|The Divine Comedy I: Twice Burned
Author: Guede Mazaka
John jerked back from the sink, banged his elbow on the doorknob, then steadied himself. He swore for good measure and watched his mirror violently buck against the wall. It cracked another corner, but of course the spell wasn’t strong enough.
The face within the glass clucked his tongue. “Tsk, Johnny. Is that any way to greet your boss? And when I’ve let you have so much slack, too—haven’t asked you yet to do anything that’d put you out of the running for heaven…oh, wait. You already did that yourself.”
“Morning, Lou. Now get the fuck out of my bathroom so I can shave and do what you keep me around for.” Los Angeles water was bad to begin with, but whenever Lucifer popped in, it got infinitely worse. Which John confirmed by cranking open the faucet and seeing viscous yellow slime spill out. He sighed and reluctantly grabbed a hank of toilet paper for wiping off the foam and hair from his razor.
It was a good thing he was used to working in the dark—literal or figurative—since Lou didn’t even have the good grace to move aside so John could use the mirror. No, Lucifer just stood there and leered at the throat John was resignedly stretching out before him. All the class of a hotshot carpetbagger. “Change of plans, Johnny. Forget about collaring those renegades. I’ve got a special case for you.”
“You sure you want to do that? Because the ghost in 441 Virgil’s pretty close to getting a body again—”
“Change of plans,” Lucifer hissed. The glass started to warp with a heat that John could feel singing his freshly-shaven cheeks. Sulfurous fumes curled up from the faucet to tease at John’s hands.
John batted them away and cleaned off his razor for the last time, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. He folded it up and stuck it in a pocket, then picked up his tie from the counter and wrapped it around his collar. “Okay, okay. Christ, what’s got you so worked up?”
“Go to Midnite’s. He should have the basement ready for you. He’ll explain the rest. And remember, Johnny—there’s nobody more disappointed than a dreamer.” With that, Lucifer vanished.
Behind him, he left a ruined mirror and an uneasy twisting in John’s gut. Midnite liked his neutrality, but occasionally circumstances forced him to temporarily bend to one side or the other. And given how strong he was, those would have to be some circumstances to make him pull a favor like this for Lucifer: the basement room was an euphemism for the best-equipped sacrificial and torture chamber this side of Hell.
Somehow John didn’t think he’d be slashing the throats of goats while chanting paeans through gritted teeth.
He gave his tie a last tug and stared at his distorted reflection. Then he got out a cigarette, lit it and blew the smoke at the mirror. Between that and the heat-ripples Lou had left in it, John could get a reasonable approximation of what he’d look like if he didn’t obey. Goddamn it.
* * *
“He wants me to work over a half-breed? Can’t I just send him back and let the boys in the seventh circle do that? That’s why they’re there, after all.” John felt a headache coming on, but he knew better than to ask Midnite for aspirin. Hell, Midnite could barely stand to be on the same staircase as John.
The other man wasn’t quite twitching, but his upper lip was pulled into the beginnings of a scornful twist, and like always, he kept his fingers half-curled so he could toss John across the room if he got a chance. He was irritating like that—had no problem selling drinks to any slimy demon who could read the cards, but he had issues with treating John with the least bit of respect. It wasn’t like John hadn’t explained to him how Lucifer had ended up giving the orders, and never mind that it’d been a bit late; Midnite hadn’t remembered to tell John about the zombie till after it’d collapsed in broad daylight and John had nearly been charged with murder.
“If you have questions, you should direct them to your employer. I merely pass on what he told me,” Midnite said. He glanced distastefully down the stairs when a low moan rose to them. “I will have a man at the top of the stairs to get you anything you might need.”
“Oh, I get it. Don’t come up and make the customers too hungry, or else they might start snacking on your staff again. You know, I got shanghaied into this job—”
But Midnite had already turned his back on John and was pointedly walking up the stairs, as if he actually could wipe his hands of this that easily. Hypocritical bastard. Indirect responsibility was just a soft-soap excuse people used to make themselves feel better.
Another moan crept through the air. John flinched, then shook himself and unbuttoned one cuff. He started on the other one, but abandoned it for shaking out a cigarette, whereupon he discovered he was running short. He looked up the stairs.
Midnite had pushed the door so it was mostly shut; all John could see of it was the two sets of long, flickering yellow cracks. As he watched, something large slowly passed before the vertical lines so they dimmed, then disappeared to leave him in near-perfect darkness. He had to will himself not to grit his teeth on his second-to-last cigarette. Hell, it was only the dark, and Midnite’s annoying sense of the dramatic.
“Hey!” John called. The dark shape moving above stopped, then slowly slid aside so a little light filtered back down. Floorboards groaned.
The moaning stopped.
Well, great. The bastard was probably conscious now. “Two—no, three packs of Yellow River and a couple decent Virgin candles.”
After a moment, John heard a slow, ponderous shuffle from above, and both vertical cracks reappeared. Not that the little light they let in helped very much as he reluctantly made his way down the stairs. Of course there wasn’t a railing since Midnite could rely on the loa and they didn’t give a shit how dark it was; John, however, wasn’t so fortunate in his type of psychic gift and nearly tripped on his face a couple times. He finally gave up and scratched alight another match on the wall, then went down the last few steps.
Every time he was down here, the air seemed to have gotten warmer and more humid and the walls seemed to be more thickly coated with a chilly rust-red slime that still put him off his appetite. It was a big room, spanning nearly the whole building, but nevertheless it always gave off the sensation of being on the verge of crushing inwards. The walls were of thick stone and slightly concave so their corners were even more shadowy than normal, and there were never enough candles.
John poked around with his foot till he bumped his toe against a candelabra, then stooped to pick it up. His match was just about scorching his fingers, so he waved it out and got another one to light the two half-rotted candles in the stand.
“You’re a mortal,” somebody said in a surprised rasp.
Male. Sounded like he’d gotten his throat half-smashed and was still spitting up blood. He was across the room, near where Midnite generally slaughtered his animals. He’d be over there, of course, because that was where the drains and the drop to the sewage was. Apparently Lucifer didn’t want any of this guy left.
Well, half-breed shits always deserved it, so it wasn’t like John was disgusted by that. He ignored the implied question and blew out the match, then raised the candles so he could see what he was getting himself into.
One thing about the slime that John hated was how it bent light. The pale yellow circles thrown by the candle-flames didn’t so much race across the room as stagger drunkenly, some swallowed up by the thick wall coating with almost audible slurps and some skittering back towards John, as if he could do anything for them. Eventually enough of them made it across the way to show him the half-breed.
Nice piece of work, once upon a time. The suit probably had cost more than John’s accumulated hospital bills, but now it was so streaked with blood and dirt that John couldn’t even tell what color it had been. The trousers were okay, but all that was left of the coat was a sleeve bunched up around the chains on the right wrist, and the gaping rips in the shirt and vest gave him a couple glimpses of pale, pale muscle—so he’d either been down here long enough to heal up, or he was a bit more powerful than the impression John was getting. Probably the second one, since Midnite really didn’t like letting this kind of shit happen on his property.
The half-breed’s hair was matted with blood, and he held his head just a little too carefully: that had been the blow to knock him down. John idly wondered whether Lucifer had called in some of his strong-arms, or if he’d made Midnite do it. At least that would explain why Midnite was so goddamn pissy, since that would’ve cost him a couple good zombies.
“I know you,” the half-breed said after a moment. He awkwardly pushed himself up onto his elbows to the soft cacophony of clinking metal. “John Constantine.”
Hopefully the damn zombie would get back soon, because John really needed a longer drag than the one he was taking. He flicked the ash into a corner of the room, pretending he didn’t hear the angry hiss that followed, and began picking his way across the floor. He wasn’t trying to avoid anything physical, because unlike what the crappy Hollywood films showed, real houngans kept their spaces clean when they weren’t using them. No wicked collection of knives or random animal parts—just a dense network of wards scribed on the floor, which could disembowel a man if he stepped on them in the wrong order.
“You’re Lucifer’s favorite exorcist.” The half-breed was chained to the iron grating that covered the drop into the sewers, but it was hard to see how because he kept the rags of his clothes covering his wrists and ankles. He slowly moved back as John approached, but he only made it six inches before he was forced to stop. Still didn’t look frightened so much as coolly irritated.
“Thanks for the flattery,” John dryly replied. He walked around the grating and lit some of the candles in the wall-holders, then set down the candelabra on the floor and squatted beside it. “I guess you must not be all that high up there, because I can’t say that I remember running into you before.”
A sliver of contemptuous white peeked from between the half-breed’s lips. “Perhaps you can’t afford the circles I move in.”
He had a pretty face beneath all the bruises and blood. Nice eyes, big and dark. When John drew a hip flask from his coat, they didn’t bother looking at it. Then he uncapped it and splashed holy water in them, and then he got a reaction. He had to scramble back to avoid the flailing limbs and swinging chains.
When the bastard finally collapsed again, he sprawled so John finally had a decent idea of how the set-up was going to be: wrist- and ankle-manacles from blessed Torquemada’s own collection, long chains fastening them separately to the grating. The skin of his face and throat had blistered away to show gnarled, virulent green hide and part of his upper lip had burned away so his long canines were visible. He snarled when he saw John studying him and coiled back on himself, pulling up an arm to cover most of his face. Vain.
“I don’t know. I get around pretty well—that’s the fun thing about you guys. You’re just like us when it comes to being too greedy. Nobody ever knows when to stop,” John said, lighting up a new cigarette from his old one.
The half-breed’s right eye had a nasty white swell cutting across the iris, but it didn’t seem to impede his sight too much. He flicked his gaze towards the cigarette. “You included?”
Oh, a smartass. This was going to be a real blast.
John sucked hard on his cigarette as he pulled off his coat, one sleeve at a time. Then he rolled up his sleeves, letting the half-breed get a good look at the tattoos there. He even grinned along with the half-breed’s disbelieving sneer. “If it works, it works. Lou whines a lot, but so far he hasn’t about my methods. Whereas it looks like he had a big problem with whatever you were up to.”
The half-breed blinked, and when his eyelid went up again, the white swell had gone down by half. Another couple of blinks and it was a normal eye again. “What would you know about it?”
And he was still thinking, too. The pause before John answered inevitably revealed a lot to the half-breed’s clever question, but that couldn’t be helped and damned well wasn’t John’s fault. If Lucifer had bothered getting more specific before he’d flounced off…“Do I have to know anything? You look like shit and you’re about to get ripped into by little old me. That says a lot, I think.”
The stairs creaked; the half-breed twitched a little, so his nerves were getting on the raw side. But it was just the zombie with John’s cigarettes and the candles. It set them down by John’s coat, then shuffled off.
John picked up the cigarette packs, then sighed: the idiot had gotten him the wrong brand. But at least they were unfiltered Virginian tobacco, so it wasn’t a total loss. He pulled out a couple and set up a row, then abruptly looked back at the half-breed.
Too late, the half-breed yanked down his sleeve. Shaking his head, John replicated the tattoo he’d glimpsed with the cigarettes. He’d only seen half, but he guessed it was probably symmetrical and added the other half so he had a circle over a square cross. “Is this the new fashion for the year?”
“Why don’t you go ask the Morningstar, Johnny-boy? Good sons can always ask their daddies about anything,” sneered the half-breed.
Technically, it was a good sign that he’d dropped the light banter and lost his temper. Unfortunately, John also lost his temper and couldn’t take advantage of the moment.
He grabbed the chain wrapping the half-breed’s wrists and yanked it forward; the half-breed pulled back and for a moment, the tension held them both up. Then John let the links rip through his hand as he lunged forward, knees banging on the grating. He feinted a grab for the asshole’s shirt so, already off-balance, the half-breed had to scramble further, and then twisted around to get him by the hair and wrist.
John had a hard time holding onto the hair, and at first he thought it was because of all the blood in it, but then he realized the half-breed was spasming beneath him, teeth rattling in a poor attempt to disguise how much pain the bastard was in. It puzzled John for a second because his fingers weren’t sliding into any wounds yet, but then he felt the warmth beneath the hand he had on the half-breed’s wrist. It was low and almost unnoticeable, but then the half-clotted blood slicking the wrist seemed to vaporize and suddenly it was searing into John’s palm.
He let go with an oath, and almost lost his grip on the half-breed’s hair as well, but at the last minute he managed to switch that to the back of the half-breed’s neck. The asshole tried to swing the chain into John’s head, but John slammed a knee into his face and ducked under the chain, then grabbed it. Wrapped it around his hand and used it to smash the bastard a few times into the grating until he stopped moving.
“Motherfucking son of a bitch,” John muttered. He caught his breath, then shifted so he was straddling the slumped form. Somewhere along the line, he’d lost his cigarette, but a quick look about found it miraculously stuck behind the hinge of the grating.
The half-breed didn’t seem inclined to fight anymore, so John risked letting go of his neck and picking up the cigarette. He smoked off a quarter, till he was smelling more nicotine than sewage and blood, and then leaned over the limp body. “I know you’re not dead, or knocked out. I can feel you breathing—the rhythm’s wrong.”
The ribs pressed up against John’s legs heaved hard, then sank back slowly as the half-breed craned his head around. Blood was dripping from his broken nose, and more blood was clotting around what was already a massive cluster of bruising over his temple. “How very…astute of you. And brave. Very brave, after somebody’s done all the hard work for you.”
“Get over it. If somebody wants to save me the time of dirtying my hands with your goddamn blood, I’m not going to complain.” John took another drag, then leaned further over so the tip of the cigarette was right over the half-breed’s eye. “By the way, I don’t like you calling me ‘Johnny-boy.’”
“I never would have guessed,” gasped the half-breed. He sounded sarcastic, but his attempts to avoid the ash flaking off the cigarette-tip were genuine enough; being blinded wasn’t something anyone enjoyed.
On the other hand, if he could still be so damned cute, just beating the shit out of him wasn’t going to work. Not if John wanted to be at this all week, and Midnite had said it was a rush job to boot. “So how about your name?” he asked. Tapped off the ash away from the half-breed, then brought the glowing tip back so it just singed a raw patch on the bastard’s cheek. “Since I never got it.”
“Lucifer didn’t even tell you that?” The incredulity in the bastard’s voice needled John like a scrap of bone wedged between his teeth. “Oh, aren’t you the valuable—”
He didn’t scream when John shoved the cigarette tip into the scrape. He jerked a little and snapped his teeth while the smell of sizzling flesh curled into the air along with a thin black thread of smoke.
John held the butt up afterward, then disgustedly threw it through the bars and reached for another one. He dug out his lighter and stared into the flame till he wasn’t feeling like he needed to punch a wall. God, he hated these jobs. “I’m sure you noticed there wasn’t a plop sound when that hit the water, since you’ve got your ear aimed that way and all. Do you know where this goes? Want to find out what happens when we toss a finger of yours in? I mean, it’s not like it wouldn’t grow back for you.”
It wasn’t a real strong threat, and John hadn’t meant it to be. He’d been working up to a better one, but surprisingly enough, he got an answer first. The half-breed’s eye rolled towards the bars, then upwards to glower at John. “Midnite could have told you, for that matter. I’m on his client rolls. Balthazar.”
Off went the flame, and on went John’s temper. Goddamn it, it wasn’t his fucking fault he had to do this sort of thing. Yeah, he’d had a choice—agree or get eaten alive over and over for all eternity. Some choice. And anyway, if there was a balance, then there had to be shitty jobs to balance out the good ones, and somebody had to take care of them. Everyone should’ve been thanking John for what he put himself through, but no, they all treated him like he was Lucifer.
“That hurts, doesn’t it?” Balthazar observed. He twisted a bit, winced and twisted a little more so he could look up with both eyes. His skin was slowly coming back, so now he looked like a half-flayed person instead of a half-skinned demon. “You might get around, but you never do get very far, do you?”
Oh, that was good. That was so good, in fact, that John was almost admiring. “Well, I’m human. We’re supposed to be the poor blind souls stumbling around in the dark. Now, what the hell is a smart little bastard like you doing in a situation like this? Join the wrong gang, or what?”
He gave Balthazar’s wrists a shake so the sleeve flapped away to show that symbol again. John glanced at it, mostly to check that he’d gotten the shape right, and began to look away but didn’t quite make it. His skull seemed to tighten and a menacing coldness spread from his gut up his throat, fogging the world in a chilly mist.
“…yes…take him…” whispered someone.
John frowned, then abruptly yanked himself back together. His temper flared up and this time he let it, because if there was anything he hated more than he hated what he had to do for a living, it was having anyone fuck with his head. His mind was the only damned thing he had left that was still his.
Balthazar drew in a sharp breath, calling John’s attention back to him. The bastard looked shocked when John punched him, sending his head back so it rang against the bars. He hissed and lunged, teeth clicking together an inch from John’s hand; John twisted away and popped his charms out of his pocket. He corkscrewed the entire bunch into a rip in Balthazar’s shirt, pressing them hard against the blistering skin.
That got him an actual cry of pain, though it still wasn’t a scream. Much as John wasn’t the sadistic type, he was really starting to see why people would get turned on by it. Balthazar was writhing and smashing his teeth together, almost frothing at the mouth, and that still wasn’t enough to calm John down. He banged the bastard a few times to stun him, then slid around the charms till he found the ragged edge of a long, shallow cut that arced across Balthazar’s belly. He shoved the amulets in with his fingertips, keeping Balthazar pinned down, and listened as the tone of Balthazar’s stifled moans modulated from enraged to simply pained. The struggling grew less and less, and finally John was panting over a slumped body whose back occasionally heaved jaggedly against John’s legs and stomach.
He’d lost his cigarette again. His nose was damn near stuck in the mess of blood and sweat and raw flesh that made up the crook of Balthazar’s neck, and it reeked. The smell reminded John of the smell of water around Lucifer.
He pushed himself up and off before he had to throw up, then sat down hard next to Balthazar. His charms were clumped with gobbets of flesh that were both red and green, and he picked the gory bits out with the kind of detachment that showed up whenever he was about to do something that’d give him crying nightmares later. “Guess you aren’t getting too far nowadays, either. Who were you expecting to get me? God? You know he’s got a shitty track record as far as that goes, right?”
Balthazar lifted his head a fraction, then sank back down. His fingers twitched, trying to curl downward.
And it came back to that symbol, which with all the sigils and seals that John knew, he still didn’t recognize. He supposed he could call Midnite down and see if he knew, or if Midnite was willing to detail an actual live servant to do some research, but that would take longer than John was willing to sit here and look at what he was doing.
He tossed the charms aside and pulled over the Virgin candles. They were just the cheap factory-made ones every Mexican grocery sold, but John supposed it was the thought that counted. And goddamned Midnite had long since made it clear what he thought of John.
Finding the right knife took longer, but finally John turned one up in a high crevice. When he came back over, Balthazar had revived enough to stare at him. Something had gone out of the half-breed’s eyes—they were still furious and bitter, but they were…duller. More dazed, as if what had happened was only now sinking in for him. Though they still focused quick enough on John. “You actually don’t like doing this.” His tongue came out and ran slowly over his swollen and ripped lips; it was a surprisingly warm pink color, though still serpentine. “I shouldn’t have had to get you angry for you to do that.”
“You know, from where I was, it looked more like you were trying to get me killed. Stop trying to pretend you’re still in control of the situation—it’ll go easier that way. Believe me, it’d be worse if I deported you into Lucifer’s good graces.” John positioned one lighted candle at each corner, then walked onto the grating. Balthazar tried to whip the chains at John’s feet, but he could only move them a few inches before he had to collapse.
He did roll over as John stood over him so John had to kick him back onto his stomach. A ragged grunt shot from him, but otherwise he seemed to have pulled himself back together. “Oh, you mean like how you cope? Excuse me if I don’t take you for a very good model.”
John gave the bastard another kick, then shook himself and got down on his knees. The angrier he got, the more distracted he was and he damned well didn’t want to drag this out. He twisted around to reach for Balthazar’s calves first, holding the knife against his palm and forearm so Balthazar couldn’t see it. “At least I’m not the one tied down like a fucking pig.”
“But I’m the one that Lucifer’s worrying about. You make such a good lapdo—” Balthazar stopped when John used the knife to slit open his pant-leg. “What are you doing?”
It always felt a little odd to touch a demon. Biblical apocrypha said that one of their hallmarks was hairiness, but if that was so, they’d long since figured out how to get around that because all the demons John had ever run into were smooth-skinned when in human form. Silky and scarless. If John pulled up his pant-legs, he’d see dozens of old thin scars from the straps and the needles—when he’d been thrashing too much for those to go in his arms. It really should have been the other way around, if evil had ever been that obvious.
Balthazar laughed, low and sardonic. “Like what you see?”
“No,” John muttered, and cut through the hamstring with one quick slash.
He got blood splashed in his face. More spurted up—he’d nicked a vein somewhere—while he was knotting the ends of the pant-leg around the wound so Balthazar wouldn’t bleed unconscious yet. John blinked it out when he could and worked quickly, so intent that he didn’t even notice he’d gotten hit by a flying chain till he was sitting back and rubbing his bloody hand over his bloody face and his thumb slid over a sore spot. He grimaced and shook off as much as he could, but there was still plenty to trickle down his collar and soak into his tie. His throat tightened and he pulled at the tie-knot, but the blood made his hand slippery. It wouldn’t come, so he pulled harder and harder, and finally he just ripped the thing off. Some blood must have splattered into his mouth somewhere along the way, because the inside of his mouth tasted like bile and shit.
He closed his eyes, then opened them. Yeah, he’d just done that. To a half-breed demon who probably fucked up more souls by lunch than John had done in twenty years, but still, the feeling was like a great open sore inside of him. By the time Lucifer got hold of him, he really was going to be fit for Hell. “Look, just tell me what Lou needs to know.”
“And then what?” Balthazar whispered. His voice cracked a little, and he couldn’t quite pull the pieces back together for the rest of what he said. “I can go home? Johnny, you of all people should know it doesn’t work like that.”
“Yeah, well, I can’t exactly help that. Either you tell me, or I find out for myself.” John shifted around and put his hand on the back of Balthazar’s right knee. He nearly got his wrist broken when Balthazar tried to kick him, but something went…wrong.
It wasn’t clear exactly what happened, but the blurring of moving limbs was all wrong, and when Balthazar had settled down again, he was trying to pull his legs up beneath him. His left leg…wasn’t responding, and John looked away quickly. He gritted his teeth and cut, and only afterward did he remember that he should’ve cut open the pant-leg first.
If the last one had been a mess, then this one was fucking chaos. The blood soaked fast into the pant-leg and made it stick to the leg so John couldn’t see his way to tying up the wound. He cursed and tried to force Balthazar still by virtue of weight, but Balthazar was desperate enough that John just couldn’t do it. His fingers slipped, caught in the slash, and then ripped free so Balthazar would hiss broken pants through gritted teeth and spasm even more. Finally John had to toss the knife aside and get into it with both hands, and then he got the wound bound up.
Some kindness that that was. He didn’t even try to wipe his face afterward, but instead just grabbed two cigarettes and smoked them both in quick succession. When his hands weren’t shaking so much, he picked up the knife and turned himself around so he was still straddling Balthazar, but facing the other way. “You figure out what I’m about to do?” John asked.
Balthazar’s face was hidden in his arms, but he nodded. His shoulders were moving rapidly up and down, and his breathing echoed loud and fast and hurting so John…well, John supposed this had to be pity, wasted as it probably was.
John put the tip of the knife to the nape of Balthazar’s neck. Balthazar tensed, but didn’t move. “Whose symbol is on your forearm?” John said.
“You’re pathetic.” The words were so soft that at first John couldn’t understand them. Then he did, and then he couldn’t help pressing the knife down so a bead of blood welled out from beneath it. “You really are, Johnny-boy. You’re revolted by the bargain you made and you probably are revolted by yourself, but do you do anything about it? No. You’re going to go quietly into the dark and no one will notice, because why should they? You haven’t given them any reason to.”
Heat seethed in John’s head and boiled in his hands so the knife seemed to melt in it, flow like lightning down Balthazar’s back as the cloth ripped asunder before it, a reworking of goddamned Moses himself. “I think the last thing I need is a lecture from a half-breed asshole like you on asserting myself.”
Soon as he’d cut open Balthazar’s clothes, he pushed them out of the way. Beneath him Balthazar was starting to struggle again, trying to twist sideways so John wouldn’t be able to do the spell, but he couldn’t whip his legs around anymore and that reduced his ability to resist by at least half. He shouted something when the blade pierced his flesh just over his left shoulderblade, but John was not in the mood to listen.
He did it in five long cuts: three for the circle, two for the cross-bars. It was crooked, but that didn’t matter. The blood welled up fast enough for him to not have to see it, and whoever to whom the sigil belonged wasn’t going to give a shit. He pinned back Balthazar by the shoulders. “In nomine--” John started.
Balthazar screamed. And the flesh beneath John’s hands began to smoke and bubble, as if someone was roasting Balthazar from the inside. He could feel it rise in soft blisters beneath his palms and when he pressed on them, they gave with disgusting soft pops of blood that John shouldn’t have been able to hear over Balthazar. But he did—or maybe it was that he could somehow hear the sound through his hands.
Someone clattered down the stairs. “John!” Midnite shouted.
“Fuck!” John threw back his head, then lunged forward and slammed Balthazar down by the neck. He dropped the knife in his hurry and had to scrabble for it while great raw swaths began to open up along the lines John had cut in Balthazar’s back.
And Balthazar was still screaming, sobbing through it like a badly-beaten child.
The knife finally back in hand, John hurriedly rubbed at the gore obscuring Balthazar’s back. He pulled up soft bits that squeezed between his fingers and his stomach heaved, but he bit down and forced himself to do it. Put the knife to Balthazar again and slashed up the symbol he’d made till the connection snapped.
Then John rolled over and threw up. Good thing the grating was there so most of it could drop straight through and fall to whatever the hell Midnite kept down there. The knife, lubricated with runny flesh, squirted out of John’s fingers and slipped through the bars, but John couldn’t give a fuck because he was busy spitting out the last mouthful of vomit.
“What did you do?” Midnite demanded, dropping beside them.
John raised his hand to wipe off his mouth, then saw the shit already on his hand and quickly dropped it out of sight. After a moment, he had to laugh. “Nothing much. Just discovered I’ve got some limits I can’t push.”
“No, him.” Midnite cocked his head at Balthazar, who’d collapsed in a huddle so bloody that for a couple seconds, John couldn’t make heads or tails of him. Then he pulled out a rag and handed it to John so John could clean his face. “What happened?”
Well, it figured that Midnite could afford to be all business, all the time. But then, it also figured that John could be pissed off enough at Midnite for that to need a cigarette before he answered. He also needed the moment to collect his thoughts. “He’s got this mark on his arm that I didn’t recognize. He wouldn’t say who it was, so I was just trying a straightforward sovereignty spell to see for myself. But it shouldn’t have been that bad…”
John took a last suck, then stabbed out the cigarette before he’d noticed it was only half-way done. He swore half-heartedly at that before crawling out to Balthazar and gently tapping at what he thought was Balthazar’s shoulder. Balthazar didn’t stir, which was probably the best idea because he didn’t look like he had any skin left on his back; John’s stomach churned badly. Out of nowhere, some more bile materialized in his throat, but he choked it down and carefully prodded around till he could straighten out Balthazar’s arm. “It was…holy fucking Christ.”
Where the symbol had been on Balthazar’s wrist was now nothing but charred flesh stretching from beneath the manacle. When John accidentally brushed a fingertip against the place, great flakes of skin fell off to expose the inflamed flesh beneath. Balthazar hissed, then jerked to life in fits and starts. He didn’t seem to be able to see and kept trying to crawl his way up John’s lap, only to fall back when the movement started his back bleeding.
“Looks like he got fired,” John muttered. “It was this circle, crossed with—”
“Mammon,” Balthazar mumbled. He gave a cracked laugh and dropped his head on John’s thigh. “Mammon, you idiot. I was trying to say—Mammon. It was Mammon’s sign.”
“Lucifer’s son. But he’s banned from earth and imprisoned in Hell.” Midnite didn’t sound so sure about that.
And John wasn’t about to bet on it, because he definitely had never seen anything like what had just happened. “Well, thank you for that informational lesson, Midnite. Great. It’s an attempted coup, isn’t it? Balthazar? Balthazar?”
With an effort, Balthazar lifted his head. He couldn’t focus on John for more than a second at a time, but he nevertheless had no problem showing his utter contempt. “What do I care? Whether he wins or loses makes no difference to what happens to me.”
“Goddamn it, he is! He is and you were going to help him cross—oh, no, you don’t,” John snarled, catching Balthazar’s chin as it dropped. He yanked up the bastard’s head and made them meet eyes. “How? How is it going to happen?”
“Go to hell, Johnny…” Balthazar’s eyes rolled back into his head.
John shook him and he snapped out of it with a soft, hurting gasp that reminded John’s stomach it hadn’t really recovered yet. Too bad for both of them that there wasn’t time. “I’m not done with you yet, you sorry piece of shit. Christ. You think you’re better than me just because you thought you were overthrowing Lucifer? You egotistical shithead—at least I know that I’m being used. You thought Mammon was going to be your new fucking best friend—”
“John—” Midnite said in a warning tone.
“And you can’t even take a little betrayal. That’s so rich. That’s so fucking rich.” Another shake and Balthazar was crying out again, pushing at John’s arms. When John held on tight, the asshole actually still had the balls to twist around and sink teeth into John’s forearm.
The taste Balthazar got couldn’t have been very good, because the next moment John was ripping him off by the hair and throwing him against the iron bars. Balthazar hit them and went limp in a tangle of crookedly splayed limbs, but John was too angry to bother noticing much. Someone grabbed John’s arm, but he threw them off and climbed over Balthazar, leaning down to hiss in the bastard’s face. He dropped his hand on Balthazar’s shoulder, just at the edge of the flayed region, and rippled his fingers hard over the raw flesh so Balthazar’s mouth strained wide in a silent cry of pain.
“So why did you do it?” John asked, ripping off each word. “Why’d you give up your comfortable berth with Lucifer for some scheme with his kid? Get too greedy? Were you aiming at the throne of Hell itself—no, that’s not it because Mammon always wanted the earthly plane. So maybe you were due home and suddenly you thought you didn’t want to leave. You wanted to stay here, with us pitiful lowly humans, and why would that be?”
Balthazar’s eyes were huge as they looked at John. Huge and shaken and exposed, like John had just cracked a lot more than Balthazar’s double layer of skin. His mouth worked, but before he said anything he twisted frantically around so he was looking the other way.
John dug his nails into Balthazar’s back, and while Balthazar was writhing in agony, he leaned over so Balthazar knew he couldn’t disavow his involvement that easily. “Maybe you like it here. Maybe you’re really a closet humanist—oh, now that’s got to be a complication for someone like you. Maybe you’ve even started picking up some of our bad habits, like wanting to be free. Wanting free will. That’s not a very demonly thought to have, is it? Getting more pieces of the pie, yeah, and stomping on your competitors, but that’s not the same as wanting to change the rules of the game.”
“Don’t—” Balthazar sucked in a breath, and it came out in a cluster of red bubbles. He shook his head and tried to turn around again, but John smacked him and he shuddered into stillness.
“Or maybe, maybe you just don’t know what it is, really. But you feel this hole where something’s missing, and you know you’re not going to get it with the status quo. Jesus Christ, the only thing more pathetic than a demon that wants to be free of his job is—”
“—a man that works for the Devil because he’s too afraid of quitting?” Balthazar gasped, jerking feebly at John’s grip.
John grabbed him by the throat and yanked him up so they were kneeling. “Is a demon that dreams,” he snarled.
Then he froze and heard himself echoing through the room. Oh, Christ.
“John!” Midnite hissed, pulling him away.
It was easy for Midnite to do that because John had already let go of Balthazar and had been reeling back himself, temporarily stunned with self-disgust. Because that was exactly what Lucifer would have said, if he’d been here. And in fact, he was here, in a way that made John want to throw up all over again.
“Let go,” John finally said. He pushed at Midnite, and then pushed harder till Midnite did. “Fuck.”
“He’s going to be of no use to us in another few minutes. Here’s the—” For once, Midnite showed some surprise. He kept his hand up a couple seconds after John had snatched the keys from it, just staring. “John?”
John knelt down and picked gingerly about till he’d untangled the rags of Balthazar’s clothes from around the wrist manacles. He slipped the key into one of the locks, heard it click and then heard something else click. A second before Balthazar lunged, John yanked his hand out of the way. He punched Balthazar in the side of the head, and when Balthazar fell this time, he did so with a strange sort of choked sound.
But it was the fact that he wasn’t resisting any more that John really cared about. He got the other cuff undone, then patted Balthazar’s head. “And thank you for reminding me I don’t actually have to like you for what you’d done to me. Midnite, you have a hose down here? We can’t take him out looking like this.”
“Where would we be taking him?” Of course, Midnite had already gone and gotten the hose. He had turned on the water so the gentlest trickle came out.
They traded—keys for hose—and Midnite went to deal with Balthazar’s feet while John started sluicing the blood out of Balthazar’s hair and face. At first he was trying to be careful, but Balthazar seemed to jerk and groan no matter what so John gave up and just aimed for speed. “He’s your goddamn business partner. You tell me—where’s his bolthole?”
John more sensed than heard the pause before Midnite’s answer. “I had reasons for not telling you before.”
“Yeah, you were too busy looking down on me and being secretly disgusted at having to break your vow of neutrality, right? Because a client is a client, even if he’s a complete shit.” While Balthazar’s face wasn’t too horrendous, everything below his neck was going to make moving him around difficult if they wanted to keep him among the living. John put down the hose to think. “God, I love your moral code. I really do.”
He noticed Balthazar’s nose was still crooked from earlier and idly reached out to set it straight. Balthazar jerked back and John had to make a grab for him, least he make things worse; he ended up cradling Balthazar’s head in one hand while he used the other to move the hose over Balthazar’s arms and back.
Balthazar had had his eyes closed, but now his lashes slowly struggled to open. They were gummed up with a few tiny blood clots, and because John was still thinking, he curved his hand around so he could squeeze those off with his fingertips. For some reason, Balthazar didn’t try to bite, though John didn’t remember about that till later.
“John. You don’t have to hamstring someone in order to perform a sovereignty spell,” Midnite said. He followed up with an oddly intense look over his shoulder.
“I was pissed off at him and he kept trying to kick me. Don’t look at me—in fact, don’t you ever look at me again like that. You’re not living my goddamn life. You can pass judgment after—” John cut himself off and closed his eyes. Then he opened them and stopped thinking so he could start doing. “We’re going to have to fix his legs and back, at least. What’ve you got?”
* * *
It was a nice boardroom. At least, from what John could see over Balthazar, whom Midnite was making him carry. Maybe it was true that Balthazar couldn’t exactly walk, and that it’d make sense for at least one of them to have their hands free, but why that had to be Midnite, John didn’t understand. He was the one with more experience with demons, and he’d already donated his coat to wrap around Balthazar.
Thankfully, Balthazar seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness and didn’t talk. He must have been slightly delirious, or whatever was the demonic equivalent, as well because he periodically nuzzled at John’s neck while mumbling to himself.
“It can’t only be him,” Midnite was saying as they surveyed the room. “Something like this takes centuries to plan, and he’s not that old. Or that well-connected.”
“No, he’s just the local man. Takes care of the details…what would you need, anyway? You’d need some poor bastard to act as a vessel, but even after that, Mammon shouldn’t be able to cross through.” John walked over to the table and dropped Balthazar onto it.
The thud woke Balthazar with a jagged, hissing cry and a sudden shake that ended in him curling on his side, staring at John. Then his eyes flicked past and around, taking in the surroundings.
“Did you try to contact Lucifer?” Midnite wandered over to them, head tipped upwards to stare at the lights. Once in a while he’d raise his hand and make a slight warding gesture.
“No, don’t…” Balthazar winced and clutched his bandaged arm to his chest “…he can’t do anything anyway. It’d break the rules.”
Grimacing, John spun slowly around in an effort to buy time to compose himself. When he turned back, he glimpsed the oddest look on Midnite’s face as the other man watched Balthazar, but Midnite shuttered it away before John could ask. With a shrug, John looked at Balthazar. “So you’re talking now?”
“There are these twins. Women. One was in Ravenscar’s mental ward, though I don’t think you two ever met.” Balthazar flinched before John could even raise his hand, then painfully pulled himself up on his elbows. “I was supposed to lure her to her death—she was the weak one. We wanted the sister. But Lucifer grew suspicious of me before I could carry that part out.”
“‘We’?” John asked. He rested his hands on the edge of the table and leaned over Balthazar. When he didn’t get an answer right away, he slid his fingers into Balthazar’s hair and twisted them a little so Balthazar’s lips parted around a whimper. “Who’s—”
“Who are you?” demanded a female voice.
So much for Midnite watching out for John’s back. In the doorway stood two women: twins. The one on the left was staring at John with a stunned look on her face, and the one on the right was pointing a gun at him.
“What are you doing with him?” the gun-wielding one snapped.
For a second, John just had to marvel at the world’s capacity for screwing with him. Then he slowly let go of Balthazar and flicked a glance towards Midnite, but Midnite was still fascinated by the goddamn ceiling. “None of your business. What the hell are—actually, how the hell did you two get in at this hour?”
“Look, mister, I—” started the one with the gun.
Her sister interrupted. “John Constantine.”
John just stared. Then he remembered Balthazar and glanced over just in time to see Balthazar edging behind him, eyes fixed on the woman.
“And you,” the woman continued, shifting her gaze to Balthazar. “Angie. That’s him. That’s the one—”
Angie immediately swung her gun to Balthazar. Her eyes had been challenging before, but now they were damned near feral. “Stay away from my sister.”
“They shouldn’t have come,” Midnite suddenly muttered. “Get them out of here.”
“She was supposed to come,” Balthazar murmured, pressing up against John’s side. He was shaking. “And then Gab—”
More like and then all hell broke loose: Midnite gave an eerie, high whoop and threw himself to the ground. John instinctively tossed himself onto the table over Balthazar and looked up, but that wasn’t where he should have been looking. All he saw by looking there was a light smashing out because of a bullet.
He jerked around barely in time to see some invisible force snatching Angie away, pulling her at breakneck speed through walls while plaster and paper sucked into whirlwinds behind her. Her sister screamed and ran after her; John swore, jumped off the table and chased her down just before she would’ve fallen right out of the building. Angie kept going. In a second she was nothing more than another hazy white star in the night sky.
And then Gab--
“Shit!” John let go of the hysterical woman and ran back through the building. He ripped off his tie as he went, then tore at it till he’d made a hole in the seam. His fingers squeezed out a tiny flat vial and he yanked off the cap, then poured the few drops it held into the palm of his hand.
He jumped back into the boardroom just as Midnite crashed into a flower vase. Balthazar was still on the table, but was scrambling for the edge, clearly terrified. Above him the air appeared to be empty, but if John didn’t look at it directly, he could see regular rippling in it.
“I don’t know who opened their mouth!” Balthazar was desperately shouting. “They caught me—I didn’t--no--”
There was plenty of debris around, so John could scoop up a nice piece of lumber with a nasty jagged end as he ran. He smeared the wood with the stuff from the vial, then threw it.
The ripples in the air shuddered violently. A foot left of Balthazar, the boardroom table suddenly smashed itself, and then the ceiling began to come down as something punched through it.
John dodged the chunks and yanked Balthazar off the table. He turned around to shout—but Midnite already had the girl, so that was taken care of. Then he ran like hell.
* * *
“Gabriel. And the Spear of Destiny. God. My day just keeps getting better,” John muttered. He was slumped in the front passenger seat with a trembling Balthazar awkwardly folded over him. Midnite was driving. The girl—Isabel—was in the back, where John would’ve liked to have dumped Balthazar. Unfortunately, Isabel would have tried to kill him and John wasn’t in the mood for sharing.
“If he hurts my sister, I swear to God I’ll call the archangels and the seraphim down on your heads,” Isabel snarled. She was clutching the side of John’s seat so hard she’d already started a rip in the leather.
“He won’t,” John and Midnite both said.
Then Midnite shot John a narrow-eyed look. “What was that you threw at Gabriel?”
“Just a two-by-four.” John slouched farther down and scrubbed his palms hard a last time with his handkerchief. Then he set it on fire and tossed the flaming thing out the window. “Smeared with Lucifer’s sperm.”
Midnite nearly missed the turn, and Balthazar jerked his head up to look at John. He wasn’t supposed to look happy in the first place, but he seemed more unhappy than he should have been.
“Don’t even fucking ask, all right? Just take care of the welcome party—because I’m sure there’s going to be one—and buy me enough time.” When John took out his cigarette pack, he discovered he only had one left. He should have had more, but they were back at Midnite’s.
After a moment, he put the cigarette back. If this was a sign about his intentions, then he thought he’d better save it for a little later. He was going to get it right this time, and that cigarette was probably the only celebration he was going to get.
“You haven’t said what you’re going to do,” Midnite said as they pulled into the parking lot.
“I want Angie back.” Something lightly touched John’s shoulder. When he turned around, Isabel squeezed so hard that he was hard-put not to swear. Her eyes had dropped their raging focus and were unfocused and pleading, ringed with big dark circles. Her fingers were skinny and her pallor broke in places to let a sickly yellow show, a shade that John recognized as having nothing to do with the physical, and everything to do with the spiritual. “Please, Mr. Constantine? I want my sister back.”
John opened his mouth, then shut it. He clumsily wrapped his hands around hers. “You’ll get her back,” he said.
Then he let Midnite chop his hand down on the back of her neck and stretch her unconscious body over the backseat. His hand crept towards that last cigarette, then dropped away, and he would have gotten out then if Balthazar hadn’t been holding onto him. John put his hand on the door-handle and elbowed at Balthazar, but it didn’t do anything. “What, do you want me to punch you again?”
“Does it make you feel better to lie?” Balthazar asked, nodding towards Isabel.
“Okay, you do want me to.” But instead of doing it, John just shoved Balthazar back on the seat. He aimed purposefully for where it would hurt, and while Balthazar was sucking in breath through gritted teeth, John slipped out of the car. He swung the door shut and watched it almost get stopped by Balthazar’s hand slamming against the window.
The pain turned Balthazar white and he slumped against the glass, but he didn’t stop staring at John. His mouth moved a little, like he was choking on something. Then he coughed and said, very clearly: “If you break something, you break it. Even if you somehow make up for it, Johnny—you’ve still proved that you’re capable of doing it.”
John smiled. “I know that, asshole. Thanks to you…so thanks. Have a nice night.”
He thought Balthazar might have said something after that, but he’d already turned away to follow Midnite inside, and anyway Balthazar sounded as if he was trying to claw out the window so hell if John could have made out any words.
* * *
Midnite neatly occupied the other half-breeds so John had no trouble sneaking into the pool area. He spotted one body, that of a Mexican-looking man, floating in the water, but didn’t make the mistake of getting in just yet. He walked around the edge till suddenly something dark lunged out at him; John lost his footing in the middle of all the splashing, but managed to avoid getting dragged in. He shoved his arms into the chaos and heaved Angela out onto the tile.
Mammon’s ugly face distorted her features as she took a bite at him, which made it easier for John to punch her down and start chanting. He stammered a few times because she was fighting and squirming, but managed to get through two repetitions. After the second time, she suddenly slumped to the ground, eyes rolling back and limbs going slack.
John took out his cigarette and lighted it, then smoked while he waited for her to wake up. When her eyelashes started to flutter, he put out the butt in a puddle. Then he took a deep breath, leaned over and kissed her.
She made a surprised noise and her mouth moved, trying to push at him, but he pressed down harder. And harder, and harder until she was beating at him, trying to get him off because she needed to breathe. He would have said sorry if he hadn’t begun to smell sulfur.
Angie went abruptly stiff, her body jerking wildly, and something huge and burning rose out of her and slammed into John. He went over backwards and smacked his head against the floor. When he blinked, he could see his own vision and someone else’s overlying it, and he could hear someone’s voice in his head, telling him to lie down and wait, that it was almost time—
“Your ego never fails to amaze me,” someone said. Gabriel, swooping down from above with what had to be the Spear of Destiny. “John Constantine. Vastly overrated most of the time—you’re not the only mortal in which Lucifer’s ever taken a personal interest—but this time, I grant you a concession. You will be honored as the vessel that brings forth the impetus of mankind’s salvation.”
John wasn’t listening to her, or to goddamned Mammon. Fucking bastard—he should have heard from his dad somewhere along the line: do not fuck with John Constantine’s mind.
He’d slipped out his straight razor, and he slashed his wrist the moment Gabriel stepped back. Gabriel’s scream and Mammon’s combined to make a sound that rattled John’s bones and nearly made his head explode, but it wasn’t going to be that easy, of course.
He wasn’t going to bleed fast enough from one wrist; he knew that and the other two knew that, but Gabriel wasn’t used to dealing with frustration. The emotion threw off his stab at John, who rolled quickly out of the way, cursed everything for a cheap trick one last time, and cut his throat.
It actually hurt more than he’d been expecting, but he remembered having the last comforting thought that Balthazar had been wrong—no lie, after all. Mammon was still in John, and the two of them were going just one place.
* * *
He expected the sulfurous flames and the pain, which was like someone gutting him from the inside-out. He even expected the triumphant cackle, the revolting stroke of fingers down his agony-twisted face.
“Johnny! And you’ve even brought my son back. Sometimes I just think I could eat you up, you’re so sweet and thoughtful. Oh, wait, now I ca—wait. Wait. No. No, this isn’t—he’s mine. Mine!”
What John did not expect was the sudden wrenching upwards that tore the air from his lungs and left him clutching hard at what he thought had to be a gaping red hollow in his torso from which Mammon had just been ripped out.
He certainly hadn’t expected at all the feeling of smacking onto the ground to follow next, or the fuzzy-haloed lights of Ravenscar’s parking lot to greet him when he opened his eyes. John took a deep breath, and he tasted tar, acrid L. A. smog and, very faintly, antiseptic in it.
“John?” Midnite’s face drifted into view. The man looked surprisingly worn-out and…almost grief-stricken, something wet in his eyes making the light catch them, but that quickly smoothed away into sheer disbelief. “You’re—”
“Not dead,” John said, shell-shocked himself. Then he tried to roll over and something pulled at his back muscles, swung softly through the air.
Midnite shook his head. “No—you’re an angel.”
John just stared at his wing—his wings, once he’d sat up all the way. The one coherent thought running through his head was that he’d always assumed there was at least some kind of interview process, but if it was this way for all of them, that would explain a lot.
After a while, Midnite coughed. His voice reverted back to its old dry self. “Well, good. Because you left something and I refuse to keep it.”
A door creaked open—John had reappeared next to the car—and Balthazar fell out, eyes fixed blindly on John. He crawled frantically till he was in John’s lap, and then he dropped his head against John’s shoulder, sighing.
Fuck. He’d fucked it up again.