At half past midnight on her thirty-third birthday, Detective Nita Dodd squinted through a car window at the worst dive bar on Demon Island, drank the awful coffee that the stranger in the driver’s seat had handed her, and tried to sober up.
Okay, she told herself. Be calm. And not drunk. Look at the facts. Analyze the crime scene. Don’t start singing or share any ideas you’ll regret with the new partner 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 neon letters in the multi-paned window of the old, three-story brick rowhouse. The blue light from the squad car flashing over the cobblestones didn’t improve it any, nor did the sheet-covered body on the pavement in front. It was all so wrong.
“This is just wrong,” she said. “This just has wrong all over it.”
“Pardon?” the woman sitting next to her said.
Nita focused on her new partner in anti-crime.
Detective Chloe Button. Young. Blonde. Petite. Round blue eyes behind rounder glasses. Moderately hostile in spite of her perky little voice.
“I apologize again for the drunk dial,” Nita said. “I thought I was calling my brother back. It won’t happen again.”
“So you’ve said,” Detective Button said, patiently. “Are you all right? You look sick . . . and really cold. You’re making me cold.”
Nita nodded. “I’m always cold. I have a metabolism problem. And I’m sick because I ate a bad doughnut this afternoon. I thought a hot tea toddy would fix it. Then I thought three more would fix it better. And now here we are, you sober and me drunk.” She tried again, contrite about dragging the new kid into her mess of a life. “I really am sorry about this.”
“Uh huh. Where are we?”
Right, 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, which is the main town on Demon Island, home of the world-semi-renowned 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 again, accepting that bonding was not in the cards. “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.”
“And your brother called you to come here?” 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 with his head stuck in the SUV window? The one in the jacket that says ‘Demon Island Medical Examiner’?”
Button squinted through the rain-streaked windshield. “Uh huh.”
“That’s Dr. Mort Dodd, who texted me that there was something here I needed to see.” Nita sipped more coffee and grimaced.
“Uh huh.”” Button cleared her throat. “Detective Dodd, I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to be here. This isn’t our case.”
“I know.” Nita put her empty cup back in the cup holder. It was time to fight crime. Solve evil. Maybe throw up. “But my brother needs me, so I must go.” She opened the passenger door.
“Wait,” Button said.
Nita leaned back in.
“You’re wearing pajamas.” Button paused. “They have poodles on them.”
“I did not realize I’d be getting out of the car at a murder scene, Detective Button.” 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. I was wrong. But 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.
“Yes. The two bodies were dead giveaways, assuming there’s one in that SUV.”
“And it didn’t occur to you to change out of your pajamas?”
Nita looked at her, exasperated. “They were warm. I was almost cozy. Look, we can talk fashion later, although it’s going to be a short conversation with me if it’s not about socks, but first I have to talk to Mort.”
Button nodded. “Just not tonight. We should talk about this in the morning and make a plan so I can provide back-up.”
Nita blinked at this clear-thinking. Something to aspire to. Along with sobriety. “You are going to be an excellent partner. I apologize again for drunk-dialing you.”
“So you’ve said.” Button looked exasperated. “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. “Well, I doubt they’ll blame you for anything that happens tonight. They’ve had so much practice blaming me.” She reached for the door handle.
“Wait,” Button said. “About your brother. Some of the guys at the station took me out for a drink this afternoon. They said he thinks demons are real.”
Oh, hell, Mort. “That is a thought he’s had. But he’s sound on everything else. I consider it a delightful personality quirk, not a flaw.”
“And they said you think you’re psychic, that you think you can tell if somebody is guilty if you shake hands with him. So I got the impression that things might be a little . . . difficult for you at the station. For you to be taken seriously, I mean.”
“Oh,” Nita said, thinking of twelve years of Spooky Dodd jokes and the new lieutenant scowling at her that morning. “Not really.”
“So I don’t think the poodle pants are 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.”
“Drink it,” Button snarled.
Nita drained the cup and handed it back to her, grimacing. “And now I must go.” She reached for the door again, and then stopped as a large detective came out of the bar and glared down at the body. “Oh, well, hell.”
“Hell?” Button craned her neck to look where Nita was looking.
“See the big guy who looks like he’s going to kick Vinnie’s corpse? That’s Detective Jason Witherspoon. I have to talk to Mort and get out of here before he sees me.” She opened the car door to another blast of cold air.
“Wait,” Button said.
“No.” Nita put one foot out the door, and then looked up 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 called me to come. Don’t tell Jason I’m here.”
“Uh,” Frank said and then looked past her and smiled. “Hey, Chloe!”
“Hi, Frank,” Button said, beaming 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. “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.”
“That’s because you’re scary-looking,” Button said. “You got that black helmet hair and your eyes are really dark and you don’t smile.”
“I smile.” Nita smiled.
Button pulled back a little. “We should leave–”
The back door opened and Mort climbed into the back seat, folding his five-foot-nine-inches like a jackknife, his narrow face cheerful and his blue eyes bright as a lock of dark hair fell into an upside down question mark over his forehead.
“Happy birthday, honey,” he said to Nita. “Mom called. We’re having dinner with her tonight. Why aren’t you out there fighting crime with me?”
Nita sighed. “Happy birthday, I don’t want to have dinner with Mom. I’m in here because I’m wearing poodle pajamas and Bad Ass socks, and my new partner does not approve. Also I’m sick from a bad doughnut.”
“There is no such thing,” Mort said.
Nita turned to Button. “Button, this is my brother Mort. Mort, this is my new partner, 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 shook his hand awkwardly. “Uh, happy birthday? To both of you?”
“Twins.” Mort transferred his attention back to his sister. “So there’s a guy in the bar who says he’s the Devil, and I want you to shake his hand.”
“There’s a guy works down the chip shop swears he’s Elvis,” Nita said before she could stop herself.
“Pardon?” Button said.
“It’s a song,” Mort said. “Is she drunk? Sometimes she sings when she gets drunk.”
“Uh huh,” Button said. “About the Devil.”
“We get this all the time,” Nita said, regrouping. Be clear. Be informative. Don’t sing. “Once the park opens in May, every asshat tourist in green make-up will swear he’s a demon.”
“It’s April.” Button tried to hand her a cup of coffee.
“So we got an early asshat.” Nita frowned at the cup. “I just drank that.”
“I bought three. You were really drunk on the phone.” Button shoved the cup into Nita’s hand, and then the back door on the other side opened and Jason Witherspoon folded his six-foot-plus bulk into what was left of the back seat.
“So of course you show up,” he said to Nita.
“Hello, Jason,” Nita said. “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.” She looked at the cup in her hand and gave it back to Button.
Jason leaned forward. “I said–”
Nita scowled t him. “I heard what you said. Say hello to Button.”
“Hello, Chloe,” Jason said.
“Hello, Jason,” Button said cheerfully, doing the sun thing and making the entire back seat smile.
“Really,” Nita said to Button.
“What the 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?”
Mort looked at Chloe. “They used to be a thing.”
“A long time ago,” Nita said.
“Seven weeks ago,” Jason said.
“Moving on,” Mort said. “Nita’s here because I called her.”
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. 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, warmth, please.”
“He doesn’t have it solved,” Mort said. “For one thing, he can’t explain how the Devil got 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 blinked again. “With seventeen bullets in him? Wait, if Vinnie’s inside talking to the Devil, who’s dead in front of the bar?”
Nita went cold, even colder than before, and straightened in her seat. “Joey? I just talked to Joey 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.”
“No.” Nita tried to concentrate through her bourbon fog. “Nobody would kill Joey. He’s the nicest bouncer Vinnie’s ever had. This is another wrong thing. This–”
Button frowned. “What do you mean, another wrong thing?”
Nita scowled over the seat at Jason. “Nobody would kill Joey.”
“Somebody did,” Jason said. “And we got the shooter. Case closed.”
Nita set her jaw and concentrated on clarity. “Get out of this car so I can think. 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 looked over the back seat at Mort. “The Devil caught seventeen bullets and lived. What killed Joey?”
“The seventeen bullets that went through the Devil and hit Joey,” Mort said. “Which really 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. “The green make-up was a disguise?”
“Demon,” Mort said.
“No. Demons are a myth. And nobody would shoot Joey.” Nita stopped, remembering Joey’s sweet goofy face. “This doesn’t make sense.”
“We have the Devil in the bar who took seventeen bullets,” Button said, with admirable focus, “which went through him and hit Joey. That’s the part that doesn’t make sense to me.”
“He’s lying,” Jason said, disgust in his voice. “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 the Devil. Or 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.”
“If you’re not going to help, get out,” Nita snarled, and Jason got out and slammed the door behind him.
“Much better,” Mort said.
This is going to be bad, Nita thought. I have to sober up and figure this out and it’s going to be bad. She looked over at Button. The new kid deserved better. “Detective Button, it’s time for you to go home. Something very wrong is happening on my island, and I have to fix it, starting with going into that bar and talking to Vinnie, which is going to cause trouble with Jason, which is going to cause trouble with the new Lieutenant, which you do not need your first week on the job. Leave now and request another partner in the morning. Nobody will be surprised.” She handed her empty cup to Button 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.
“I’m coming with you,” Button said. “Buttons do not walk away from their partners.”
Nita blinked, taken aback. “Oh. Okay.” She wasn’t sure what to say next, so she got out of the car, shut the door, and started carefully across the wet cobblestones toward the bar. She heard Button’s and Mort’s doors slam behind her, a one-two punctuation that was 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, furious. “Go to hell, Nita Dodd!”
“That’s my plan,” Nita said, and opened the door.