THIS BOOK TAKES PLACE IN 2011.
TUESDAY, March 28, 12:30 AM
At half past midnight on her thirty-third birthday, Detective Nita Dodd squinted through a rain-streaked car window at the worst dive bar on Demon Island, drank the awful coffee her new partner handed her, and shivered while she tried to sober up. She was always cold, she’d been born cold, but this was extra, courtesy of the drop in March temps and the bourbon in her blood.
Okay, she told herself. No weirdness. Look at the facts. Don’t share any ideas you’ll regret with the new kid who already thinks you’re an idiot lush. Professional, that’s what we’re going for here, Dodd. Look sharp, be sharp. And don’t throw up in her car .
Across the street, Hell Bar glowed red in the darkness thanks to the pitchfork-shaped red neon letters in the bay window of the old brick row house. The blue light from the squad car flashing over the icy cobblestones didn’t improve it any, nor, as she leaned forward to see better, did the sheet-covered body on the pavement in front.
“What are we doing here?” the woman sitting in the driver’s seat said.
Nita focused on her new partner in anti-crime.
Detective Chloe Button. Young. Blonde. Round blue eyes behind rounder glasses. Moderately hostile in spite of her perky little voice. And the kid was new in town.
Nita pointed her coffee cup toward the bar. “We are across the street from Hell Bar, a once great dive bar in the old part of Deville, the main town on Demon Island, home of the world-semi-famous Devil’s Playground Amusement Park and many other tourist traps with equally stupid names. Welcome to the island.”
“Thank you,” Detective Button said, her voice flat.
Nita nodded. “Judging by the size of the body on the pavement, the bar’s owner, Vinnie Smith, has left one Hell for another. His criminal activity on the island is legendary, and he deserved to die for that neon alone, but that does not mean it is okay that somebody offed him. We must find the off-ee.” No, that wasn’t right. “The off-er.” That didn’t sound right either. “The guy who killed him.”
“Detective Dodd, this is not our case,” Button said, with admirable focus.
Nita pointed her cup at the SUV that had crashed into one of the mayor’s prized reproduction streetlights a short way down the street. “See the guy in the jacket that says ‘Demon Island Medical Examiner’ up there beside the wrecked van? The one with the big cop yelling at him?”
Button squinted through the rain-streaked windshield. “Yes?”
“The non-yelling-person is my brother, Dr. Mort Dodd, who texted me that he needed me here, leading me to drunk dial you by accident because you were the person who called me last. I apologize for missing your call. The big shouting guy is Detective Jason Witherspoon, who is not happy with me at the moment, so I will wait until he leaves.”
Up the street, Jason Witherspoon turned and strode off looking disgusted, and Mort put his head back into the van window.
“And there he goes.” Nita put her empty cup back in the cup holder. It was time to fight crime. Solve evil. Whatever. She opened the passenger door, letting in more late March cold.
Nita turned back.
“Detective Dodd.” Button paused. “I don’t want to make you angry–”
“I don’t get angry,” Nita said, getting a flashback to her mother saying, “Anger is the Devil in you, don’t let him out,” which was perplexing enough at four, made even more terrifying after she saw Alien at six. “I thought it was going to be like Alf,” her big sister Keres had told their mother when little Nita had finally stopped screaming. She shoved the memory away and said, “Anger is non-productive. Also, I like honesty. Go ahead.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to be here.” Button was probably trying to be stern, but she was too much of a human dandelion to pull it off. “I think this is Detective Witherspoon’s case. And you’re wearing pajamas.” She paused. “They have poodles on them.”
“I did not realize I’d be getting out of the car at a murder scene, Detective Button. I thought my brother needed a ride, not professional help.” Nita closed the door again and pulled out the front of her oversized black hoodie, so Button could see it better. “I felt this hoodie would be sufficient to obscure the poodles. And let’s be positive; I’m not wearing my bunny slippers.” She hesitated. “Although I am wearing my Bad Ass socks.”
“Pardon?” Button said.
“My Bad Ass socks. They say ‘Bad Ass’ on the back with arrows pointing up. I think they’re a good subliminal message. Or body shaming. I’m not sure which–”
“This is a crime scene,” Button said, an edge to her voice.
Don’t be odd, Dodd. Nita nodded, trying to look focused and sober.“Yes. The two bodies were dead giveaways, assuming there’s one in that SUV. Which is why I must talk to Mort.”
Button nodded. “Just not tonight. We should talk about this in the morningand make a plan so I can provide back-up.”
Nita blinked at this evidence of clear-thinking. “You are going to be an excellent partner. I apologize again for drunk-dialing you. I don’t usually drink. I had a bad doughnut this afternoon, and it made me sick and I made some tea toddies to feel better–”
“I don’t care. I just don’t want you to hurt your career. Or mine.”
“Drunk. At a crime scene. In poodle pajamas,” Button said, enunciating the words carefully.
“Oh.” Nita thought about mentioning the Bad Ass socks again and decided it wouldn’t be helpful. Think sober. Act sober. Be normal. She fumbled in her bag for a soft peppermint and popped it in her mouth. Her mother insisted peppermint was a natural evoker of calm and serenity and a preventer of anger, but maybe it worked on drunkenness, too.
“I talked to some of the guys at the station this afternoon,” Button was saying. “They called you Spooky Dodd and said that you’re psychic, that you can tell if somebody is guilty if you shake hands with him..”
Nita closed her eyes and sucked on her peppermint. “I’m not psychic.”
“And they said your brother believes demons are real.”
Nita nodded, trying to look sane. “That is a thought he’s had. But he’s sound on everything else. I consider it a delightful personality quirk.”
“So I got the impression that things might be a little dicey for you at the station.”
“Oh,” Nita said, remembering the new captain scowling at her that morning. “Not really.”
“Which means poodle pants are not a good move for you.” Button handed her a Styrofoam cup.
Nita straightened and pried off the lid. “Didn’t I just drink this?”
“I thought two might be good.”
“I hate coffee.”
“Drink it anyway,” Button said.
Nita blinked at the menace beneath the fluff. “Iron Butterfly. Steel Magnolia. Unobtainium Button.”
Button didn’t look amused.
Normal, damn it. Nita drained the cup, swallowing the last of the peppermint with 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?”
“Hi, Frank. Mort texted me to come. 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 to the bridge of her nose and beamed at him like a little sun. “Could you be a sweetie and ask Detective Dodd’s brother to come over here?”
“You bet, Chloe.” Frank winked at her.
When he was gone, Nita closed the car door, wrapped her hoodie closer around her, and regarded Button. “How friendly did you get this afternoon?”
“Not that friendly,” Button said, her voice flat again.
“Frank was damn near licking the doorframe.”
Button shrugged. “Men like me. They say I’m cute as a button. Then they tell me things. So I go with it.”
Nita thought about it. “Nobody ever tells me I’m cute as a button.”
Button surveyed her. “Well, you got that black helmet hair and those pointy eyebrows and you don’t smile. You’re not selling the cute thing.”
“I smile.” Nita smiled.
Button pulled back a little. “We should leave–”
The back door opened, letting in another blast of cold air, and Mort climbed into the back seat, his narrow face cheerful as a lock of brown hair fell into an upside down question mark over his forehead.
“Happy birthday, honey,” he said to Nita. “Did you see the streetlight? The Mayor’s going to have a coronary. Also, Mom called. We’re having dinner with her tonight. Why aren’t you out there fighting crime with me?”
Nita sighed. “Happy birthday, I saw the streetlight, I don’t want to have dinner with Mom. I’m in here because I’m wearing poodle pajamas, and my new partner does not approve. Also I’m sick from a bad doughnut.”
“There is no such thing.”
Nita turned to Button. “Button, this is my brother Mort. Mort, this is Detective Chloe Button. Do not tell her she’s cute as one.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Mort stuck his hand over the seat. “Pleased to meet you, Detective Button.”
Button pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and shook his hand awkwardly. “Uh, happy birthday? To both of you?”
“Twins.” Mort transferred his attention back to his sister. “So there’s a guy in the bar who Vinnie says is the Devil, and I want you to shake his hand and get his shirt.”
“The Devil?” Button said.
“Tall. Dark. Silent. Scary.” Mort shrugged.
“We get this all the time,” Nita told Button. “Once the park opens in May, every asshat tourist in green make-up will swear he’s a demon.”
“It’s March.” Button tried to hand her a cup of coffee.
“So we got an early asshat.” Nita frowned at the cup. “I just drank that.”
“I bought three. You were really drunk on the phone.” Button shoved the cup into Nita’s hand, and then the back door on the other side opened and Jason Witherspoon folded in his six-foot-plus bulk, filling up what was left of the back seat and bringing a lot more cold air with him.
“So of course youshow up,” he snapped at Nita.
“I suppose Frank ratted us out,” Nita said. “Button, this is the partner who preceded you. Jason, this is the partner who succeeded you. Talk amongst yourselves while I think about throwing up in the street. Or maybe peeing. I’ve had a lot of coffee.” She looked at the cup in her hand and gave it back to Button.
Jason leaned forward. “I said–”
Nita scowled at him. “I heard what you said. Say hello to Button.”
“Hello, Chloe,” Jason said.
“Hello, Jason,” Button said cheerfully, doing the sun thing and making the entire back seat smile.
“Really,” Nita said to Button, and thought about getting another peppermint.
“What the fuckare you doing here?” Jason said to Nita.
Nita frowned at him. “Don’t say ‘fuck’ in front of Button. She’s just a child.”
“Are you drunk?”
“Yes. Are you annoying?”
Mort shrugged at Chloe. “They used to be a thing.”
“A long time ago,” Nita said.
“Seven weeks ago,” Jason said. “And I have a new girlfriend. Who is waiting for me in my bed while your brother delays me by making ridiculous claims–”
“Moving on,” Mort said to Jason. “Nita’s here because I called her because you are screwing this up.”
Jason and Mort began to argue, and Nita’s head began to pound. This is a bad place for me to be. I should leave. At least Jason had a girlfriend. If he stopped glaring at her, that would be helpful, even if he switched the glare out for a gloat.
The voices in the back seat got louder, and she said, “Hey!” and they stopped in mid-sentence. “Mort, if Jason has this solved, why do you need me?”
“Excellent point,” Button said and started the car.
The heater kicked on and Nita thought, Oh, yes, heat, thank you.
“He doesn’t have it solved,” Mort said. “For one thing, he can’t explain how the Devil got shot seventeen times.”
“Shot?” Nita turned around to see the back seat better. “Shot? With a gun?”
Button looked at her as if she were demented, but Jason said, “Yes, with a gun.”
“How the hell did somebody get a gun on this island?”
“That’s what bothers you?” Mort said. “Somebody snuck a gun past the metal detector? Not the Devil getting shot seventeen times?”
Nita blinked at Mort. “I thought the Devil was the guy in the bar.”
“He is. He’s talking to Vinnie and the Hotels.”
Nita shook her head to clear the bourbon fog. “If Vinnie’s inside talking to the Devil, who’s that 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 my doughnut. I yelled at him because it made me sick. He can’t be dead. I haven’t apologized for that yet.”
“And now he’s been murdered,” Mort said, “and Jason is going to close the case.”
“What?” Nita stared at Jason. “Why?”
“It’s open and shut,” Jason said, exasperated. “The guy in the SUV shot him and then died in the crash.”
Nita fought through her bourbon fog. “Nobody would kill Jimmy. He’s the nicest bouncer Vinnie’s ever had. This is another wrong thing. Nobody would kill Jimmy.”
“Somebody did,” Jason said. “And we got the shooter. Case closed.”
Nita set her jaw and concentrated on clarity. “Please leave this car so I can figure this out. This car is only for people who want to solve this crime. Like me.”
“And me,” Mort said.
Button sighed and turned off the ignition. “And me.” She turned to Mort in the back seat. “The Devil caught seventeen bullets and lived. What killed Jimmy?”
“The seventeen bullets that went throughthe Devil and hit Jimmy,” Mort said. “Which were fired by the guy in the SUV, which is why we need Nita, who is good with the weird. I took a picture of the shooter. He’s green.”
He held out his phone and Nita squinted at the screen. She’d never seen the guy before. “He used the green make-up as a disguise? What an idiot.”
“Demon,” Mort said.
“No. Stop that.” Nita thought about Jimmy’s sweet goofy face and felt rage fight its way through the fog. “A damn gun. This is wrong.”
“We have the Devil in the bar who took seventeen bullets,” Button said, “which went through him and killed Jimmy and left him alive. That’s the part that seems wrong to me. What did you mean by another wrong thing?”
“Wrong things have been happening for the past year,” Nita said. “Weird minor crime that makes no sense like random vandalism and dumb graffiti about demons.”
“Oh, god, this again,” Jason said, disgust in his voice.
Nita kept going. “Fights between people who are friends or at least have no reason to fight. People selling businesses they loved and looking miserable. The whole island’s off, and I’ve been trying to find out why, but people won’t talk, and now there’s a damn gun on my island—”
Jason broke in. “Nothing is wrong on the island. And this fake Devil guy is lying about getting shot seventeen times. No witnesses at all, just his word? Come on.”
“I need his shirt,” Mort said. “If it has his blood on it, then he got shot. If it doesn’t, then he’s a demon. Although even demons bleed in this dimension–”
“He’s not a demon, demons aren’t real, damn it.” Nita looked at Button. “Give me that coffee.”
Button passed the third cup over, and Nita drained it. It was vile.
“This is not your case,” Jason said. “I’ll file a complaint if you interfere.”
Nita sighed. “If you’re not going to help, go away.”
“Yeah, you’re good at telling people to leave.” Jason got out and slammed the door behind him.
“Much better,” Mort said.
“For the record,” Nita said to Button, “I did not tell him to leave. I left. He stayed where he was.”
“I don’t care,” Button said. “I care about the shooter. . .”
She began to question Mort, and Nita leaned back in her seat and tried to get a grip on the situation.
This is going to be bad. I have to sober up and figure this out and it’s going to be bad.
And now there was Button, new in town. The new kid should not be part of her bad. “Detective Button, it’s time for you to go home. Something very wrong is happening on my island, and it is my responsibility to fix it, starting with talking to Vinnie, which will cause trouble with Jason, which will cause trouble with the new captain, which you do not need your first week on the job. Request another partner in the morning. Nobody will be surprised.” She handed Button her empty cup and opened the car door, bracing herself against the cold.
Nita stopped, one foot out the door, and looked back at Button.
Even in the dim light from the streetlights, there was a lot of steel in that blue gaze, and while the chin was round, the jaw was set.
Button pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose again. “I’m coming with you. Buttons do not walk away from their partners.”
Nita started to say no, but Button plowed on..
“I don’t know much about being a homicide detective yet, so I’ll watch while you interview this Vinnie and Dr. Dodd gets the shirt, and then we’ll go home and get some sleep, and in the morning, we can figure it all out.”
“Oh.” Nita said, taken aback. “All right. Thank you for saying ‘get some sleep’ instead of ‘sober up.’”
Button shrugged. “Same thing.”
Nita nodded. She wasn’t sure what to say next, so she got out of the car, the cold night air hitting her like a shovel. She started carefully across the icy cobblestones toward the bar, Button’s and Mort’s doors slamming behind her, a one-two punctuation that was kind of comforting.
Jason yelled, “Do not go into that bar.”
“I’m goin’ into that bar,” Nita yelled back and remembered she was still drunk. No yelling. No yelling. Act sober.
Jason glared at her from across the street, furious. “Go to hell, Nita Dodd!”
“That’s my plan,” Nita said, and opened the door.