|Deal Prologue: Who You Know
Author: Guede Mazaka
On Fridays and Saturdays was when Papa Midnite’s place did its peak business. The crowds tapered off early on Sunday morning, so that was when Balthazar usually made his visits. He hated having to rub shoulders with people, and he liked doing it with demons even less. For all their age and power, they were needlessly crude and revolting; he’d stepped around beggars in the streets who’d had more subtle approaches.
So he was displeased when he pressed through the narrow front hall and saw that tonight, everyone seemed to be lingering. As far as he knew, no crowd-drawing event such as zombie pit-fighting was going on, but the bodies were still so thick that he couldn’t even see the bar. Even as he stood on the edge, the mob surged and swelled around him so elbows pushed into his back, whispers slid nakedly over his skin. He shook them off and pulled his coat more tightly around himself, then resignedly began to push his way through the dancers.
The music changed when he was halfway across the floor, tempo swinging faster so the couple nearest him stopped wrapping their tongues lewdly around each other and attempted to lewdly wrap them around other body parts. The woman was passable, but the man had half his inner hide showing and it clashed badly with his tie. Nose wrinkling, Balthazar turned away and began to slip past them, but a sudden bulging of the bodies around him forced him sideways into someone. Someone taller than him who reeked of cigarette smoke.
Of course he started to push himself away, but the press of the bodies limited his movement. “Excuse—what do you think you’re doing?”
The arm that had been sliding around his chest dropped to lock around his waist. A man’s body pressed hard against his back, and an amused voice laughed in his ear. “Saying hello to a new face? Where the fuck has Midnite been keeping you?”
“I suppose he’s been keeping you in the basement cages,” Balthazar snapped, shoving hard at the arm. He jerked himself around, but between the other dancers and the flickering lights, he couldn’t catch much of a look at the insolent bastard who had him.
“Oh, got a mouth.” A half-interested erection suddenly ground up against Balthazar’s ass, and when he pivoted to get away from it, it just pressed into his hip. The hand on his stomach slid pointedly downward. “Hey, Ellie. I thought they were saving the innocents for the—son of a bitch!”
Balthazar jerked free as soon as he felt the demon’s grip loosening, slipping the blessed medal back between his fingers. He stumbled blindly into the crowd for a few paces, then slowed down once he was sure he wasn’t being followed. Then he straightened his clothes and dropped the medal back into his pocket.
Midnite was already waiting at the door, drawing on a long ebony cigarette holder. “Good evening.”
“It could have been better. Considering what I do for you, I could at least have my appointments when someone isn’t liable to assault me,” Balthazar snapped. He shook himself, then walked past Midnite into the office. His shoulder hitting Midnite wasn’t an accident.
As usual, Midnite completely ignored his irritation. “I thought you wanted to meet Constantine.”
That stopped Balthazar in his tracks. He reran Midnite’s words in his head, then stared in disbelief at the other man. “That was him? He’s supposed to be answerable only to Lucifer himself.”
“He is only answerable to Lucifer.” After offering—pointlessly, since Balthazar wasn’t stupid enough to ever take him up on it—drinks, Midnite took a seat behind the desk and pulled out some folders. He carefully opened a few and arranged the papers they contained to face Balthazar. “John’s unconventional.”
“But for someone in his position…never mind. So, as you can see, the European investments are still holding steady, but the market right now in South America is weak. I’m doing what I can, but…” Balthazar pulled out his pen and started marking up the papers, working his special brand of magic.
* * *
“That was Balthazar? Christ, I thought he’d be a little less stuck-up. He’s a fucking sinner with a track record longer than my…” John made a face and stopped dancing to light up a cigarette. When Ellie shot him a look for that as well, he blew smoke into her boy-toy’s face. Pathetic bastard nearly doubled over, like that was any comparison just to the fresh burn on John’s hand. “Get the fuck over it. Christ, Christ, Christ. It’s a goddamn name.”
She reached out and playfully flipped up his chin with her hand. At least, she made it look playful, but his teeth snapped together hard. “Well, Johnny, I’m sorry but not everybody’s got your unique…status.”
He grinned around his cigarette, both because he knew it’d irritate her and because he didn’t see why that was supposed to be an insult. Attaining demonhood while he was still marginally alive might have meant he was technically less pure than the rest of them, but the flexibility he had more than made up for it. And he’d proved that over and over and over, so they could just suck on their jealousy. “He’s prettier than I thought he’d be. Midnite’s little stockbroker.”
“Midnite’s stockbroker from one of the oldest and most powerful bloodlines. Almost as good as yours was—some say better, considering the current and apparently last generation,” Ellie purred. She laid her head on her date’s shoulder while his fingers flattened and slid beneath the edge of her dress. Her eyes fluttered and her mouth went slack, tongue curling out of it to beckon invitingly at him. “But yes, very uptight. I hear he makes his employees refer to him by his last name. He’s ‘B. Cruce’ to them.”
Still smiling, John figured why the hell not—she always sang a different tune when he had her pinned to the wall. He took a step forward…
…then cursed, swerving sharply away. His head was ringing, and even though he was in the middle of a hot, stuffy club, he still had no trouble feeling chilly phantom fingers sliding over his shoulder. He muttered a warding spell and was rewarded with a fierce stab of pain in his gut. “Goddamn him—catch you later, Ellie. I’m back on the clock.”
All thoughts of attractive new faces had dropped straight out of John’s head by the time he hit the street air. He’d also gone through another cigarette, and was just snapping his fingers at the end of a fresh one when Lou showed up. Hands first like always, sliding them over John’s back and along his shoulders so John nearly dove into a wall yanking himself away.
“Johnny, Johnny…anyone else would be honored,” Lucifer cooed, looking mock-hurt. He prowled after John, eyes hungrily running over John’s body.
This part always made John feel like ripping off his skin. He walked off another pace and sucked hard on his cigarette to clear the awful taste from his mouth, try hard not to remember waking up to that face above him and the pain between his legs that had been a hell of a lot worse than that of his slit wrist. “So go to them. What do you want?”
“Just indulging in a little nostalgia—you were such a dear little thing, all strapped down and made ready by the Church for me. You ever miss Father O’Reilly? No? I liked that skin.” Lucifer leaned forward and licked John’s cheek. This time, he grabbed John’s wrist and pulled John back to hiss against John’s face. “Watch it, kid. I let you get away with a lot, but don’t mistake that for a privilege.”
“I’ll remember that,” John muttered, glaring. He pulled at Lou’s hold, but it didn’t give. After a moment, John took the cigarette out of his mouth and stooped. He stopped to swallow down vomit, then leaned the rest of the way and kissed the back of Lucifer’s hand. “Are you happy now? Can I get to work?”
Sighing, Lou patted John’s cheek. “Aw, you’re always so eager. That’s what I love about you, Johnny. Fire. You made the right choice.”
Sure, John had. Fucking bastard. All the cigarettes in the world couldn’t get rid of the taste of Lucifer. But some day, John would find out what would, and then Lou had better watch out for his fucking balls.
For now? For now, John made do with nicotine and dimming down and scowling. “Just get to it already.”
Lucifer finally let go of John. “Your old friend Midnite. Keep an eye out—I keep hearing rumors he’s about to move a big one on the spiritual stock exchange. And Johnny? I don’t like being caught short.”
“Right,” John snorted. He watched as Lucifer faded back into the shadows, then shuddered off one last tendril. “Right. Goddamn it, Midnite. What now?”
* * *
“…so as you can see, I’m charging you the bare minimum. I give you top treatment for practically nothing.” With a satisfied smirk hiding behind his smooth pitch, Balthazar sat back in the chair.
It was certain now. He was embezzling money from Midnite. Unappreciative as Midnite was of such things, he was careful not to let that show in his face. He nodded and put pen to paper. “Thank you for clearing that up.”
“My pleasure,” Balthazar murmured. He folded up the paper and slipped it inside his coat, then got up to go to the door. When he saw who was standing there, he balked. A string of little coin-like objects jangled between his fingers.
John slouched carelessly against the doorframe, head tipped down as he cupped his hands around a red glow. A moment later, he raised it to blow a perfect smoke ring, eyes narrowed on Balthazar. “Oh, don’t mind me. I’m just waiting for my turn in the hot seat.”
After a long second, Balthazar stepped around John as far as he could and made his way out into the club. His distaste for the whole situation left a palpable trace behind him, which naturally didn’t disturb John in the least. John turned his head to watch Balthazar leave, a faintly speculative look in his eyes.
“Hey, Midnite, the truck’s—oh, sorry.” Chas began to quickly back out of the room, only to be stopped by John’s hand on his coat.
“Hey, kid. How’s the apprenticeship going? He show you anything fun yet?” John lightly asked, rubbing his fingers along Chas’ collar.
Midnite coughed and John let go, but didn’t stop smiling as Chas fled. Before John could sit down, Midnite had stood up and made his way around the desk. As he did, he picked up a skull of a grandfather of his, a man that had managed to eat a demon and destroy it inside of him. “What have I told you about—”
“You know he’s not even my type. I just do it because I like seeing you pissed off,” John said, voice coiling mockingly about Midnite. He shouldered past to tap off his ash in a nearby plant pot, back to Midnite. “Put the damn skull down and close the door already.”
It was tempting, but even when he’d been human, John had been a good deal more powerful than any of Midnite’s ancestors. After putting the skull down, Midnite went over to the door. He stood sideways as he pushed it shut so he never let John slip from his view; John laughed when he noticed and softly sauntered up till he was nearly rubbing his nose along Midnite’s cheek.
“I hear you’re bending that vow of yours a bit. Getting restless for the old days?” The cigarette came up so John could take a hit, but he leaned more forward than he had to, his hand landing on Midnite’s stomach for support. It rested there, then slid in a broad arc to cover Midnite’s heart.
Midnite picked up John’s hand and pulled it off. He pretended he hadn’t hesitated. “Are you?”
“Oh, don’t give me—especially when you could’ve saved me from this if you hadn’t taken that fucking vow. Neutrality.” John spat the word as he spun away, smoke trails forming into claws that reached back over his shoulders at Midnite. He paced angrily to the other side of the room, then came back to jab his cigarette at Midnite’s eyes. “Someday—someday you’re going to realize just what kind of bullshit that is.”
The look in John’s eyes was more than rage, more than bitterness. Beneath it all still were some remnants of a desperate, terrified boy, whose hands reached up and up to no savior. And John must have known, because he quickly turned away with an oath.
“Lou’s got his ear pricked up, so don’t be a fucking idiot,” John muttered. “You might want to feed him something. Or someone. He was in a shitty mood tonight.”
“I’ll consider it,” Midnite finally said. He looked up at the sound of footsteps, but by then John had already pulled the door open.
“I’m busy. Have a nice night--morning.” The glowing tip of the cigarette waved peremptorily at him, and then John had slipped back into the crowd like a raindrop merging with the sea.
Midnite considered that as well as he walked back to his desk and picked up the skull. It still possessed the power to dispel demons, but he treasured it more for the wisdom it could provide regarding them. Though that was of little use in this situation, as no matter what attributes John had gained, demonic was only surface-deep with him. That could change, Midnite thought. Several birds and some old debts with one stone.
He flipped open his appointment book and found his next meeting with Balthazar. It was written in for next Sunday morning, but with a quick movement Midnite had switched it to Tuesday afternoon.