means poodle pants are not a good move for you.” Button handed her a Styrofoam cup. “Nor is talking about the Devil.”
“You’re missing the point. Somebody is scaring somebody in Hell Bar. I’m against that. I must fix that.” Nita frowned at the cup Button was poking at her. “I just drank that.”
“I thought two might be good.”
“I hate coffee.”
“Drink it anyway,” Button said.
Nita blinked at the menace beneath the fluff. “Iron Butterfly. Steel Magnolia. Unobtainium Button.”
Button didn’t look amused.
Act normal, damn it. Nita took the cup, drained it, and handed it back to her, grimacing. “And now I must go.”
“Wait,” Button said.
“No.” Nita opened the door and put one foot out into the cold, and then stopped as somebody came to stand next to the car. “Hello?”
A patrolman stooped to look inside. “Ma’am, you’ll have to move . . .” he began, and stopped. “Nita?”
Nita nodded up at him. “Hi, Frank. Don’t tell Jason I’m here.”
“Uh,” Frank Wu said and then smiled past her. “Hey, Chloe!”
“Hi, Frank.” Button pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose and beamed at him like a little sun. “Could we just have a moment here? Detective Dodd is . . . showing me the island. You know. Because I’m new.”
At one in the morning? Nita thought. Like Frank would buy that.
“You bet, Chloe.” Frank winked at her and closed the car door.
Nita wrapped her hoodie closer around her, and regarded Button for a moment. “How friendly did you get this afternoon?”
Button’s eyes slid away. “Not that friendly.”
“Frank was damn near licking the doorframe.”
Button shrugged. “Men like me. They say I’m cute as a button. Then they tell me things. So I go with it.”
Nita shook her head sadly. “Nobody ever tells me I’m cute as a button.” Weird as hell, yes. Cute no.
Button surveyed her. “Well, you got that black helmet hair and those pointy eyebrows. And you don’t smile. You’re not selling the cute thing.”
“I smile.” Nita smiled.
Button pulled back a little. “We should leave–”
The back door opened and Jason Witherspoon folded in his six-foot-plus bulk, bringing more cold air with him.
“So, of course, you show up,” he snarled at Nita. Then he frowned. “Is that my sweatshirt?”
Nita regarded him with disfavor over the back of her seat. “You leave it in my laundry when you move out, it becomes my sweatshirt. I suppose Frank ratted us out. Button, this is the partner who preceded you. Jason, this is the partner who succeeded you. Talk amongst yourselves while I think about throwing up in the street. Or maybe peeing. I’ve had a lot of coffee.”
“Hello, Chloe,” Jason said.
“Hello, Jason,” Button said cheerfully, doing the sun thing and making him smile.
“Really,” Nita said to Button.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” Jason said to Nita.
Nita frowned at him. “Don’t say ‘fuck’ in front of Button. She’s just a child.”
“Are you drunk?”
“Yes. Are you annoying?”
Button looked from Jason to Nita.
“We used to be a thing a long time ago,” Nita told her.
“Seven and a half weeks ago,” Jason said.
“His mother celebrates our break-up nightly.”
Jason scowled. “I have a new girlfriend. Who is waiting for me in bed while you delay me by screwing up my crime scene–”
“If all I have to do to screw up your crime scene is park in front of it, you have bigger problems than me.” Nita’s head began to pound as Jason kept talking. She got a soft peppermint out of her purse, thinking, I should leave, but whoever had texted her from the bar had been afraid. Nobody should be afraid on her island —
“Are you listening to me?” Jason demanded. “We know who did the shooting, I’ll file my report, and this will be over.”
“Shooting?” Nita bit down on her mint to destroy it and turned around again to see him better. “Shooting? With a gun? How the hell did somebody get a gun on this island?”
“I don’t know, Nita,” Jason said with exaggerated patience. “I just know we got the guy who did it.”
Nita frowned at him. He was lying, she could smell it on him–flop sweat, panic, guilt—she could see the blood vessels under his skin expanding, making him go red. It was really unattractive and not at all like Jason, so something really bad was going on. She narrowed her eyes. “A lot of people didn’t like Vinnie, but I don’t see anybody smuggling a gun onto the island to kill him. There are so many easier ways–”
“Vinnie’s fine. He’s in the bar, drunk as usual, talking to a guy he thinks is the Devil.” Jason rolled his eyes. “Go home, Nita, you don’t belong here.”
Oh, like that’s news, Nita thought. Why are you lying?
Button tried to hand her a cup of coffee.
Nita frowned. “What the hell, Button, I just drank that.”
“I bought three. You were pretty out of it on the phone.” Button shoved the cup into Nita’s hand.
“Well, I’m in it now.” She ignored the cup and turned to Jason. “Vinnie’s inside? Then who’s that dead in front of the bar?”
Nita went cold, even colder than usual, and straightened in her seat. “Jimmy? I just talked to Jimmy today. He gave me a doughnut this afternoon. I yelled at him because it made me sick. He can’t be dead. I haven’t apologized for that yet.”
“This case is open and shut,” Jason said, exasperated. “The guy in the SUV shot him in a drive-by and then his tire blew out and he hit the streetlight and died in the crash. Go home, Nita.”
Nita shook her head. “No. Nobody would kill Jimmy. He’s the nicest bouncer Vinnie’s ever had. This is another wrong thing. Nobody would kill Jimmy.”
“Somebody did,” Jason said. “And we got the shooter. Case closed. Now, leave.”
Nita set her jaw and concentrated on clarity. “Get out of this car so I can figure this out. This car is only for people who want to solve this crime. Like me.”
Button sighed and turned off the ignition. “And me.” She turned to Nita. “What did you mean by another wrong thing?”
“Wrong things have been happening for the past year,” Nita told her, worry sobering her up some now. “Small stuff like random vandalism and dumb graffiti about demons, big stuff like people selling businesses they love and being really unhappy about it, so I’m thinking blackmail, extortion, but I can’t prove it. And now Jimmy’s dead and somebody’s afraid in there–”
“This is not your case,” Jason said. “I’ll file a complaint if you interfere.”
Nita took the third coffee from Button and drained it. It was vile. “If you’re not going to help,” she told Jason, “go away.”
“Yeah, you’re good at telling people to leave.” Jason got out and slammed the door behind him.
“For the record,” Nita said to Button, “I didn’t tell him to leave. He left on his own when I wouldn’t agree to bear his children. Which–”
“I don’t care,” Button said. “I care about the shooter . . .”
She kept talking as Nita leaned back in her seat to get a grip on the situation. She’d made Jason angry which meant the new captain was going to be angry which meant she was going to get grief when she got to work when the sun came up, but this was not something she could let go. Jimmy was dead, somebody was afraid, things were wrong. Attention must be paid.
It was something Button could let go, though. The kid was new. No point in kneecapping her the first day.
She turned to Button, interrupting the little detective’s flow of questions. “Detective Button, something very wrong is happening on my island, this mess is part of it, and it is my responsibility to fix it. This will cause trouble with Jason, which will cause trouble with Captain Mann, which you do not need your first week on the job. Leave now and request another partner. Nobody will be surprised.” She handed Button her empty cup and opened the car door, bracing herself against the cold and the dark.
Nita stopped, one foot out the door, and looked back at Button.
Even in the dim light from the streetlights, there was a lot of steel in that blue gaze, and while the chin was round, the jaw was set.
Button pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose again. “I’m confused about what’s going on here, and I’m not happy that you’ve been drinking and you’re wearing poodle pajamas, but I’m coming with you anyway. We Buttons do not walk away from our partners.”
Nita started to say no, but Button plowed on.
“I don’t know much about being a detective yet, so I’ll watch while you interview this Vinnie, and then we’ll go home and get some sleep, and in the morning, we’ll figure it all out.”
“Oh.” Nita said, taken aback. “Thank you for saying ‘get some sleep’ instead of ‘sober up.’”
Button shrugged. “Same thing.”
Nita nodded. She wasn’t sure what to say next, but Button looked determined, so she got out of the car, the cold night air hitting her like a shovel, and started carefully across the icy cobblestones toward the bar, Button’s car door slamming behind her as she followed.
Jason yelled, “Do not go into that bar.”
“I’m goin’ into that bar,” Nita yelled back and then remembered she was faking normal. No yelling. No yelling. Don’t be odd, Dodd.
Jason glared at her from across the street. “Go to hell, Nita Dodd!”
“That’s my plan,” Nita said, and opened the door.