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, sipped the coffee that the stranger in the driver’s seat had handed her, and thought about the serial disaster that was her life.
Down the street, Hell Bar glowed red thanks to the pitchfork-shaped neon letters that flickered in its small window. The body on the pavement in front didn’t improve it any, nor did all the cop cars flashing blue light over everything. Aesthetically, it was a mess, but then so was she.
Also she really hated coffee.
And that neon sucked.
And she was drunk.
So zero for four, and the day wasn’t even an hour old yet.
“Once upon a midnight dreary,” she muttered, “as I pondered sloshed and bleary–”
“Pardon?” the woman sitting next to her said.
“Ignore me,” Nita said, still gazing balefully at Hell. “I’m just drunk and bitter.”
“Uh huh. Do we know why we’re here? Besides your brother calling you for a ride?”
Nita turned her head to focus on her new partner in anti-crime.
Young. Blonde. Petite. Round eyes behind rounder glasses. Moderately hostile in spite of her fluffy little voice.
“I made an assumption that Mort wanted a ride, Detective Button. I was misled. We are obviously here to fight evil-doers.”
“Uh huh. Are you all right? You look . . . cold.”
“I’m always cold, Button, I have a metabolism problem. But tonight I am also sick because I ate a bad doughnut this afternoon. Then I thought a hot toddy would fix it. Then I thought four would fix it better. I was wrong. And here we are.”
“Where are we?”
Right, the kid was new in town. Nita pointed her empty coffee cup toward the bar that was Hell. “We are down the street from a once truly great dive bar in the not-ever great part of Deville, the main population center of Demon Island, site of the semi-world-renowned Devil’s Playground Amusement Park. Welcome to the Island, by the way.”
“Thank you,” Button said, her voice flat.
“Judging by the size of the sheet-covered 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.
“And your brother was here?” Button said, with admirable focus.
“Is here.” Nita pointed her cup at the SUV that had crashed into one of the mayor’s prized streetlights across the street from them. “See the guy with his head stuck in the SUV window?”
Button squinted through the rain-streaked windshield. “The one with the jacket that says “Demon Island Medical Examiner”?”
“That’s the one. That’s Dr. Mort Dodd, who texted me that he needed help at the bar called Hell, thus luring me here through trickery.”
“Trickery,” Button said. “Uh huh.”
She seemed depressed. Nita was right there with her as the distance between now and that last toddy grew greater. Even Vinnie’s neon seemed to be flashing on and off with less enthusiasm, the pitchforks less pointed.
Of course, Button had a reason to be hostile. Drunk was no way to meet a new partner, although it was good that they were meeting before the rest of the force met her and filled her in on Nita Dodd, Weird Cop.
Sucks to be Button, Nita thought. Sucks to be me, too.
Then she got a grip. Self pity was a waste of power. Time to fight evil. Solve crime. Maybe throw up.
She put the empty cup back in the cup holder and opened the passenger door.
“Wait,” Button said.
Nita leaned back in.
“You’re wearing pajamas.”
Nita frowned at her. “Is that a criticism?”
“No,” Button said. “An observation.” She paused. “They have poodles on them.”
“I did not realize I’d be getting out of the car, Detective Button. I thought we were just picking up Mort.” Nita closed the door again and pulled out the front of her oversized hoodie, so Button could see it better. “I felt this large hoodie, black as the pit that covers me from pole to pole, would be sufficient to obscure the poodles. I was wrong. But let’s be positive; I am not wearing my bunny slippers.”
“Black as the pit from pole to pole?”
“Which is why I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. And now I must go.”
“This is a crime scene,” Button said, an edge to her voice.
“Yes,” Nita said. “The two bodies were dead giveaways, assuming there’s one in that SUV. Which is why I must go detect.”
Button nodded. “But not tonight. We should talk about this in the morning and make a plan so I can provide back-up.”
Nita regarded her seriously. “You are going to be an excellent partner. I apologize again for drunk-dialing you.”
“Not a problem,” Button said. “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.
“They can’t get rid of me, Button. I have skills. I doubt they’ll blame you for anything that happens next. They’ve had too much practice blaming me.” She reached for the door handle.
“These skills,” Button said. “Is this the psychic thing?”
Oh, great. Nita closed her eyes and leaned forward to rest her head on the dashboard. It was nice with her eyes shut.
“I stopped by the station when I got to the island. Some of the guys took me out for a drink.”
Nita rolled her head to look at Button’s fluffy little cuteness. “Of course they did.”
“They said you’re psychic. That you can tell if somebody is guilty just by shaking his hand.”
“They’re wrong.” Kind of.
“And your brother believes demons are real, not just the amusement park thing here.”
“Yes. But he’s sound on everything else.”
“I got the impression that things might be a little . . . tense for you at the station. In general.”
“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, determination in her soft little voice.
“Oh,” Nita said, blinking at the menace beneath the fluff. “Iron Butterfly. Steel Magnolia. Unobtanium Button.”
“Drink it,” Button snarled.
Nita drained the cup and handed it back to her, grimacing as she did so. “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 about to kick Vinnie’s corpse? That’s Detective Blake Witherspoon. I have to talk to Mort and get out of here before he sees me.” She opened the car door.
“Wait,” Button said.
“Really?” Nita said, one foot out the door, and then somebody came to stand next to the car and she looked up. “Hello?”
A patrolman stooped to look inside. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but you’ll have to move–” he began and then he said, “Nita?”
“Hi, Frank. Mort called me to come get him. Don’t tell Blake 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, her voice equally light and warm. “Could you be a sweetie and ask Detective Dodd’s brother to come over here?”
“You bet, Chloe,” Frank said and winked at her.
When he was gone, Nita looked at Button. “How friendly did you get this afternoon?”
“Not that friendly,” Button said, her voice flat again. “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.
“Don’t do that. We should leave–”
“No.” Nita reached for the door again just as the back door opened and Mort climbed into the back seat, folding his six foot plus like a jackknife, his narrow face cheerful 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 are you in here instead of out there fighting crime with me?”
“Happy birthday to you, too. I don’t want to have dinner with Mom. I’m in here because I’m wearing poodle pajamas, and Button does not approve. Also I’m sick from a bad doughnut.”
“There is no such thing,” Mort said.
Nita turned to Button, careful not to smile . “Button, this is my brother Mort. Mort, this is Detective Chloe Button. Do not tell her she’s cute as a button.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Mort stuck his hand over the seat. “Pleased to meet you, Detective Button.”
Button shook his hand awkwardly through the space between the seats. “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 says he’s Elvis,’” Nita said before she could stop herself. Damn it.
“Excuse me?” Button said.
“It’s a song,” Mort said. “Is she drunk? She quotes a lot when she’s drunk. Or nervous. Is she nervous?”
“No,” Button said. “So about The Devil.”
“We get this crap all the time,” Nita told her. “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 Blake Witherspoon folded his six-foot-plus-more-than-Mort bulk into what was left of the back seat, his broad face scowling at Nita.
“So of course you show up,” he said.
“Hello, Blake,” Nita said. “I suppose Frank ratted us out. Button, this is the partner who preceded you. Blake, 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.
Blake’s scowl deepened. “I said–”
“I heard what you said. Say hi to Button.”
“Hello, Chloe,” Blake said.
“Hello, Blake,” 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?” Blake said to Nita.
“Don’t say ‘fuck’ in front of Button,” Nita said. “She’s just a child.”
“Are you drunk?”
“Yes. Are you annoying?”
Mort broke in. “She’s here because I called her
“This is my crime scene,” Blake said to Mort.
“Yes, and you’re screwing it up,” Mort said to him.
Blake and Mort began to argue, and Nita’s head began to pound as the sobering-up part of the evening moved into high gear.
“Oh, god, stop,” she said, and they stopped. “Mort, if Blake has this solved, why do you need me?”
“Excellent point,” Button said and started the car.
“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 in the bar?”
“He is. He’s talking to Vinnie.”
Nita blinked again. “With seventeen bullets in him? No, wait. If Vinnie’s inside talking to the Devil, who’s dead in front of the bar?”
Nita went cold, even colder than usual. “Joey? I just talked to Joey today. He gave me my doughnut. He’s the nicest bouncer Vinnie’s ever had.”
“And now he’s dead,” Mort said, “and Blake is going to close the case.”
“No,” Nita said, swinging around to glare at Blake. “No, you are not.”
“I get to decide that,” Blake said.
“Get out of this car,” Nita said. “This car is only for people who want to solve a murder. Which is not you. It is, however, 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 is why we need Nita. Nita is good with the weird.”
“No,” Blake said and they began to argue again.
Nita’s head pounded. If I had another toddy, it would stop doing that. No. More drink would be bad. Start with the basics, get to fancier thinking when you’re sober.
“Who shot Joey?” she said, and Mort and Blake stopped in mid-sentence.
“The dead guy in the SUV,” Blake said. “Gun in his hand when he crashed. Which is why the case is closed.”
“Not closed,” Mort said. “Not even close to closed,” and Blake began to argue with him again.
“Who’s the shooter in the SUV?” Nita said, stopping the back seat in mid-sentence again.
“No ID,” Blake said. “Some off-islander.”
“He’s green,” Mort said to Nita. “Not make-up. Green skin. I took a picture for you.”
He held out his phone and Nita squinted at the screen. She’d never seen the guy before, and he was definitely green. “Maybe an actor?”
“Demon,” Mort said.
“No.” Nita went on, trying desperately not to be drunk. “Demons are a myth. This is all wrong. There’s wrong all over this. Like Joey getting shot by an off-islander in a drive-by. That doesn’t happen here. Guns aren’t even allowed on the island.”
“So it was a paid hit,” Button said.
“That also doesn’t happen here,” Mort said from the back seat.
“Of course, it happens here,” Blake said. “It just did.”
“Not to people like Joey,” Nita said, remembering Joey’s sweet goofy face. “This doesn’t make sense. We don’t have organized crime here. We don’t have organized anything here. Our softball leagues are a mess, how could anybody organize a hit?”
“We have the Devil in the bar who took seventeen bullets,” Button said, with admirable focus. “That’s the part that doesn’t make sense to me.”
“I need his shirt,” Mort said. “If it has his blood on it, then he got shot. If it doesn’t, then it’s a trick. Or he’s a demon.”
“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,” Blake said. “I’ll file a complaint if you interfere.”
“If you’re not going to help, get out,” Nita said, and Blake got out and slammed the door behind him.
“Much better,” Mort said.
“So what’s the plan?” Button said, and Nita turned to really look at her for the first time.
Even in the dim light from the streetlights, there was a lot of steel in that blue gaze, and while the jaw was round, it was set.
Do not underestimate Button, Nita told herself. “I’m going into that bar to find out what Vinnie Smith knows because he will know something. And I will question the guy who is not the Devil but who somehow survived seventeen bullets.”
“And get his shirt,” Mort said.
“And in that bar, we will find a thread that leads back to the person who hired the guy in the SUV. And I bet that person will lead us to the big wrong that’s behind this, and there is a big wrong because Blake is a good cop and he wants to walk away, which is also wrong. There is just so much wrong here, it’s all over the place.” She handed her empty cup to Button and opened the car door. “This is a good time for you to drive away. You can request a new partner in the morning. Nobody will be surprised.”
Button shook her head. “No. I think you’re right. You’re drunk, which is unfortunate, but I’m still in. You lead, I’ll follow, and together we will find out who the early asshat who shot Joey is and get the guy behind him.”
Nita blinked. “Thank you.”
“It’s my job, Detective Dodd, no need to thank me.”
“Okay,” Nita said, still a little stunned at the support. “Call me Nita.”
She wasn’t sure what to say next, so she got out of the car, slammed the door, and started across the street toward the bar, hearing Button’s and Mort’s doors slam behind her, a one-two-three punctuation that was very comforting.
Blake yelled from behind them, “Do not go into that bar.”
“I’m goin’ into that bar,” Nita yelled back. Dickhead.
Mort and Button caught up with her at the pitchfork-handled door just as Blake yelled, “Go to hell, Nita Dodd!”
“That’s my plan,” Nita said, and opened the door.
“You go to hell,” Vinnie Smith had said to Nick Giordano from behind his graffiti-scarred bar, right after the large Detective Witherspoon had gone out, having asked very few questions, none of Vinnie. “I ain’t answering any of your questions. Why ain’t you dead?”
“I am dead,” Nick said, sitting across from him on one of the ancient bar stools that was a insurance claim waiting to happen. “My boss keeps me walking around because I’m useful.”
“Your boss,” Vinnie said.
“Satan,” Nick said.
Vinnie snorted and knocked back his current glass of very bad booze, and Nick considered Vinnie’s state of mind.
One of the many benefits to being dead was that you did everything calmly. Vinnie, still among the living, was not calm, his broad face twisted from the effort not to cry, his pudgy hands shaking as he poured another drink from a green bottle labeled “Demon Rum,” his bald head bent in the red glow of the ancient Christmas lights strung across the age-speckled mirror behind the bar.
“You’re hiding something, Vinnie,” Nick said, taking the bottle from him. “I’ll get it from you sooner or later. Better for you if it’s sooner.”
“Joey’s dead,” Vinnie said. “He was standin’ behind you. You got bullet holes in your shirt. Why ain’t you dead?”
“I told you, I am dead, I died five hundred years ago. You only get one death, the universe is very clear on that. Now here’s what I think, Vinnie. I think Joey told you he was looking into something for me and I think you told somebody else. Who did you tell?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Vinnie said, his eyes sliding right. “And I don’t believe you’re dead or workin’ for Satan, neither. That’s tourist crap.”
Nick smiled and leaned forward a little, and Vinnie stepped back. “Vinnie, I’m a bad man to cross. My boss is worse. All I want is a name, but I want it now.”
“Listen, Mister,” Vinnie began, his bravado undercut by the quaver in his voice, and then he looked around relieved as two boys in hoodies and jeans came clattering down the back stairs and into the bar, one tall and dark-haired, the other blond, and stocky, typical twenty-something college students.
Vinnie got some of his swagger back. “So you’re gonna have your goons beat me up to get answers, is that it? Well, big deal, mister, you don’t know who you’re dealing with.” He put his fists up. “Come on,” he said to the taller one, who looked perplexed. “I seen Jackie Chan movies. I know how you people fight.”
Nick turned to the boys. “Daglas, Rabiel, this is Vinnie. He owns the building, so we’re renting the upstairs from him. He also knows something I need to know. It’s going to get ugly in here. You should report and leave.”
“Sorry you’re upset, sir,” Rabiel, the chunky one, said to Vinnie. “Have you tried meditation?”
Vinnie put his hands down, confused.
Daglas, the taller one, said, “We’ve cleaned most of the mess up. Looks a lot better up there.”
Vinnie looked up at the ceiling. “Up where?”
“The second floor,” Rab said, proud as a puppy. “It’s really clean now that we gutted it.”
“What?” Vinnie said, looking for a moment more alarmed than grief-stricken. “Wait a minute, I rented you that apartment for a month, I didn’t say you could do no renovations. You can’t change things.”
Nick nodded to Daglas. “And?”
“No gate,” Daglas said. “It has to be down here. If it’s here.”
“That’s it,” Vinnie said, still confused but genuinely irate now. “You get out, all of you!”
“Does he know who he’s talking to?” Rabiel said to Nick, his round face concerned.
“No,” Nick said. “He thinks I’m a tourist and demons are a myth. Gut everything down here until you find the gate. And put bulletproof glass in the front window here and upstairs. Somebody just shot Joey, so we’re getting close.”
“Aw, no,” Rabiel said. “I liked Joey.”
“Everybody liked Joey,” Daglas said, frowning.
“You ain’t gonna do nothing else here,” Vinnie said, trying to talk over them. “You just get out. You get out or I’ll call the cops.”
Nick looked at him with real interest for the first time. “You’d call the police?”
“They’re real serious about crime on this island,” Vinnie said, virtuously. “If I tell them about you, you’ll be in for it. This is my building, not yours. This is my bar. You can’t change anything here–”
“Does he know what’s going on?” Dag said to Nick.
“Maybe if you told him,” Dag suggested, polite as always.
Nick considered it. Generally, he didn’t explain things, but in this case, it might help. He turned back to Vinnie. “Pay attention. I’m on my last job for the Devil, and it involves finding an illegal hellgate which previous investigation has indicated is in your bar. I sent two agents before me and they both disappeared. I need to find that gate and my agents. If I have to leave this place a smoking ruin to do that, I will. So–”
“It’s in the contract,” Vinnie said.
Nick stopped. “What contract?”
“The contract I signed when I bought the place. It says I can’t change anything for fifty years.” Vinnie looked honestly distressed. “I got twenty-five years to go. If I change anything, I lose the bar. It’s bad enough you did stuff upstairs, nobody ever goes up there, but you touch anything down here–”
“Really.” Nick turned to look at rest of the bar, its walls covered with decades of scuffed and dirty amusement park memorabilia—Have A Hell Of A Good Time at The Devil’s Playground!!!!–and dirtier graffiti over red vinyl booths with the stuffing spilling out. The ceiling was strung with burned out Christmas lights and the occasional Halloween crepe paper spider, and the sticky floor was crowded with splintered black tables and chairs. If ever a place needed changed . . .
“So,” Nick said, “if I did this, it would be bad.”
“Did what?” Vinnie said.
Nick gestured toward the middle of the room, and the center table there began to glow. The heat spread to the chairs around it, and then to the other chairs and the tables they surrounded, and it all began to smoke, and then suddenly all of it went up in flame, crackling and snapping as the fire consumed the wood in an instant inferno.
Then just as suddenly, it snuffed out, leaving fifteen perfectly shaped ash tables and sixty perfect ash chairs.
“Now that,” Daglas said, “is a precision smite.”
“Suck up,” Rab said to him.
Nick looked at Rab.
“Your precision smite is astonishing, sir,” Rab said.
Vinnie shook his head as if to clear it and said, “Hey!” and it all collapsed into ash heaps, everything else in bar untouched.
“Daglas and Rabiel are demons,” Nick went on. “The smart one who will probably survive this mission is Daglas.”
Daglas held out his hand. “Pleased to meet you, sir,” he said, and Vinnie shook it, still stunned.
“And this is Rabiel.”
Rabiel stuck out his hand and shook Vinnie’s with enthusiasm. “I’m really enjoying taking your place apart, Vinnie. I’m an Earth Studies major and–”
“Rab,” Nick said.
Rabiel shut up.
“And I’m Nick, Satan’s fixer,” Nick said to Vinnie. “No job too great, no smite too small. Tell me who you told about Joey or the smite will get bigger.”
“Demons ain’t real,” Vinnie said.
Nick nodded at the boys.
Daglas and Rabiel looked at each other and then back at Vinnie, and then they dropped their facades and became green-skinned, black-eyed versions of their former selves.
Vinnie stared at them.
“Demons,” Nick said.
Vinnie turned shocked eyes to Nick. “Can you do that?”
“No, I’m human.”
Vinnie’s eyes dropped to the bullet holes in Nick’s shirt. “Then why ain’t you dead?”
Another good thing about being dead: endless patience.
“I am dead, Vinnie. That’s how I got to Hell in the first place.”
“And now he runs the place,” Rabiel said cheerfully. “Or at least, he’s gonna at midnight, he’s the Devil Elect now. That’s midnight Hell Time, not Earth Time. But–”
“Rab,” Nick said.
Rabiel shut up.
Vinnie looked from green Daglas and green Rabiel to dead Nick as it all soaked in, and then he deflated. “You’re gonna kill me.”
“No,” Nick said.
“We can’t harm humans,” Daglas told him, his voice steady and reassuring. “It’s against our laws. You’re safe.”
Nick smiled at him. “Your bar, however, is not. We need to take it apart. We can do it carefully and then rebuild for you, or I can smite it off the face the earth, but we need to find that hellgate.”
Vinnie took a deep breath. “I told you, I change this bar, I lose it.”
“Then you’re going to lose this bar,” Nick said.
“Well, wait,” Rab said.
“Rab,” Nick said.
“I don’t think that’s legal,” Rab told him. “Earth legal, I mean. I think if he fights that contract, he’ll win.” He turned to Vinnie, leaning over the bar to make his point. “My last earth law survey class was awhile ago, but I’m pretty sure that’s an invalid clause . . .”
He went on, but Nick was distracted: Rab had a brown bottle jammed in his jacket pocket.
That was odd.
And Rab and the odd in close proximity was never a good sign.
“Rabiel, what’s in the bottle?”
Rab looked around as if he weren’t quite sure and then felt his pocket. “Oh, yeah. I put it in there to remember to tell you.” He pulled the bottle out. “I had this great idea.”
Nick looked at Daglas.
“He did not tell me about it,” Dag said, taking a step back to disavow all knowledge.
“Yeah, I kept this one to myself because some people have no imagination,” Rab said, rolling his eyes at Dag.
“That would be me,” Nick said. “Can this wait? I’m threatening Vinnie here.”
“Oh, now, look,” Vinnie began.
“You’re gonna love this.” Rab put the brown glass bottle on top of the graffiti-gouged wood bar, his round face beaming. “See, the park here opens to tourists on May 1.
“Rab, is this going to help me find the gate?” Nick said. “Because if not–”
“Yes,” Rab said. “So on April 30, they close the bridge and shut down the airport so it’s only island people, and they throw this big party, and hundreds of people come, and they have free punch and hot dogs.”
“That’s true,” Vinnie began.
Nick looked at him.
Vinnie shut up.
Nick looked back at his personal loose cannon. “And your plan has something to do with hundreds of innocent humans in one place. What could possibly go wrong?”
“Nothing,” Rab said. “That’s why it’s genius. See, we spike the punch, and since humans aren’t affected, it’ll only hit the demons, and that way we can find whoever on this island opened the gate. I brought enough scupper to bring the punch up to about 10 proof, so that’ll knock them on their cans, and then we just–”
Nick straightened. “There’s scupper in that bottle? You brought scupper to Earth?”
Daglas took two steps back and then sideways behind the bar and Vinnie.
“It’s part of my plan,” Rab said, less enthused now. “That’s how we’ll know who’s a demon–”
“Because the demons will drink it and go into an alcoholic coma at the biggest event the island has?” Nick loomed over him. “Which might cause some concern among the humans when people who they think are humans start passing out around them. Especially if one of the demons dies because then equilibrium will overcome resistance and the body will get sucked back into Hell, which will look like it disappeared into thin air.”
Rab swallowed, shrinking a little in Nick’s shadow. “Well, there is that.”
Vinnie turned his head and spoke out of the corner of his mouth to Dag. “What’s scupper?”
“Demon liquor,” Dag whispered. “Even diluted 90%, it knocks demons cold. Tastes great though.”
Vinnie nodded. “Think we could sell it here?”
Nick swung around.
“No point,” Dag said, quickly. “Humans can’t taste it, has no effect on them.” Then he took a deep breath and said to Nick, “Okay, Rab’s plan can still work, we just need to scale it back.”
“Yeah,” Rab said, eager for any lifeline.
“I think we should take over operating this bar,” Dag said.
“No,” Vinnie said.
“For once, I’m with Vinnie,” Nick said.
“When people come in here for a drink, we put some in their glasses. One at a time. A controlled experiment. If they don’t pass out, they’re not demons. If they do, we drag them in the back, question them, you open a gate, we push them through, and Thanatos can take it from there.”
“Thanatos?” Vinnie said.
“Gatekeeper,” Rab said. “Really nice guy. Kinda vague, so sometimes you have to repeat things, but–”
Rab shut up.
“If there are demons living on this island,” Dag said, “they know where the gate is. We just need to find them.”
“By giving them a demon mickey. No.” Nick turned back to Rab. “How much scupper did you bring with you?”
“Oh . . .” Rabiel looked around as if hoping a gate would appear and he could lunge through it. “You know. Some.”
“Uh . . . five gallons, maybe. I got it down in the basement. But I’ll pour it down the drain, I promise–”
Nick thought about smiting Rab. It would make things so much easier.
Instead he said, quietly, “Don’t pour it down the drain, Rabiel. We don’t know where it will go. It might do something bad to the wildlife. Or to the ecosystem in the lake which is already disturbing. It might destroy the entire planet. Remember Beelzebub and the dinosaurs? We don’t want that again, do we?”
“No. No. No, we do not.” Rabiel swallowed again, put his bottle on the bar, and nudged it toward Nick with his fingertips. “So there’s this bottle. And . . . uh . . . what do I do with the rest? Sir.”
“Daglas,” Nick said.
“Yes, Nick,” Dag said, still behind Vinnie.
“Take the five gallons of potential disaster from your idiot friend and put it somewhere under lock and key. Do not tell him where. Give me the key.”
“And lose the green,” Nick said, and Daglas and Rabiel morphed back into normal looking college guys.
“You gotta admit, it was a great idea,” Rabiel said.
Nick looked at Rab: round-faced and boundlessly enthusiastic, a fallen cherub going through intellectual puberty, a catastrophe in demon form. Someday, Rabiel would make a great agent. If he lived that long. “Rabiel, you will not have any more great ideas. Ever. In your lifetime.”
“A demon’s lifetime is pretty long,” Rab began, but Dag said, “You got it, Nick,” grabbed Rab by his hoodie, and yanked him into the safety of the back room.
“And now for you,” Nick said, turning back to Vinnie. “Who did you tell–” He stopped as he saw Rab’s bottle of scupper on the bar. “I’m going to kill him.”
“Who?” Vinnie said in alarm.
“Rabiel, who left Chekhov’s bottle on the bar.”
Nick picked up the bottle and walked around to Vinnie’s side of the bar.
Vinnie took two steps back. “Who’s Check-off? And what makes you think you can kill him?”
“Well, at midnight tonight in Hell, I’ll be the Devil and then I can do as I pretty much please.” Nick surveyed the abysmal variety of liquor at the back of Vinnie’s bar. Even the bottles were dingy. “Which is why you want to answer my question now. Because in about a week here on Earth, I will be able to kill you. Or worse.” He shoved some of the bottles in the back to one side to make room and stashed Rab’s brown scupper bottle there.
“What’s worse?” Vinnie said.
Nick turned and smiled, and Vinnie grew pale and took another step back.
“Mr. Lemon,” Vinnie said.
“Mr. Lemon. He’s like a silent partner. He gives me the money, and he just wants to know anything I hear. Don’t kill me.”
“I couldn’t yet anyway,” Nick said, trying to put “Mr. Lemon” into the jigsaw of miscellaneous clues the last two investigators had left. “I’m new here, Vinnie, who the hell is Mr. Lemon?”
“You really are new here,” Vinnie said, and then the street door opened, and he looked past Nick and said, “Oh, fuck.”
“Now what?” Nick said, turning to look.
“Spooky Dodd,” Vinnie said, his voice full of dread.
Three people paused just inside the door: a tall, dark-haired woman in an over-sized black hoodie, a taller dark-haired man who looked a lot like her, and a shorter, pretty blonde in glasses who didn’t look anything at all like her. As they approached, the dark-haired woman in front, the air grew cooler.
Nick looked closer.
She was pale as death, her black hair cut straight below her ears, black bangs cut straight across her sharply arched eyebrows, black eyes looking straight past him at Vinnie, the irises as black as her pupils. She had a thin face, a wicked jaw, and a pointed chin that went up as she reached the bar, and he could feel the cold coming off her.
She was familiar, even though he’d never seen her before. And whatever she reminded him of, it was dangerous.
“Hello, Spooky,” Vinnie said, his voice shaking, and Nick realized he was more afraid of this cold woman than he’d been of the Devil’s Fixer who’d set his bar on fire.
Mr. Lemon could wait another couple of minutes. Nick moved in front of the bottles where he’d stashed the scupper, folded his arms, and leaned back to watch.