|Grave Measures Prologue: Satanic Studies
Author: Guede Mazaka
John absently reached into his pocket. A moment later, he was irritably flipping pages and swearing under his breath, leery-eyed librarian in the corner notwithstanding. If she wasn’t going to let him chew on gum, then she could take a share of putting up with the withdrawal cravings. Jesus. It was almost worse than waking up hung-over and then remembering that not only had he beaten the devil, but he’d just guaranteed that Lucifer was going to personally lay out the welcome-mat for him, come that time.
The pages were sticking together, so he licked at his forefinger, then slid it beneath the corner. That earned him another dirty look, which he didn’t feel was entirely deserved. For one thing, he hadn’t come swaggering in with a brace of semiautomatics and a dusting of cocaine on his nose, which had to put him several notches above the usual regulars she saw here. For another, at least he wasn’t coughing all over the place like the man sitting next to him.
It’d only been three or so weeks since John had gotten his deus ex machina from lung cancer, so he had a little sympathy for the guy. A little bit, and that was currently stretched as far as it would go. If he hacked spittle John’s way one more time…
He was in his early twenties with a face that more than one person might love, but probably only his mother found memorable, and he was dressed like a thousand other shabby college students. The battered backpack slumped at his feet and the shaky hands—coffee fix—confirmed John’s guess. It must have been some paper he had due, for the stack of books at his elbow could’ve doubled as a blast-shield. And there was the fact that he was feverishly scribbling notes in his notebook despite the copious sweat dripping from his face, the wan skin and the deep, rattling cough that shook him every few seconds. It banged out of his chest like machine-gun fire, or poltergeist rage.
Pretty pathetic, but nothing too remarkable. John tried again to read his book, but he found himself jumping every time the other man cut loose. He finally gave up and stretched back in his chair, looking around for another free desk.
The public libraries had some unappreciated treasures hidden in their back-stacks. Old grimoires, obscure magical treatises mistaken for the ignorance of past generations, donated collections of knowledge from people who’d gotten too scared to continue, or who’d fucked up and needed to hide the evidence where the high level of people-traffic would confuse those tracking them. They weren’t Beeman, but they did pretty good. But one spot where they definitely slipped up was with furniture. There wasn’t another desk in sight, and John wasn’t going to stand and hold a book that measured nearly a foot and a half long. It looked like he was just going to have to come back tomorrow and hope that he didn’t get stuck with another candidate for the TB ward as a desk-mate.
Or he could get knocked in the shoulder when his current desk-mate flailed out of his chair. That went crashing to the ground, and John’s own chair went back on two legs as he tried to avoid the guy’s arms. For a moment, he thought the man was going to collapse, but the guy righted himself and took off for the bathrooms. Just in time, if John was any judge of the color of his face.
“Jesus Christ…” John checked his sleeve for any streaks of mucus, then pulled it straight and tugged at his collar. As he settled back to his own book, he glanced over at his neighbor’s things.
Actually, it looked like the man had been revising his thesis, or something long and weighty like that. A thick manuscript lay open on the desk, fine black print scarred over and over with scrawling handwriting in two different colors of ink. Three. Two.
He squinted at the pages, trying to figure out if the light was that bad or if now it was his eyes that were going. Or if it was entirely different. A sidelong glance at the books heaped around it made John’s stomach churn: demonology, cabbalism, alchemy.
When he checked, the librarian had bent down behind her desk to take care of something. John watched for her reappearance while he waved a hand over the manuscript. Or tried to, anyway. He’d barely gotten his palm above it before he was jerking it back, hissing at what felt like a near-burn. Great. Another grad student trying to hex his way to graduation.
“Oh, my God!”
Both John and the librarian bolted straight up at the scream. A second later, a man covered in blood came running from the bathrooms, face stricken with the kind of horror that usually meant John was about to ruin another suit. He waved and babbled incoherently about some explosion and brains on the wall, and then he ran up to the desk to shake the frozen librarian’s shoulders, begging her to do something about it. She promptly fainted.
John casually took off his coat and swung it over his arm so it temporarily swept across the desk. When it’d slipped off, the manuscript had come with it and was firmly wrapped inside the cloth. He thought about poking about the man’s bag as well, but nixed that idea when he heard other voices coming nearer. Instead he shoved his book into his neighbor’s pile and put on an appropriately shocked face. “Over here! I think somebody’s hurt!”
God, he needed a cigarette.
* * *
Gabriel solemnly assessed the scene behind the yellow tape two police officers were now stretching over the doorway. Ordinary public restroom that now looked like an abattoir. Blood was drying on the ceiling, the walls, the window…near the back, a blackish sludge smelling mostly of human shit coated the floor where a toilet had backflooded.
Judging from the stains, Carlos Gallardo had been near the floor of the stall when something had blown his body inside-out. Vomiting, perhaps. Before that he had been ill with a high fever, possibly coughing and…Gabriel stepped into a draft blowing from inside the restroom and took a careful sniff. He tried not to let his disgust at the stench show; Gallardo had been relatively innocent, from what Gabriel had found out, and didn’t deserve such.
And something had been wrong with his blood. It smelled of magic, which was to be expected, but there was also a whiff of sulfur. Gabriel frowned and edged a little closer, trying to be certain that it was coming from Gallardo’s blood and not from whatever had killed him.
“Hey. Move along—you got your eyeful.” A cop shouldered up to him and jabbed a hand at an exit door. “This area’s off limits. Sheesh, rubberneckers…”
For a moment, Gabriel was tempted to argue, but drawing attention to himself at this point wouldn’t do any good. He murmured some apology and walked towards the door. Interestingly enough, the sulfur trace grew stronger as he went in that direction. He smelled someone else as well…a Constantine, if that memory was true. And he’d thought all the magic had died out of that family, or been deliberately burnt out.
The trail was relatively easy to follow; whichever one this was, they cared enough to disguise what they were carrying but not who they were or what they were capable of doing. Just about how Gabriel remembered them.
What was not, however, what he remembered was a track leading to any sort of recognized authority. Yet there it was, taking him straight to an L. A. precinct office. Then again, it was the back door.
Gabriel stopped about ten yards away for a cigarette; nicotine had no discernable effect on him, but he appreciated how the simple act of lighting a smoke could excuse any number of strange actions. Such as evaluating whether a six-foot man in a brown trenchcoat sneaking into the building or scaling the wall would be more noticeable.
In the end, he opted for climbing. Whoever the Constantine was visiting, they kept their window open so it was easy to tell which room he was in. And if Gabriel climbed, then he needed to expend less power to keep himself from being seen than if he were inside and bumping into people—sight was simple to fool, touch and sound much less so.
He put out his half-smoked cigarette and ambled casually over to the wall, drawing the shadows around him as he did. The building was made of smooth concrete, which slowed him a little, but soon he was perched on the fire-escape outside the window. Inside was a tall, pale man who couldn’t stop tapping his fingers. He had black hair and appeared to be of mixed ethnic ancestry—appealingly so, if he didn’t also look like he’d just dragged himself out of a week-long hang-over. And he was the Constantine—anyone with an iota of talent could have seen that.
The woman he was with, to whom the office apparently belonged, also had a great deal of power, but she was suppressing it so hard that even Gabriel was hard-put to determine exactly what it was. She was sitting with one hand rumpling her hair, and she didn’t seem to be pleased.
“Look, John, I know I owe you—I’ll always owe you, but you can’t just ask me to run tests all the time. I have to give the lab guys some kind of excuse,” she was telling him.
He bent over the desk and roughly took something back from her; Gabriel straightened up and tried to see what it was, because it was screaming Ariel. But John stuck it beneath his folded coat before Gabriel could, sharply half-turning away from the woman. His fingers kept curling around some phantom shape. “Come on, Angela. That can’t be too hard. It’s even an open case this time—all I want is a copy of what you’re going to get anyway.”
“Is it going to get me two more bodies with wings in the subway? Two steps closer to the crazy room and the electroshock therapy?” Her voice cut silence through the room.
John was looking away from Gabriel and Angela so his expression wasn’t visible, but his shoulders tightened beneath his coat. He sucked in a breath, and at the desk, Angela was pressing clenched fists against the desk.
“That was uncalled for. I didn’t mean that,” Angela finally said.
“No, I think you did. Sorry to bother you, Detective.” And with that, John stalked out of the room.
Angela rose to follow, her hand going out and her mouth opening, but she stopped herself halfway out of her chair. She held the pose for a long, long moment before sitting back down. Her head was down and Gabriel smelled wet salt, but Angela wiped at her face before the tears fully came up. She took one deep breath, two, three, and then she slowly reached for a stack of papers. It didn’t take too long before she had lost herself in a work-rhythm that’d keep her occupied long past sunset.
History there, but as intriguing as it sounded, it probably wasn’t relevant to the problem at hand. Gabriel pivoted about to watch Constantine walk out the back door…and right into a group of waiting demons. He put up a good fight, but he’d been surprised and it was such tight quarters in the alley that they could trap him with little trouble. In addition, any curses or weapons tended to ricochet in unexpected ways, such as the rock that smashed through one demon’s head before deflecting into Constantine’s temple.
The man crumpled. The largest demon straightened his broken nose, then waved the others to stop. It took a moment, and Constantine probably received some badly bruised ribs in the meantime. Gabriel winced in sympathy as he took out his rifle, and then again at the rough way they bound Constantine’s hands behind his back. He wrapped a gris-gris bag around the rifle so the shots would be perfectly silent, waiting for a clear shot.
It took a while. He had to stay put, gnawing on his patience, until they’d nearly heaved Constantine all the way into an SUV that had pulled up. And then a second longer because John came to in the middle of that and didn’t appreciate being kidnapped in broad daylight.
The angle was still bad, but Gabriel decided he wasn’t going to get a better one. He raised his rifle and snapped off a shot.
“What the—” Damn. Even with the spell on, Angela had noticed something.
Gabriel spun on his toes and cracked her in the head with his rifle-butt. It threw him off-balance and he helped that along, continuing to spin until he’d fallen off the ledge.
He landed on his feet and had to beat aside one demon a split second later. The rifle-stock smashed through the human skin and exposed a gory mess of scales and bony crests; Gabriel flipped his gun around and shot through that one’s torso and the one coming up behind him. Then he turned and shot down the others; something clipped his wrist and blood splashed up so he missed his shot at the driver, who’d come roaring out.
He hastily dodged and went low, aiming to knock the demon off his feet. Instead he ended up clawing for the ground as his opponent was incinerated. Ash fell around him as he got up and put away his rifle.
“You’d think they’d remember to gag me,” Constantine gasped. He had propped himself up against the car. Most of the fighting had missed him, but a little bit of shiny green blood had splattered on his face, highlighting the somewhat inappropriate grin on his face. “John Constantine.”
“Gabriel.” Something bulky had dropped from the car to land by John’s feet, so Gabriel stooped to pick it up. He stood just in time to see a flash of possessiveness in John’s eyes, followed by a surprised look. “What?”
John shrugged, eyes flicking back to the…manuscript Gabriel was unwrapping from John’s coat. “I thought I’d already met Gabriel. She tried to bring on Revelations about three weeks ago.”
“Those are titles, not names,” Gabriel muttered. He held the manuscript up to his nose—yes, this was it. “That would have been my replacement after I…left.”
“Left. Is that what they’re calling it now?” The other man shifted closer, nodding at the book. “Look, thanks and all, but that’s mine. Not yours.”
Gabriel glanced at John, then slowly rewrapped the book and thought. He knew that claim wasn’t true, but if left loose, Constantine would make this affair more difficult than it already was. And anyway, there was the question of why coincidence would drop him and the book together into Gabriel’s hands, and that was a rather large one, considering that coincidence wasn’t friendly with either Gabriel or, if reputation was true, Constantine.
“Sorry.” He tossed the book into the car so it landed on the front passenger seat. Then he moved around as if to untie Constantine, but then Gabriel got his hands quickly beneath the rope and used it to leverage the other man on top of the book.
Predictably, Constantine cursed normally instead of immediately launching into a counterattack. That gave Gabriel time to get out the duct tape and take Constantine’s advice. Then he closed the car doors and walked around to get into the driver’s seat before the spells keeping people from noticing what was going on wore off.
Constantine was throwing a fit, but the tape held and so did the ropes. Gabriel ducked beneath a headbutt, then shoved the other man hard so Constantine’s head cracked against the window—on his bruised temple, Gabriel belatedly noticed. He felt a pang of guilt for that, since so far he didn’t have a great reason for doing this other than convenience. “Again, I’m sorry, but I’m in a hurry. I need to look up a friend of mine about that book, and then you can have it.”
Though he was dazed from the blow, Constantine still managed an impressive glare. Gabriel sighed and started the car, ignoring the other man’s muffled swearing.
* * *
“Spelled duct tape,” John muttered, slumping against the wall. So it didn’t rub as much as the ropes had on his wrists. It’d still hurt like a bitch to have it off his mouth.
As he tucked the roll away into that gigantic coat of his, Gabriel shrugged again like John was forcing him to do it all. Hypocrite. “It’s portable and less suspicious-looking than carrying around something like a blessed hemp cord. This should only take a moment.”
They were in some abandoned building on the second floor, in a room that was devoid of anything except a door, them, and the manuscript. John had the impression that Gabriel was getting ready to do a summoning, but he hadn’t even bothered to draw protection sigils on the floor. It might have been okay for him to do without those, but not for John. “Whose bell are you ringing? If I’ve got to deal with an old grudge, I think it’s only fair to have my hands free.”
“A friend of mine. He won’t hurt you.” Gabriel squatted down in the middle of the floor and laid the manuscript before him. He didn’t do anything else, but the corners of the room started to disappear and the ceiling rose into a smoking sky.
Right, and John was going to take the word of a man—ex-angel—who’d appropriated somebody else’s snatch-and-run. He almost didn’t scoot over to Gabriel out of sheer pissiness, but his sense of self-preservation had to point out that Gabriel did seem to have no trouble dealing with half-breeds, so it was probably safer by him. “Oh, I don’t know. You’d be surprised who wants to hurt me.”
“He won’t if I tell him…” Frowning, Gabriel stuck out his hand and waved it around in the air. The blackness got thicker and the air began to stink of sulfur, but otherwise nothing happened. The set of his shoulders and jaw tensed, and he began to mutter in a language that was…was…
…beautiful, John had to admit. It sounded like sunlight after a thunderstorm, and just by listening to it his aches and worries started to melt away.
“Angels’ tongue,” he realized.
“He’s not there,” Gabriel muttered at the same time, shifting on his feet. Then he stopped and stiffened, and suddenly the room convulsed. “Wait, he’s…you! Where is Ariel? Where—what happened? Why is there—”
Every word that Gabriel said reverberated louder and louder till the damn walls were quaking and fracturing. The earth groaned, growled, and something darted out of a crack to snatch at John’s ankle. He slammed himself back, hit Gabriel’s shoulder and grabbed for the man’s coat. “Maybe you should try calling back when he’s not busy tormenting the—”
The room popped. Like a soap bubble. One moment it was sucking part of hell onto the earthly plane, and the next everything was normal again…with the exception of the naked body that had been yanked up and dropped in front of Gabriel. A familiar body.
“Balthazar.” If John’s hands had been free, that little shit’s backbone would have been decorating the door by now.
The bastard shakily jerked out of his fetal curl and looked around. When his eyes saw John, they lighted up like goddamned Christmas trees. “Constan—”
Gabriel snarled. Not a snarl like a man doing his best imitation of his pitbull, but the real, genuine thing. Like a wolf. And the damnedest thing happened: Balthazar dropped to his belly and whined, craning his neck so the curve was towards Gabriel. His eyes glazed over for a moment, then cleared to show impotent anger and raw terror, but he didn’t move.
“Nice. Basic instincts got the best of you?” John said.
“Constantine, shut up.” It wasn’t what Gabriel said that made John obey, but the look he gave John. Like the snarl, it wasn’t the usual diluted posturing that John saw all the time, but the full-strength fury that wasn’t supposed to be allowed on this plane.
They probably made a pretty-looking tableau frozen like that, John huddled to Gabriel and frozen with pure fear that way, Balthazar silently begging for mercy and Gabriel acting like…God knew what. It wasn’t angel or demon.
Finally Gabriel stirred. “We’re going to see a bookseller friend of mine.”
“What about your other one?” John asked.
“He’s dead.” Gabriel got up and threw John’s coat over Balthazar. “Get up. You’re coming.”