Author: Guede Mazaka
Little diner, chrome tables dingy with the passing of hundreds of people, a lost soul squatting on every chipped corner. That’s what he can see through the crack formed by the door of the bathroom stall hanging crazed, malingering devil scrawled over with the claims of so many fools. It preaches to him about women and whores, about where the good times are and what will send a person to hell. He can see the rust flaking behind its sloppy bright paint, the falsity in its lessons. He takes nothing from it, and it gives him nothing.
Sssss sighs from behind him, and he turns, puts his hands on Momma’s cold cheeks, but instead of slapping him aside, Momma’s thin scarred arm drops away. It strikes him a glancing blow on the shoulder before it falls to hang like the door, all hollow and used up.
She dead. Stone dead, boy. ‘bout time.
He knows that even before he hears it: the three drops of water that go plink in the sinks, the rattling awful cry of a bird outside, the crunch as he puts a shaking hand on the broken syringe by his knee. She’s dead and he’s not alone.
Hell, no. Finally got you where I can speak to you without her damn nonsense. And you’re going to listen. Listen good, son.
He hunches his shoulders away from the jabs, and shakes harder when they won’t go away. His hand is bleeding and he presses his thumb along the cuts till he drizzles crimson foretellings all over the scummy, dirty floor. He gives his wrist a hard jerk, sends the blood splattering into her half-opened eyes so the ugly big whites are spotted with pretty red, like the pattern on the vinyl miniskirt she wears. He squeezes till all that’d eaten her up, all the drugs and the furious uncaring desire, is out of him.
When he stands he has to use the toilet-paper roll for help. His head swims but his mind is clear. He rips the roll from its holder so its handprint will not glare at him and he uses it to tip up her chin. He gives her dry lips a kiss; their cracked skin cuts him more badly than the glass did, but he presses closer, forces her dead body to give up le gros bon ange that is the part of her spirit that will never be judged. The part neither heaven nor hell has claim to, the part that was magic and white smile and love that was never tarnished but only buried beneath her hunger for more knowledge, more power, more than the loa wished to give her so she’d forced it from chemicals.
It’s a bird in his chest, a heavy thing that flutters against his ribs and sings sweet as mango syrup as he slowly pushes aside the crooked door. It is confused. It always ever wanted freedom, knowing nothing of money and men and madness, and it pecks hard at him till by the time he stumbles through the door onto the sidewalk, he can feel strips of himself hanging down from the inside. The fluorescent circle ends and he steps into the dark, into the dimness of the world where they all crowd round, eager and excited to be greeting the son.
But he is not his mother. He slips through, bloody tissues streaming a barricade on either side of himself, till he is in the clear space with the moon looking down. And then he opens his mouth and something beats madly against the inside of his mouth, something claws up his lip so he falls against the lone car in the lot, panicking and stabbing fingers into his mouth to make sure his tongue is still there. It is.
Up against the moon, something smoky flaps against the cratered brilliance. It hangs in air, then veers off towards the neon glow on the horizon. City of Angels, still her last destination.
His jaw clenches and he looks away, back at the diner where one destiny ended. His has begun, but he wants it different--
--it might be. Later. But for now, for this motherless boy who can see too many faces in the mirror, there’ll be no fighting yet.
Nah, boy. You always lacked respect, you and your momma. Ain’t no easy road for you—gonna be breakin’ your damn back. See what it is to have to earn your damn life, to always be working with someone nagging at you and all you want’s a place to kick back and let things pass by.
The diner’s sign is broken. Only one word still blinks: Midnite.
Open till, he fills in with wry savagery. He rubs at his lip, then turns his head and spits blood on the ground. Drops the toilet-paper roll so the scarlet smears on it can roll out full length. As he turns, they swoop in for their offering.
It’s a minute past dawn. It’s his time.
* * *
“Midnite,” he says, letting the word sluice off his tongue. He wonders if this one will hear the distinction, or if he’ll need it spelled clearly out like all the others.
He can see himself in the glass behind the other. He’s got a clear view because sometimes they don’t like showing up in mirrors, and sometimes he can just look through one eye at a time and see one world overlay itself on the other. His right eye sees a tall man with skin like molded chalk, with hair spun from ice that lies unmelting in a neat sweep across his narrow forehead.
“Ashgar,” the man names himself. His nose juts out over thin, humorless lips. To his elbow stands his comrades, all variations on the same theme. Somehow they all look as if they know not only the correct spelling but the origin of Midnite’s name.
Ashgar whispers through them. All of a clan, all of a kind, all of one mind and no soul between their thirty bodies.
Through Midnite’s left eye, he sees a too-thin black man, maturity just scraping through the gaunt youth. The collar of his shirt dangles threads and the cuffs of his shirt swallow up his fragile fingers, half-healed scrapes and all. He’s shaved irregularly because he makes do with the same rusty straight-edge razor he uses to slash the life out of sacrifices, and he’s done that so often that not all of the blood comes off. He is bareheaded, unprotected. In bed the voices creep close without anything to hold them at bay.
“We have business with you.” A slip of paper slides across the table. “We will see you again, here. One week from now.”
The Ashgar are on the low rung of the hierarchy, but they are nevertheless on the ladder. They are the first step from gutter-workings among those that count as fleas to earth, hell and heaven into the realm of those that are players. That sit down at the table and flutter their cards carelessly against the fearful, excited beating of their hearts, that spill souls across the felt like so many chips. That have a turn at cutting the deck.
It is not the game that ultimately concerns Midnite, not like it did his mother. It is the chance to shuffle, to hold all the cards in his hands even if it is only for enough time to deal them once.
“One week,” he says. He doesn’t touch the paper. He already knows what is written in sticky red across its other side.
Silent as resignation, the Ashgar leave. A moment later, Midnite turns to crack open the window so he won’t be scolded for smoking. He does not, but the scrap of paper does. It flashes down to a speck of ash that he carefully scrapes onto his receipt, which he then folds around it.
* * *
III. Baron Cimetière
The Ashgar want black magic, want the dead to come crawling to lick whatever lies sheathed in their fine black leather shoes. Some enemy of theirs, or perhaps some lapdog that died too soon, broke too quickly beneath their painful caresses. The corpse holds a secret to which they are not privy, and they want the bones cracked open, the rotting flesh laid out till it is yielded up to them.
In the small dusty village where Midnite was born, he would have spent seven days and seven nights securing the blessings of the Ghedes. Cleansing himself and knotting closed all paths to retribution. And on the eighth day, he would have called upon two boys that had not yet known a woman and while they shoveled away the earth, he would have held a dying goat so the rich blood streamed into the hole to replace the dirt, invocations tucked in one cheek and curses in the other.
In L. A. he breaks into the morgue. The room is cold, the body colder, and the whirl of voices coldest still. Death has stained every inch of the place, and it is not the violent death of the streets, the whining overfed death of the houses and mansions, but a chilling susurration that sinks like lead into his marrow.
The guards sleep, for in one pocket Midnite carries a finger from the Hand of Glory. He doesn’t need more, which is fortunate since his finances only stretch to that much. The ghosts do not, but those that haunt here are those that had no attachments in life and so they are feeble. He brushes them away as others would moths and walks empty-handed towards the drawers that line one wall.
Preservative and slow rot hang in the air, a turgid atmosphere that Midnite finds himself pushing apart, as if he were passing through so many veils and not merely air.
He stumbles backward, knocks his elbow against something soft draped in plastic. His breath hisses flat between his teeth, sucking to a point that scrapes against his tongue.
Someone’s been here--someone alive, and they’ve left a trail. A narrow ribbon of scent that insouciantly dangles in the air, an astringent strong streak that blisters Midnite’s nostrils. Cigarette smoke.
He touches the finger in his pocket again, taking some comfort in the texture that is dried without being crackled or rough—texture resulting from the preparation of an expert. Which he is, never mind the gangly air that still drifts about his limbs.
The guard who’d been rousing grunts to sleep again, and Midnite softly steps in ever-widening circles until he traces the smell to its source. He stoops down and plucks the butt from the corner: white, wrapped in paper that is coarser than American paper, with enough shreds of tobacco remaining within for him to know the brand is also not American. More should cling to the butt—he should be able to see the smoker, know who they are, but the reading is full of echoes and lacks substance. Footsteps.
Black boots, old-fashioned high-lacing ones, sauntering over the ill-colored tile. Black and striding, black and coming towards him…him…
Never mind. Never mind. Whoever they are, their steps lead away from the target of Midnite’s errand. There are many in this city that move arrogantly about the levels about him; he cannot go anywhere without stumbling over their careless traces. He knows what place he occupies, for the moment. He is not inclined to risk his plans for simple curiosity.
But he keeps the butt, folding it into a scrap of paper and tucking it besides the withered finger. Midnite rises, turns to the drawer that contains what he has come here for, and pulls hard on the handle. It is at shoulder-level and he has to strain, gasping while the sweat slowly leaks from his brow, to ease out the corpse. He hasn’t eaten dinner tonight. He has to carry this body out of the morgue and one block to his car, so he should have eaten, but instead he bought the live black cock whose blood he’ll be needing for this.
Later, when the ritual is over and the Ashgar are satisfied, he’ll make his apologies to the loa and stew the dead chicken with what little else his cupboard holds. He partakes of his own sacrifices and gains nourishment from them; if he is not struck down for sacrilege, he will eventually garner much power from that. Later.
But for now, he heaves the corpse onto his shoulder. The burden staggers him, and so much so that he has to drop the body before he can close the drawer. He takes out a sprig of herbs from his coat, spits on the bunched ends and scrawls lightly across the front of the drawer. They’ll think the corpse already processed and taken away.
He rests for a moment afterward, hands against the cold steel wall of cabinets. And then he stoops and seizes an arm. A second to catch what breath he can, and then he is stumbling away, hunched deeply beneath the dead man.
* * *
There’s no middle ground in Los Angeles, no demilitarized zone where Midnite can do his workings in peace. Everything howls like the blaring cars that stop for no one at no time.
He always wonders, as he stands at his window with the corpse tucked neatly in his bed, how many people know some of those dark shapes hurtling down the roads for hearses. Not really there, not really gone: slicker, more violent presagers of the future for a modern age.
The twists of cotton in his ears don’t block out the blasts of the horns from those cars, nor do they keep the spirits from speaking to him. But they give him the illusion of muffling. He can work with that.
From his pocket he takes two envelopes, one from the diner and one from the morgue. He spills out the grain of ash from the diner’s crude packet first. It’s so fine that it almost disappears in the hollow of his hand; it smells of sulfur mingled with pine. Careful as a maid with a tea-cup, Midnite carries it over to the corpse and inserts the ash into the clammy nostrils; sufficient blood crusts around those openings for one time. He’ll do this a second time with ordinary ash and chicken blood to moisten it for the Ashgar, but right now he wants more details than they’ll receive. If he’s to risk himself, he wishes to know why.
The chest of the body suddenly heaves. Air wheezes in and out, making the lips flap hideously, and beneath the skin blooms the blue of a million tiny capillaries breaking under the strain. The man isn’t coming back to life. He’s merely speaking. A high, terrified voice wavers and cracks, telling Midnite of a plot to harvest souls, a black cross, an accidental crossing with one of the higher middlemen of the city. A sudden, fatal attack of conscience.
Eventually the torrent dwindles, turns to a dribble of blood-clot spit at the corner of the slack mouth. Midnite’s long since looked away, preferring only to listen. He’s taken a seat on the edge of the bed, a parody of the dutiful son and sick father—that’s one duty he’ll never have to carry out, thanks to his mother.
Ungrateful bitch, she don’t know what I done for her, she only care for what my dead body’d sell for with her stupid damn trinkets and charms. Should’ve slapped her harder, broken her goddamn neck.
“Quiet, father.” The loa number ancestors among them, and the easiest spirits to call up are those of the same blood. Sometimes that fact frustrates Midnite. “Quiet or tell me something I don’t already know.”
The Ashgar wanted this dead body because in life he’d known the whereabouts of the last key to their summoning. Their ritual is a leap at a window that only opens one in a thousand, in a hundred thousand years. If they succeed, then existence becomes very uncomfortable whether Midnite be alive or dead. This job is not what they described to him.
He is not surprised by that, but nevertheless he sits, uncertain as to the path. He’s not yet thrown himself to one side or the other, and he’s never wished to. Up or down, they both had had a hand in tearing his mother apart.
Constantine’s got it.
And again, the sound of boots echoing through a dead corridor. So the black cross is gone, thieved away by a Name. Then it’s no longer Midnite’s business; he will raise the dead a second time, provide what information the Ashgar ask for, and then he is done with it.
* * *
V. Bugid Y Aiba
In a derelict building where the broken windows chop the light into dim yellow shreds, Midnite lights the candles and opens the gates of Legba with the blood of the black cock. By the time he’s done, he’s shaking with the effort; he needs to eat. He needs sleep, rest, time away from the crawling riptide of magic that drags at his ankles and whispers at his throat.
The Ashgar stand arrayed against him, a wall of beautiful icy sameness. They have no whites to their eyes, but only black holes. “You have failed,” the tallest says.
“In what way? I raised your corpse, I made him speak—if the dead do not tell to your liking, then that is no fault of me.” Midnite’s hands shake harder, tiny movements of his fingertips signing for the protection of Samedi, Brigitte, Ogoun. He can hear the rising menace without needing to listen to the spirits.
Who screech madly, then suddenly fall silent and still—so silent and still that he cannot feel their presence. Like a flock of crows that has been disturbed, they’ve fled and he does not have the will or the strength to pull them back.
This is always a risk: he is mortal and no innocent, his soul counts for little among demons and angels. If the delicate balance of his services and their need tips, then they would not even think once before they threw him away. He has some protection, true; he has spells and wards built painfully up over the years, but in the end he’s still the gawk-boned, haunted boy that drifted into the city. He’s no one, like his mother was no one in that rundown café with the broken stall door.
He does what he can, but it’s a butterfly before the cyclone of the Ashgar. The candles whip out and blood starts from his cheeks, from the arms that he’s thrown up before him. In a second his sleeves are shredded back to his shoulders. In another second his flesh will have been flayed away to show bone.
The Ashgar move in a circle around him, blown gently into place by the same tempest that is strangling him. Their hands stay folded before them, their hair never stirs, but the hollowness of their eyes is slowly growing into holes big enough to swallow souls. Once the circle is complete, then they will dart in, all elegance abandoned in the fight for bits of him. Already their noses elongate, their jaws lengthen to meet and their faces grow hard and sharp, like ravening hawks.
No chant Midnite knows will stop them. No charm or spell either. But there’s the dead, and perhaps the Ashgar can command the very air to reverse itself out of his lungs so he’s left gasping at nothing, but they cannot touch the dead. They don’t have enough humanity, corrupted or otherwise.
He drops to his knees, bloody hands around his throat that is so dry now, aching for air, and as the last Ashgar slides round, the corpse lurches into its place. Too late for them to stop their spell, but the equilibrium that keeps the magic—always a recalcitrant, rebellious thing—aimed away from them is disrupted.
If Midnite falls, then at least they fall with him, flung outward from the sudden explosion. His hands go out to break his landing and they skid in arcs of his own blood. His lungs hurt, but they take in air and slowly the color bleeds back into his vision. The corpse is gone, vaporized, its soul sent back to wherever it’d gone after death, and the Ashgar are still alive.
The blast had stripped the skin and hair and clothes from the upper half of their bodies, neat as a rabbit skinned for dinner, and now they are men below but monstrous huge birds above, claws gleaming and beaks clacking in fury. They’re death.
“Tsk. Humans equal off-limits, remember?”
Cigarette smoke. Midnite lifts his head and stares past the distracted Ashgar for the source, but he catches no glimpse before the demons are suddenly rushing the interrupter. And he catches no glimpse after because he is not stupid and he keeps his head knuckled to the floor until the wet globs of flesh and spikes of bone splinters have finished blowing over his back.
A man curses. The Ashgar’s collective scream thins out one by one, and then by twos and threes until suddenly there is nothing left of them, and the only sound is the steady clomp of a pair of boots. Black, Midnite knows, and instead of looking to see if he’s right, he starts tearing up what’s left of his shirt to bandage his arms.
They stop in front of him. “I thought you’d be older,” John Constantine says.
Then Midnite looks up, and then he and surprise cross paths. His hands squeeze blood from his makeshift bandages. “I thought the same thing.”
* * *
VI. Diable Tonnerre
John Constantine is the renegade, the one that’s as likely to damn a man as to save him. The bodies lying behind him are countless, the souls beneath his feet are never enough to lift him free of the hellfire beneath, and to all of that he spits with a smile on his face. He’s the one man to whom both heaven and hell never entirely turn their backs.
He’s barely Midnite’s age, a thin, pale man with the softness of youth still clinging to his cheeks and the cynicism of old age in the slant of his eyes. When he helps Midnite up the stairs, his knees still sway towards each other with the uncertainty of growth come too much and too soon. When he leans against the bathroom door, cigarette dangling smoke from his fingers, he looks like he’s posturing and not like he’s fully come into the fast, furious life between the boundaries that he supposedly leads. Something about the angle of his jaw speaks of a pugnacious mask, which leaves the question of what lies beneath it.
He watches Midnite pick out the splinters and scraps of cloth from the lacerations the Ashgar delivered without offering any help. His shoulders slouch languidly, but his fingers restlessly work his cigarette, lifting it to his lips and dropping it and rocking its ever-shortening length back and forth. “So the Ashgar hired you. They pay you first, or were they going to pay you afterward?”
“Does it matter?” The tweezers John has lent are rusty, pinching as much flesh as they do wood and bloody twisted cotton. If Midnite does not want to die of tetanus, he’ll have to borrow a pot of water and some angelica.
“Maybe. See, Nilsen wasn’t a nice man, but he was something of a friend. And it’s not really fair to let his soul be yanked around to answer questions from shitheads like the Ashgar while you sit pretty on a fat bank account.” John blows smoke so it rings his reflection in the mirror. His hand flips charms in and out of his pocket, half-hidden by the drape of his coat. “But if you haven’t been paid yet, then they screwed you over too, so it’s more fair.”
Fair. That’s an odd word from a man like him. And odd as well are the fraying cuffs that stick insolently from John’s too-large coat, the shadows of hunger and old fights in the hollows of his throat and face, the roughness of his palms when he finally bends over to tease one stubborn splinter from Midnite’s arm. A man with his reputation should be able to eat off it, yet he looks as if he barely scrapes by—like Midnite. Only his boots live up to the rumors: they are well-worn, weathered, but experience has only improved them.
But it has not escaped Midnite that where John stands, the voices fall silent. Their demands no longer tug at Midnite, wanting satisfactions that he can barely afford. “I haven’t been paid. Not even for the chicken I wasted on them.” Midnite’s sour smile grits on the edge of pain. “That was supposed to be my dinner.”
“Oh, recycling. Very frugal.” John flicks the last fragment of cloth out of Midnite’s wounds, then stands back so Midnite can bind them himself. He toys with the bloody tweezers like he toys with his cigarette, and too late Midnite thinks of asking for those tweezers. Blood isn’t something that should be lightly surrendered in the possession of a near-stranger, and particularly someone like Constantine.
But it is too late now. Besides, Midnite scolds himself, enough of his blood already dots John’s sleeves and coat to render the amount on the tweezers inconsequential. And Midnite can hardly ask for John’s shirt.
“I wasn’t thinking about doing you in, if you wanted to know,” John abruptly says. Ash floats from the tip of his cigarette to hiss in the sink, then showers into it when he taps the cigarette on the edge. He stabs out the end in the drain before pivoting, bony point of his shoulder thrusting through the heavy cloth of his coat. “There’s a hunk of cow in the fridge. And leftover spaghetti.”
“A hunk of cow?” Midnite finishes a stitch. The rest of the cuts he can glue together with an herb paste, if he borrows the requisite ingredients and a mortar and pestle as well. In terms of debt, he’s miles deep in John’s pocket now, so such little things should barely matter. But of course they do to someone that’s had to hold up their head while guarding the door behind which their mother whored with any and all who had power.
Cracked laugh. “Most people say ‘thank you, thank you so fucking much, Mr. Constantine. You’ve spared my life and I’ll never forget it.’”
While Midnite does not laugh, he does allow a sympathetic smile to pass over his face. Sympathy is recognizing a similar feeling, not necessarily with kindly implications.
John’s back is still to Midnite, but like Midnite, he doesn’t need his eyes to see certain things. His shoulders move up and down in another, silent laugh and he snaps out another cigarette. “Let’s get this straight. You owe a favor. I need one. It all works out.”
“As you say,” Midnite acknowledges. He looks down at his arms, sight overlaying the raw red cuts with thin roping scars. They will not be crippling, but they may be disfiguring. They are not the first wounds or the first scars, but they will be the first not inflicted by his own blood—his hands or his mother’s—and the thought angers him.
“Just wear long sleeves.” When Midnite looks up, John is leaning against the door again, dry smile twisting his face older. “Trust me. You think people will ask about it—they don’t.”
Midnite bites the inside of his mouth at the familiarity. Sympathy is fine coming from one direction, a burning rub from the other. “And fear keeps you cold enough for the heat to not matter?”
They stare at each other for a while before John finally barks a laugh amid the obscuring ribbons of smoke. “Son of a bitch. You staying, or what?”
* * *
VII. Guédé Nibo
The hunk of cow is about nine ounces of fresh sirloin, badly cut. When Midnite heaves it onto the cutting board, wincing at how his stitches and bandages strain, he glimpses a screaming child, a wash of blood in a warehouse, the spiked tail of a demon. He doesn’t ask for an explanation to tie all the pieces together, and John doesn’t provide one. Though he does provide spices, and later, something for Midnite’s wounds.
He eats the stew fast, with no manners. Midnite is no less hungry, but the belt buckle of his mother has long since taught him to be graceful under any circumstances, and she may be dead but her echoes still linger. His stomach hurts, but for once he sees the merit in it; he watches while he carefully sips from his spoon.
John talks in fast, short spurts. He holds the spoon like anyone else would hold a knife. He sits with his side to the door, his face to the window. The suit he wears is actually the amalgamation of several different suits, subtle differences in weave and cut slowly revealing themselves to Midnite, and the cigarettes he smokes come from a cheerful yellow package emblazoned with scarlet Chinese ideographs. He doesn’t like anyone, but if Midnite were to put down his bowl and spoon and move around the table, John wouldn’t back away. That wouldn’t be a compliment to Midnite.
Suddenly John falls silent, and Midnite realizes he’s stared without trying to hide it.
“How old are you?” John asks. One of his arms lies across the table and the other is propped vertically so the cylinder of ash drooping from his hand is level with his temple.
Midnite drops his spoon in his bowl. He still has food left, but he can’t eat it. His gut is cramping too much and his arms hurt. Only his head does not ache, but it has carried its pain for so long that this sudden absence is its own kind of injury. “You killed yourself when you were fifteen. Your parents died when you were nineteen—you messed up a spell and it recoiled on them. You weren’t all that sad and you still feel guilty about it. You think I look like a black-skinned skeleton. We’re about to fuck on the floor.”
Understanding and rage flare John’s eyes wide, and his jaw tightens the way men’s jaws do when they’re under threat. But he puts out his cigarette calmly enough, and his voice has no shake. It does not slide higher or lower than its normal pitch, it does not lose its modulated tones. “Your daddy still hangs around to bug the shit out of you, even though you never even met the living version. Your mom didn’t stay, and I bet that upsets you real deep down. You’re going to let me fuck you, and then you’re going to scrub away all your blood the moment I’m asleep.”
“This is a debt,” Midnite says, word heavy in his mouth. He pushes back from the table, and then John tenses. But there’ll be no blows from Midnite—not right now. He smiles at the other man, lets Constantine see his teeth. “I turned twenty three hours ago.”
And John blows out all the smoke from his lungs before he laughs. “Happy birthday,” he coos just before reaching around the table. “And no, this is a deal.”
* * *
The floor bangs against Midnite’s teeth as John drives into him. It’d hurt less if he closed his mouth and stifled his sounds, but his muscles have frozen so his jaw is stuck in a snarl, his incisors scraping over the dirty linoleum. He can see, sometimes, how they leave brighter lines across the faded white.
Not often, because when John is not grooving finger-holds into Midnite’s hips, Midnite is making his stitches rip, pressing down on his arms so he can arch like a cat into John’s thrust. It hurts and he bleeds, it’s rough and fast and cruel, but that’s as it should be.
They don’t kiss. John manhandles Midnite around when Midnite’s tired body fails, jerking legs out so he can slam deeper, their bodies rasping against each other so Midnite can feel the buttons of John’s shirt scarring his back. Midnite bites at the floor and squeezes hard so John curses, has to work to pull himself free. Maybe John’s hand drifts up to run once across Midnite’s stomach, soft the way old wise women pet cats. Maybe Midnite lets a single thread of moan weave through his harsh grunts and growls. Maybe when each of them come they twist towards each other, straining for close heat, and maybe they almost curl into each other on the filthy floor.
They’re young. They’ll improve, and learn better.
* * *
“What about this one?” John takes a small but bulky package from his pocket and unwraps a corner to flash gold. He teasingly yanks it back from Midnite’s outstretched hand, then deposits it so Midnite can feel the tingle running through the cold metal.
“This one will do.” It’s old—generations of lives rip through Midnite’s mind as he handles it—and like many old things, it’s nearly gained a life of its own. He can feel its preference for lying in his hands that carefully trace its edges, fluttering along the inevitable scratches and chips, instead of John’s carelessly assessing fingers. “This one I’m keeping afterward.”
For that he receives a raised eyebrow and a hand on his shoulder, fingers nonchalantly rippling towards his neck. “I’ve already got a buyer.”
“Then you’re an idiot. This is worth more than one use for us.” It is actually not difficult for Midnite to speak in the plural. Perhaps it surprises John, but it seems predictable enough given that the loa keep such close tabs on Midnite.
They’ve begun to speak again, even when John is near, but they have a different tone now. And it is only the loa, not the countless petty spirits that had kept Midnite perpetually on the knife-edge of sanity. Midnite has his suspicions as to why, but he has not yet decided whether they back away out of awe and fear, or out of sheer caution; some men may drag down heaven itself with their follies.
“Yeah?” Now John’s bending down to breathe on Midnite’s neck. His hand continues to inch along, though Midnite does not unbend to it. “And how often do you plan to create zones to drain demonic powers? Useful, yeah, but only till you get killed. It’s not like there aren’t ways around it—get a human to shoot you, for example.”
“You can make a place where whatever power you wish is suspended from action with this,” Midnite mutters. He’s heard about it from somewhere, some whisper when he was young that has stayed with him. “A buffer zone.”
John snorts. Then he straightens, the hand he has on Midnite’s shoulder leaving with a rough cuff. The faint trace of nicotine ashes that always clings to him flares into sharp relief as his lighter clicks. “Sanctuary? No such thing. Not until you’re dead, and lucky enough that they let you into heaven.”
“And were you hoping to fight forever?” It’s a bad way to phrase it, Midnite knows a beat afterward.
The other man merely laughs and walks away. “How about we straighten out the people trying to kill us first, and then talk about that kind of thing?”
If that were true, then there’d never be a right time. But it’s not. What John hopes for is a reward for fighting; the fighting is a means to an end and nothing more. Likewise, what Midnite hopes for is peace. He wants to be able to sit down, as he is now, and close his eyes without grimly clenching his jaw at what awaits him when he does.
The window keeps John for a moment, but restlessness drives him back across the window. He scatters ash as he does, raising a low piping from the little ghedes that love tobacco that grates on Midnite’s nerves.
“It’ll work,” Midnite mutters. His fingers twist sprigs of herbs and braid them into cotton rope.
“You’d better hope so.” John stands, sucking the last drag, and then blows it past Midnite so the curling cloud of gray coils in prophecies over the table before Midnite. “If it does, then you can keep the damn thing.”
His hand drops on Midnite’s shoulder again, and the ghedes fall quiet. The room falls quiet.
After a moment, Midnite dares to turn around. But John is already raising his head, sly glint back in his eye, and striding off without a care to how his steps rattle the weak boards. The lull is well and truly broken, though it’s remarkable that there was a lull at all.
* * *
X. Papa Legba
Red bubbles encrust John’s bashed lips. More bead on Midnite’s hands as he presses hard down on the pulsing flow, trying to force it back into John’s body. He snarls and chants, he bites back curses as he struggles to hold pressure on the wound and reach for the needle and thread and keep the lacy black creeping beneath the skin around the injury from spreading further.
John wakes up a few times. The first time, he blinks and stares. “You fucking came back for me.”
“Shut up and bite on this.” Midnite shoves the snapped-off end of a cross between John’s teeth, then sloshes holy water over the great tear in John’s shoulder. He ignores the screaming, pins down the thrashing, and hopes that John passes out again quickly so he can start probing the wound.
The second time, John comes up screaming. Not Midnite’s name—not this time at all, but some other time. By now Midnite’s had to straddle John for leverage and his fingers are deep in the wound, blood clots squelching between his knuckles. He blinks and the table is not pitted wood but steel bound with leather straps, his hands are not dark like coffee but sterile blue, his reflection in John’s wide eyes is not himself but a masked doctor.
Look, boy. That’s what I should’ve had done to her, and to you if I’d lived long ‘nough. That’s what I should’ve had done the moment she--
“Shut the fuck up!” John cries, eyes squeezing shut. He throws his head back so hard he jars Midnite’s fingers out of the cut.
John screams again. A hairline arc of blood spurts up, catches Midnite in the eye. He tosses his head to shake it out because he can’t spare the hands. He needs them to stop the bleeding, to get the torn tissues sewn together now that he’s wrenched out all the poison. “It’s not yours. It’s not your voice!”
Whether John understands or not, Midnite cannot tell. But the other man quiets, thrashing slowly diminishing till at last Midnite can pull flesh together with trembling fingers.
He works grimly through his exhaustion. When his sight blurs he uses his other Sight, and when that blurs he gropes through the dark. It’s silent as a morgue, silent as death and though Midnite’s been longing for silence for as long as he can remember, he hates this. His tongue clicks against his teeth to give him something to listen to.
Silence isn’t the kind of peace he wants. He wants noise, but he wants living noise. He wants his head fully in this world, wants no ties to the other world that he cannot repay. He wants company, understanding, comfort.
Third time, John stays awake. He’s staring through cracked eyes for a long time before Midnite notices. “You have some major issues with your parents.”
“Seems to be common around here.” Midnite’s hands are too slick to hold onto the scissors, so he bends down and slices the thread with his teeth. Last knot, if it all holds, and he prays that it will because in a moment he will collapse and not even the loa come knocking will wake him.
“Yeah…” John exhales. His lips purse—he’s already craving a cigarette.
Something heavy swings up over Midnite’s back so he comes down in a half-controlled crash. Constantine’s an impulsive fool—Midnite might’ve hit John’s injury and then where would they be?
John’s a fool, and Midnite is beginning to understand that this is a trait that John will never grow out of. He’s a fool, but sometimes Midnite wonders, warily, whether this is the end of the quest.
Midnite leans his forehead on the table. His face is pressing in the puddles of blood on the table, his ear against John’s cheek, and he wants to sleep. He’s comfortable enough, somehow.
“You hear him a lot?” John rasps.
Like it matters. If it were not Midnite’s father, it would be someone else. There are places and they must be filled; men like them never go unaccompanied for very long. It’s a matter of being able to choose who fills those seats.
“We should do something about that.”
* * *
XI. Ti Malice
John peels off each gauze pad with a hiss, face wrinkling, but when the tattoos are finally revealed, he gazes at them in naked astonishment. He holds each one up to the mirror, watching himself trace the lines and shudder at the latent power that runs through them. “Nice.”
Midnite sits on the edge of the sink, turning the softish newsprint-wrapped package over and over in his hands. Something’s been done so he cannot determine what it is, either by calling on the spirits or by pressing inwards with his hands.
“You keep doing that and you’re going to crush it for good. Just open it already, would you?” But John’s lazy about his scolding, half-ashed cylinder dangling from the corner of his mouth. He wastes it by tossing it into the sink, forgoing the pleasures of addiction in order to watch this.
So Midnite is very, very careful about opening the package. He eases through the crumpled paper, half-expecting something to explode upward with jaws open at any moment, but nothing happens until it tumbles into his hands.
It’s a hat. It’s brown felt, of good quality. His fingers soon smooth out the few dents they’d made and begin to run over the undecorated curves; he sees a band of fine goat-leather overlaying one of human skin, a few feathers from the breast of a bird caught singing at midnight in a graveyard. Then he blinks, and it’s a hat again.
“Try it on,” John says, indulgence making his eyes look almost as young as his face.
Which Midnite does. “It fits.”
“Go take a walk.” When Midnite shoots him a look, John makes shooing motions and laughs. “No, seriously. Try it out.”
* * *
It’s not a hat. It’s the hat. Or at least it’s one of the hats. It’s a cast-off of Baron Samedi’s, and Midnite knows this because he walks three blocks from John’s place in perfect silence. Then he takes it off.
--listening to me, BOY? You FUCKING listen, because that clever SUMBITCH is about to hoist your ASS over--
And he can put it back on, and all is silent. But not silence, because he can still hear the people walking past him talking, only better because he does not hear them through the static of the dead. He can hear a dog’s nails clicking as it wags down the street. He can hear the laughter of Papa Legba in the sunshine.
It’s beautiful. It’s what he has been looking for all these years, this magical state between being deaf and being crushed to death beneath all the talk.
And he has John to thank for it.
* * *
XIII. Mait’ Carrefour
It’s the hat of a powerful man that sends his followers after Midnite. They trap him in a backalley where he has to let them bruise his jaw, smash his gut before one slips close enough for him to knife the throat and then he has material with which to work. Then he can send them running to the edge of the alley, only to be dragged back and wrecked from mouth to groin. Then he can lean over their bodies, gasping for pained breath and clutching his hat to his head because if it falls off then he has to listen to them all the way ho—back.
Back to John’s place, where John looks up, whistles, and asks if he needs ice. Midnite spits on the floor. “They mentioned you.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s this little deal I’ve been working on—blew up faster than I thought it would, but it should all be over with tonight. But did the hat work?” John asks, cool as the ice he’s shoving back in the freezer.
“I don’t need it if I’m dead.” This time Midnite’s spit is words only, but he thinks they bite deeper.
At the least, they spin John around so he bears down on Midnite, face hard and cold. “For God’s sake, what do you think this is? The kiddie pool? We’re in deep and we can’t stop treading water yet. I thought you’d appreciate the fucking advantage.”
And Midnite understands this is not it. He was mistaken.
He hurts for it, briefly, before the cold takes over and he’s calming down himself. “It’s just a deal.”
“Right. Now sit down and let’s figure out tonight since Ross went and jumped the gun…” John does so himself, absently pulling out a chair for Midnite as he does. He leans forward, earnest and energized, and absolutely sure that Midnite will understand, that Midnite will sit down in that goddamned chair.
Innocence, Midnite suddenly recognizes. Impossibly so, but the truth. And it’s a twisted reflection of his own jump to conclusions a few hours earlier, and suddenly he sees. There are places at the table, and there is only one deck of cards. No matter if he had had his chance to deal and he’d cut them as best he could—he still cannot cut himself a card that does not already exist in the deck.
His mother’s dead. His father’s temporarily held at bay, which is the first step to banishing him for good, and still Midnite looks in front of himself and sees that he is—that he will be haunted.
As he sits down, he idly picks up the newspaper. It’s folded to the ‘To Rent’ ads, and his eye skims till it falls upon a short ad that tickles ice up his spine. Commercial space—an old bar.
“Midnite?” John says.
“I’m listening,” Midnite replies. For now. Forever, and no hat can close his ears, no distance can stop him from hearing, though he will try his best. He has his voice, and it will not be silenced.