|Snap I: Devil in the Fine Print
Author: Guede Mazaka
The sun wasn’t yet up when John’s internal alarm insisted he roll out of bed. He successfully ignored it for another fifteen minutes, but finally dragged himself out from under the blankets. The lump beside him promptly rolled to take over the warm spot he’d left behind. It shivered a little while he watched, then settled down. Balthazar wouldn’t be up for at least another five hours; John and Midnite might as well have brought him back as a vampire.
For a moment, John was tempted to kick Balthazar out of bed just on general principles, but then he thought about all the complaining with which he’d have to put up, and it wouldn’t just be because Balthazar had to get up early for once. It’d been three months since they’d hauled him out of Hell, one and a half since he’d figured out how to switch between genders, and the stupid ex-demon still bitched like a whore on her first day. The blanket-stealing was a case in point: Balthazar claimed everything was a lot colder to a human body. John just thought the bastard was stretching the metaphor too far.
The whining about the apartment and the contents of John’s closet definitely wasn’t called for—maybe John’s wardrobe was limited, but there were advantages to that. For example, John could mechanically grab shirt, pants, jacket and tie while trying to remember why he had to get up so damned early the day after the day he’d spent being batted around an alley in the name of exorcising a nine-year-old boy. And once he’d remembered, he could kick the side of his closet and curse and still be dressed for the day in five minutes.
“Wha…” On the bed, the lump rolled over and developed a hood. In the hood was a head, and the head didn’t look happy. Good for it, since John didn’t give a fuck. “Can you bash yourself to pieces somewhere else?”
“Oh, sorry, princess. Did I disturb your twelve hours of beauty sleep?” John irritably did up his tie, then shook out the first cigarette of the day. He finished half of it while lacing up his boots, and smoked the other half while loading up on charms and talismans.
Balthazar disappeared back beneath the blankets, but his grumbling didn’t. “What do you mean, twelve hours? I consider it a good day if I get four. Since I spend the other twenty hours trying desperately to clean up after your idiotic messes.”
“Well, no one asked you to,” John muttered, walking into the bathroom. He picked up his comb, looked at it, then dropped it back on the counter. A quick run of the fingers through his hair looked fine to him, so he moved on to shaving. “And it’s a lot less than that. How much time do you spend avoiding all the half-breeds that want to kill you and now have a damned good shot at doing that?”
No answer, unless John counted the angry creak of the bedsprings and he didn’t feel like that, so he didn’t. He just laved up.
Twenty minutes later, he was dressed, as cleaned-up as he was going to get and at least fed, if not well—somebody needed to go grocery-shopping soon. Probably him, since Balthazar’s ability to choose food stopped at what insanely rare bottle of wine to order with which hugely expensive cut of meat. Definitely not the most ideal roommate.
Then again, if John had ever had a choice, he wouldn’t be sharing in the first place. It was easier to just go it alone: less fuss and less questions. Granted, Balthazar didn’t ask any of the really stupid ones, but John preferred not being answerable to anyone about what he was doing when he was out. And Balthazar always seemed to be home and up whenever John was coming back from a few moments of mindless escapist grinding at a club somewhere. He could get surprisingly pissy about that; maybe he really was worried about catching a venereal disease via John, but that couldn’t account for all of it.
Maybe he wanted John to take him out.
John nearly swallowed his cigarette laughing at the thought, and had to stand at the corner for a couple seconds to catch his breath. He missed the light, but he was too amused to care. Jesus Christ, how’d they even decide who got to be the man and who got to be the woman? Flip a coin?
They could always go as matching sexes, but that would defeat the purpose of using the ability to change genders as a way to pretend that they weren’t big fat targets. And anyway, John didn’t like going into clubs for non-business reasons as a man since he was so well-known in that form. It was surprising and not that aside from Midnite and Balthazar, no one seemed to have caught onto him yet: the desire to see only what one was expecting wasn’t just limited to the human race.
Heavy thoughts for morning so early that the sun was just now burning over the tops of the buildings. John made a half-hearted effort to shake them off before he stepped inside Midnite’s bar.
The bartender didn’t attempt to throw a table at him or otherwise block his way, which John took to mean ‘go on into the office.’ So he did. Midnite wasn’t there, but someone else was. The man had been looking at the old portfolios of houngan art Midnite claimed was his paternal inheritance, but he turned around as soon as John walked in.
He was somewhat shorter than Balthazar—or he would have been, if Balthazar hadn’t permanently lost an inch since his resurrection. Bastard bitched about that, too, as if it hadn’t been hard enough to find a female corpse that was five-fucking-eleven. Nowadays this guy was about the same height as Balthazar in male form. Just about the same build as well, tending on the compact side. The little bit of gray at the temples said he’d either been messing around with too much too soon or he was nearing fifty. The neat set of wire-rims hinted at the latter.
He held out a hand and a smoothly-voiced welcome. “Dean Corso.”
John leaned against the nearest chair and shook out a cigarette. He gave the extended hand a narrow look, whereupon Dean withdrew it without any sign of irritation. “Hi. Where’s Midnite? He’s picky so I don’t like to get into it unless he’s around to yell at me for it.”
“I am here.” Midnite came in through the side-door, bearing and expression like that of a weary king. The look he gave John was considerably more petty. “Thank you for arriving on time, John.”
“My pleasure,” John said, grinning around his cigarette. He tipped his head to ash away from the chair and glimpsed a similar smile flashing over Dean’s face. Instead of comforting him, the sight put him on his guard. After all, he knew what kind of man he was.
Dean was carrying a beaten-up leather satchel, which he now swung around to lay flat on Midnite’s desk. He probably saw the way Midnite’s fingers slowly curled inwards, but he didn’t miss a beat in working the buckle and then sliding out the book, which he handled in a curious way. His fingers couldn’t help stroking over the front, but the way he held it…well, it wasn’t treating the book like it was made of bone china. Actually it set John’s teeth on edge.
“The Disquisitionum Magicarum, Martin del Rio. Handwritten annotations believed to be by Simon Forman,” Dean softly announced. He lifted the book a little, like he was presenting it to the crowd, before handing it over to John.
That bit of unnecessary showmanship revived John’s sense of humor, but not for long: as soon as he touched the book, lightning zinged along beneath his skin, and not in a good way. He shifted it to one hand, then balanced it on top of the chair back while he took his cigarette from his mouth. Tapped it long past when all the ash had fallen off.
“Well, dating’s not my specialty, but if it’s a fake, then the guy definitely knew what he was doing.” After a good last drag, John crushed the cigarette tip with his nails, then flicked the butt into the trashcan. He shook out his free arm so the cuff pulled slightly back from his tattoo before opening the book.
The pages practically vibrated with power, so much so that it set up a high, annoying warning whine in John’s head that gave him an instant migraine. He shoved it to the back of his mind and kept flipping pages, not reading or even really skimming, but just getting a feel for the thing. It told him—
broken window bloody shreds tilted cross jagged through white flesh
--blink and John was staring at a very unappealing engraving of a couple of half-dressed hags. He fought the urge to look wildly around and slowly raised his eyes to see that Midnite and Dean were patiently waiting. Whatever had just happened, they hadn’t seemed to have noticed.
John snapped the book shut and handed it back to Dean, though personally he would’ve liked to take it into the basement and torch it with some sandalwood. He barely stopped himself from rubbing his hands against his pants, settling instead for a fast smoke. That made the corners of Midnite’s mouth twitch downwards, which in turn put John in better humor. “It’s the real thing.”
Usually this was when Midnite asked if John was sure, angling the evil eye John’s way, but this time Midnite forewent that for a bout of genteel haggling with Dean. Both of them probably had been practicing their offers and counteroffers for hours beforehand, which made them about as interesting to watch as the rain. John walked out after five minutes and got himself a drink.
He was still eying the glass when Midnite and Dean came out, both of them trying to look disappointed when they were really quite pleased with themselves. Snickering, John thought to hell with it and downed his drink.
Scotch. Good year, too.
“I’ve taken measures to make sure what happened with you won’t be repeated,” Midnite dryly said, coming up behind him. The other man took a seat on the nearest barstool and set the book on the bar, then neatly folded his hands in his lap. “Is Balthazar still alive?”
“And moaning. I don’t understand why he hasn’t walked out yet if it’s so damned bad,” John muttered. He slanted a look at the book, then went back to staring at the far wall. He needed to stop tensing up or Midnite really was going to notice.
A sliver of a smile slid across Midnite’s face, making him into one of the shell-toothed idols that were scattered around the room. “Why don’t you throw him out?”
It was just great how Midnite could make John’s sour gut turn hydrochloric with only a few words. Just great. “I thought we were trying to stay in the good books, now.”
“You’re not a merciful man,” Midnite pointed out.
Neither were the angels, but look what they said and didn’t do. Anyway, throwing out Balthazar would be like tossing a hamburger patty into a pen of starving wolves. Not that Balthazar didn’t deserve such treatment, because he did, but…John still didn’t do it. Maybe it had to do with why John hadn’t broken Gabriel’s neck, and with Chas’ dead body still on the tile, too.
Maybe it had to do with how far down Balthazar had come, and how the pale thing with the dark-ringed eyes huddled in John’s bed was a far, far cry from the strutting little shit on top of the dung-heap. “Maybe I’m just that sadistic,” John said. “Getting him killed might send him to heaven at this point. Watching him flounder around in the world of the living’s more fun.”
Midnite’s shrug said his opinion. He dipped into his coat and produced a plain white envelope, just thick enough to tell John not to irritate the man even more. “Corso said he has other books to sell. I may be calling you again.”
“You might be calling me for other reasons. He rings wrong to me.” John took the money and slipped it into a pocket. After dropping the glass into the sink, he pushed off the bar and straightened his jacket. “You did check him out, didn’t you?”
“You might want to ask Balthazar about him. Or bring him along next time.” Which basically was Midnite’s way of telling John that yes, he had and yes, Corso had something up his sleeve as dirty as his glasses were clean, but Midnite was going to try doing business with him anyway. Either Corso had one hell of a library or Midnite was losing his mind.
“Yeah, sure. I’ll bring him. It’ll be a regular date and you can pay for all the damage yourself,” John snorted. He shoved his hands in his pockets and walked away. He hadn’t gotten more than a couple feet before he noticed that his fingers were rubbing against the fabric, trying to covertly wipe themselves off.
* * *
Maybe salvation saved one from hellfire, but it damn well didn’t make the bills disappear. The long way from Midnite’s place to John’s took him through a couple of the barrios, where if he could avoid running into cases gone wrong, he usually could pick up a couple minor exorcisms. The people living there didn’t like him all that much, with even the toddlers kicking stones his way, but they didn’t have anyone else to turn to. Even the priests in the decrepit little chapels acknowledged that.
Today John picked up two. The second one involved an extramarital affair, some bitter housewife misunderstanding basic folklore, and too much fucking plumbing. It was a blistering day, but John was still damp by the time he dragged himself to his front door.
“At least it wasn’t the sewage line,” he muttered. It wasn’t much comfort. His cigarettes were too wet to smoke and he was going to have to hang-dry the day’s take before he could spend it. And Balthazar was going to whine, whine, whine about getting the cash into the bank without being suspected as a drug dealer.
Well, it wasn’t like John could ask illegal immigrants for checks, could he? Fucking little…John pushed open the door, then stopped. He smelled blood.
He stood still and listened, breathed, felt. When nothing exploded or otherwise pinged at him, he soundlessly nudged the door open a little further. The crack of light widened into a slice of his apartment: walls, floor…broken window. The one nearest the fire escape had had its blinds wrenched apart to show a jagged, red-painted mouth where a glass pane had been. More glass glittered on the floor, sending incongruous rainbows over an indistinct trail of bloody prints. John took an invisible punch to the chest and was surprised at how painless it was, though it did leave him oddly lightheaded. He gradually became aware that he was clutching his ring of charms hard enough for some of them to be stabbing out blood.
“Johnny? Stop lurking like a stalker and close the door. The drafts are bad enough as it is,” came Balthazar’s voice. It was thinner and more raspy than usual.
Shaking his head, John pushed the door open and swung himself around it. He still had his other hand wrapped around the amulets and his fingers clenched when the first thing he saw was Balthazar’s bloody arm, skin very white against the cuts ripped across it. He wasn’t surprised to see that the slashes looked like a distorted cross.
Balthazar had been holding his arm up to the light from the ceiling lamp while squeezing blood clots out of the cuts and into a bowl on the floor. He lowered the arm as John walked up and leaned against the kitchen table, swaying a little. The rest of him looked as if someone had taken a steel wool sponge to random parts of him.
His eyes flicked up and down John, lingering on the puddles still forming around John’s feet. “Was Midnite so unhappy that he tried to flush you down the toilet?”
“Very funny. No, I was earning my keep. Which is a good thing, since you broke my fucking window. Drafts, my ass.” John took out the crumpled, tobacco-stained bills he’d gotten from the two exorcisms and spread them on the table. Then he dug out the envelope from Midnite, which was rapidly dissolving into disgusting white clumps that he had to scrape out from between his fingers, and fanned out the bills within it as best he could.
A couple of blood drops fell onto them, which didn’t help their looks. “You had it locked from the inside.”
“Well, this is Los Angeles. I don’t appreciate burglars any more than I do demons. And much as it pains me, you do have a key to the door,” John muttered. He turned his head and there Balthazar was, trying desperately not to lean into John, eyes fluttering shut from pain. With a sigh, John put a hand on Balthazar’s shoulder.
Balthazar flinched. John frowned, then batted away Balthazar’s hands and pulled off the shreds of Balthazar’s shirt. He let out a low whistle.
“Don’t be crass, John. We’re out of sutures,” Balthazar mumbled, trying again to push John back. He nearly bit off John’s thumb when John tried to tilt up his chin to see if the bastard had a concussion.
If he did, he was welcome to keep it, but first he needed to stop bleeding all over John’s floor. “Don’t be so fancy. There’s thread. There’s also duct tape, which I’ll use on you instead of the window if you open your mouth.”
That shut up Balthazar nicely. More because duct tape looked second-class than anything else, John suspected, but if it worked then it worked.
Fifteen minutes later, the money was drying in the bathroom and John was pinning Balthazar to the kitchen table. Most of the cuts weren’t quite deep enough to need stitches, which was a good thing because Balthazar was incredibly bad at holding still. “If you wiggle one more time, I don’t want to hear a thing about crooked sewing. It’s your own fucking fault—and speaking of, why did you break the window?”
“Because I needed to get in, obviously. And for various reasons the front door wasn’t a feasible choice,” Balthazar mumbled into the table. He hissed and nearly bucked out the needle.
John rolled his eyes and finally just got on the table, keeping Balthazar’s leg down with his knee and using his arm to hold the rest of the man in place. He sloshed a rag through a bowl of water at the side, then rinsed off another few inches of Balthazar’s back. “Like whatever would have a three-fingered clawed hand that’s big enough to mash baby skulls?”
Balthazar finally decided to be helpful. “I was trying to retrieve some of my funds and a few old acquaintances spotted me. Their hearts are in the fridge, second drawer.”
Okay, that did make John laugh. The bastard’s blood hadn’t warmed up any and that was something, considering what Balthazar had been and what he was now. “To go with those blood clots you were squeezing out? That spell’s so passé now. Anyway, they’re dead.”
“You of all people should know it doesn’t—” hiss and twitch “—end there—damn it, will you—”
“No. No, I won’t.” John dug his elbow in hard against Balthazar’s backbone and tied off the knot. Good thing the cuts on Balthazar’s back were short…but there still were the ones on his arm, damn it. “You were a demon, for God’s sake. Can’t you take a little pain?”
As soon as John let him, Balthazar pushed himself up and over into a crosslegged sit. He cradled his arm close to his chest, jerking away the first time John reached for him. “You were in Hell for all of two minutes? Think about six months. Then talk to me about pain—
--black black leather old cracked like lightning’s ghost big big bigger than him brass locks and hinges yellow parchment--
--“John?” Fingers snapping in front of John’s nose. “Johnny?”
“Arm,” John curtly said. He flicked his eyes down to said limb before Balthazar’s eyes came back into focus. Before that—weird spell had hit him, he’d been on the verge of recognizing whatever emotion was leaving them flayed over and he wasn’t in a real sympathetic mood. “But they followed you all the way back here, and you…kicked their asses, took their hearts and then broke in at your leisure? Try another one.”
Balthazar’s lips peeled away from his teeth when the needle went in, and slowly pressed back down when it came out. They never quite closed all the way, but they were drawn too tight to flap as his breath whistled in and out.
“You know, if you turned into a girl, you could at least take some of the stuff that’s for PMS—” John snickered and dodged beneath Balthazar’s blow. Then he twisted Balthazar’s wrist till the other man quieted and he could finish stitching. “If someone shows up at my door asking for you, I might just shove you outside this time. This isn’t all that great a day anyway and I don’t need the bullshit you drag back.”
“If you did that, you’d lose some valuable—” Balthazar started, low and quick.
John stabbed in the needle extra-hard, tightening his grip against Balthazar’s subsequent jerk. He swiped away the blood that beaded up with his thumb. “Don’t talk to me about losing things. You’ve been human for three months, all weak and unconnected except for me. I’ve done it for over thirty years and with a hell of a lot less help.”
After that, Balthazar was quiet. When John was finished sewing, he tossed the rag at Balthazar and went searching for more bandages. By the time he’d come back, Balthazar had gotten himself more or less presentable and was moving the wet rag along the drying prints on the floor. He was using his toes to do it, the little prissy shit.
John refrained from laughing and instead slung a loop of cotton wrap around Balthazar’s arm, using that to pull the other man back. He got the arm done fairly fast and was starting on Balthazar’s back when Balthazar decided he’d like to speak again. “So if this isn’t a matter of trading resources, then what is it?” he asked John’s tie.
“I never said it wasn’t. I just said it wasn’t necessary to my survival,” John replied. He paused when hands settled on his hips, then smoothed the last round of bandage around Balthazar’s shoulder. The hands migrated around to the front, pressing warmth through the uncomfortably damp heaviness of John’s pants. After a moment, Balthazar stepped forward and diffidently began to nip along John’s throat. John yanked the bandages tight when he did the knot and the nips became considerably sharper. “What? I already can tell you had to run for your life, so it’s not like your pride is still an issue.”
“Johnny.” Balthazar unzipped John’s fly and curved his fingers past it, then crooked them outward so his nails dug hard into the sides of John’s balls. “Just because I’m mortal doesn’t mean I can’t still rip out your throat and shove it up your rectum.”
There was a shallow scrape running along the left side of Balthazar’s jaw. It looked painful, and judging by the way Balthazar twisted when John ran his thumb-knuckle along it, it was indeed very tender. Good. John did it again and Balthazar hungrily rubbed up against him, teeth raking over John’s collarbone.
“But you’re not going to,” John said softly, pushing them back onto the table. He didn’t bother laughing because the situation was doing that well enough for him.
Balthazar hissed as his shoulder hit the wood, but his eyes hazed over as soon as John wiggled his bloody fingers before them. Different body, same instincts—it was a little fun to see Balthazar stretching for it before he got so frustrated he just jerked John down. John went with it and kept on sliding, letting his tongue track from scrape to bruise, zigzagging his way down Balthazar’s chest and stomach. He lingered around Balthazar’s bellybutton, flicking his tongue in and out, squirming it around the tight little wrinkles till Balthazar was trying to kick him in the stomach. Then he got around to the bulge that’d been bumping his throat and getting it out of Balthazar’s pants.
John had fully planned to receive compensation for this moment of seeming generosity, but somewhere around when Balthazar writhed into the beginnings of his climax, arching up and fighting it because that was definitely straining the stitches, it happened again.
hanging in the room twisting in the wind chains great and heavy giant’s chains
“Son of a fucking bitch!” John jerked back, then barely caught himself before he fell over the edge of the table. He had a splash of come trailing out of the corner of his mouth, and more was spurting over his hip. Goddamned…just goddamn it.
Well, he was out of the fucking mood even if Balthazar had collapsed with his mouth so nicely open; John pulled himself around and dropped his legs over the table-edge, thinking. After a moment, he wiped the come off his face and scrubbed at the splatters that had hit his thigh.
“I’m thinking.” And no cigarettes or post-coital glow, but he’d just have to struggle through it anyway. Once usually was too much of a coincidence in his life, and three times basically said wake up before someone did it with a shovel. Then again, he’d only really had one time confirmed.
So all he had to do was be on the look-out for six-foot books bound in black leather that were chained up. Yeah, and like John didn’t already know where that was going: Corso was a bookdealer suddenly trying to unload exceptionally rare books on magic and other esoteric arts, and since they’d met, John was having visions. One of which had been precognitive. As if seeing devils and ghosts and angels didn’t bring him enough trouble.
“I was emptying out a safe-deposit box.” Balthazar blinked a couple times when John glanced his way, about as uncertain as John had ever saw him. “Nothing important, just some money and a few minor artifacts. But apparently they’ve gotten deeper into my personal files because there was a group waiting for me this time.”
It took a moment for John to understand that Balthazar thought the whole thinking thing was about whether or not to kick Balthazar out. It took another moment for John to decide that correcting him was a bad idea, even if Balthazar’s expression was so determinedly not-worried that it was hilarious. “Did you kill any of them?”
Even funnier was Balthazar’s insulted face. “All of them. After I got in here and got a few things.”
“Okay, you’re not completely pathetic. Try and do something about the window and I’ll be really impressed,” John said, pushing himself off the table. He went into the bedroom, changed, and was out before Balthazar had done more than stand up and straighten himself out.
“And where are you—it’s barely past noon! What do you think you’re doing?” Balthazar snapped, starting after him.
John rolled his eyes as he opened the door. His bra shifted as he twisted out the door and he irritably yanked it back in place. “I’m buying groceries. I get better discounts looking like this, so you can calm the fuck down, Daddy.”
He shut the door and went to the top of the stairwell, then stopped. After a moment, he heard the locks angrily slam home and grinning, started down the stairs.
His smile didn’t even last till the bottom. Because John had not only handled spellbooks before, but he’d handled that book before—that was why Midnite had called John in instead of relying on his own judgment. The book had felt just as creepy and given John just as bad a headache, but it hadn’t brought on second sight. So maybe he was looking at the wrong coincidences, grouping them the wrong way.
He needed to find out about Dean Corso, and about that grimoire of which he was having visions. According to Midnite, Balthazar knew about the first one, but John preferred not to rely too much on him; having Balthazar do all the asking, implied or direct, suited John better. So it was track down the current location of Solomon’s grimoire, buy food, buy cigarettes, and then come home before Balthazar got so antsy he started mucking around with revenge spells in John’s apartment. Yeah, a really neat little to-do list.