|Snap III: Creative Interpolation
Author: Guede Mazaka
The last reliable sighting of Solomon’s grimoire had put it in Virginia around the 1960s. The last sightings period had placed it in New Orléans a decade later, and then had it appearing in Mexico as late as seven years ago. Which John was a little inclined to believe, given that the Spear of Destiny had come from there.
It wasn’t really Solomon’s grimoire. Proper books hadn’t even been invented back then. What everyone referred to as the grimoire was really just the collection of spells that Solomon had supposedly used, and which had been transcribed and passed down over the centuries from magus to magus According to legend, persecution by secular and religious authorities had ensured that only one gigantic copy had survived. The typos probably outnumbered the genuine words by now, but if even one spell had made it intact…well, Solomon was famous for the wrong thing. His judgment alone hadn’t been what had kept him on the throne for so long.
And for that reason, after John had dropped Balthazar off at the apartment, he took a stroll through the unofficial voodoo slum of L. A. Midnite was definitely the most successful houngan in the city, and arguably the most powerful, but he had his drawbacks when it came to sharing information. Namely, he didn’t. Hence the trip into areas so downtrodden and grimy that John found himself lighting up just to cut the smell.
He made sure not to let that show, since appearances aside, this area was one of the liveliest in the city. Any sign of pretentiousness and it’d rear up to chomp off his balls and suck out his blood from the resulting wounds.
“Hey, Johnny,” came from the corner, where a group of textbook crones were dicing. The knucklebones they used were so fresh that one was still trailing a fragment of flesh, which was all matted with dirt.
“Hey, Constantine,” catcalled from the upstairs window of the building John was passing.
“Not now.” And this had been why he’d come by the last time as a woman: the neighborhood was a mix of idiots and true savants, and only the second class still knew who he was when he had breasts. Sometimes the reputation could be a pain in the ass. “Not now.”
He turned into a building that had once been a famous Depression-era brothel. The walls still had strips of garish dark red paper on them, and the stale smell of sex seemed to have soaked into the floorboards. It was the perfect place for mambos to counsel angry women about the best way to make their hubbies’ pricks fall off, so it was anyone’s guess why Map had set himself up here. His specialty was more in the line of tormenting the dead.
Map changed rooms every few weeks. This time, John found him in one of the first-floor backrooms, where rotting gilt-laced curtains still hung from the window rods. John’s cigarette was nearly out, so he stopped at the door and got himself another one.
“I could use that,” Map said, slowly twisting his head around. He had the kind of body that made crouching down on the floor like that look natural, which meant whenever he moved somewhere else, he resembled a creepy human-size frog. His eyes were yellowed around the edges and bulging, which made his long fixed stare even more unnerving.
“Sorry, but I wasn’t born yesterday.” Stupid idea to give the man a butt with saliva on it. Stupid idea period to leave anything personal in this neighborhood, actually; John stabbed out the old butt on the doorframe and held onto it. He reached into his pocket and rattled the contents.
In a deliberate manner, Map moved his head to half-cocked. “You were asking about Solomon’s grimoire last time. I don’t know anything about that.”
“But you do know Midnite. You two used to have a pretty close business relationship,” John said. He scuffled his foot across the floor, testing whether the stains there were recent. They didn’t seem to be, so he risked squatting down.
On the floor was a carefully-drawn pentagram that Map was seeding with spells. He stopped to wave his palm over the lines, then picked up a rust-colored piece of chalk and started writing again. “He cut me off before he did you. If he ever will. You’re interesting, you know…you’re a losing proposition for him that he can’t give up.”
“I’m flattered.” John waited. When Map didn’t say anything, John reluctantly pulled out a plastic baggie from his pocket and tossed it.
Map’s arm blurred out. A second later, the baggie was nowhere to be seen, and his thin, rubbery lips were pulled back into a humorless smile. “Something that’s always interested Midnite is the idea that Solomon commanded demons. Because that leaves no place for Lucifer.”
“Midnite’s sometimes got an overconfidence problem, but he’s not stupid,” John snorted. “Try another one.”
“It wouldn’t be stupidity. The universe is like a machine—you should know this, with your distaste for its rigid rules. If you transfer the role of Lucifer elsewhere, then you change how the machine works. You could eliminate Hell.” The chalked screeched across the splintery floorboards, scrawling symbols that just looked like they were going to scuttle into the dark corners. But Map ran his fingers around them like anyone else would touch a pet. “It was formed around Lucifer, you realize.”
And it was slightly more plausible that Midnite would try something like that, but only if Midnite had reverted to ten or so years ago. Nowadays he had too many contacts on both sides; he’d taken the vow of neutrality, not the vow of the Crusader. “Thanks for the theology refresher, Map.”
Though it hadn’t nearly equaled the value of the heart John had just tossed at the cryptic bastard. But it didn’t sound like Map was going to be any more helpful and John had other people to visit, so he decided to cut his losses. He turned to go and—
--narrow alley gnashing teeth foam bubbling up between--
--well, at least he’d kept himself from doing something stupid like yelling and throwing himself back into the room. Whatever this was, it was getting damned awkward; John yanked out his cigarette and jabbed it into the doorframe, then steadied himself on that. He took a slow, quiet breath.
“Has something happened?” Map asked. When John turned around, Map’s thick-hooded eyes were knowingly watching him.
“Know anyone named Dean Corso?” John abruptly queried. He thought he’d recognized the alley as one near here, so leaving through the front door might not be the best move. There was a slim hope that the vision was depicting events that were going to happen farther in the future, but John preferred not to risk it.
Map shook his head and hunched back over the floor. Out front, somebody screamed obscenities in a voice that rose higher and higher on hysteria till it was suddenly cut off. The scream itself wasn’t that uncommon in this neighborhood, but the sudden silence that followed afterward was.
John edged into the hall just far enough to see the front lobby. As he watched, something threw itself hard against the door, whose planks were so rotten that one panel instantly cracked out. A long black muzzle, nostrils wreathed in sulfurous steam that John could smell from where he was, briefly poked it. It withdrew and a black body banged up against the door. Another panel fell out.
“I think you will come to, however,” Map said. He tapped the floor beside him. “My defenses will keep me safe, but they will exclude you.”
“Yeah, it was nice talking to you, too,” John muttered. He quickly stepped back into the room and walked across it to the window. A look outside showed him big rangy forms pacing around the whole house, occasionally grinning sharp smiles up at him.
He cursed as he rolled up his sleeves. He only had one ball of holy water on him and that definitely wasn’t going to be enough for hellhounds. Fuck. The balance really had gone to shit if those could come through in broad daylight—it was almost enough to make him regret saving the world from Mammon. Wasn’t like it was all that much fun afterward.
A loud crash downstairs said the front door had finally given in. John jerked his head to the side, bones in his neck making their own crack, then threw up the sash and climbed out of the window onto the roof.
It was the kind of house whose top was all steep gables so he had to start moving immediately in order to keep from falling down. He jogged up the nearest one as he pulled out the grenade, then zig-zagged down the other side so the dogs below had to leap back and forth, guessing where he was going to come down. And then he didn’t come down because the next building over was separated by a six-foot gap that he took.
He almost didn’t make it, but luckily his foot landed on the edge in such a way that he tipped forward instead of back. John twisted as he fell so his hip and forearm took most of the impact, then kept rolling till he was on his feet. He hit the stairs and ran down them right into a hound.
It was jumping at the same time so all he saw was a wet mass of white foam and a long lolling tongue the color of raw meat. He threw up his arm and smashed the grenade against the thing’s muzzle—the hit was so hard that its moist nose went through to graze his hand—while diving hard to the side.
The hellhound’s snarl raggedly twisted into a howl of pain and it tried to back up in mid-air; its legs bounced off his shoulder and John hit the railing. He kept going, keeping his balance by sheer momentum, and swung around the corner of the stairs. That put him in somebody’s nest and he cursed, kicking his way through the pile of tattered clothes. He clattered down the last few steps and hurriedly scanned the room. No hounds, but he could hear them near the back door.
John straightened up, took a deep breath, and concentrated. A few seconds later, he was quickstepping it out the front door, arms folded over his chest to try and keep his breasts from bouncing around too much. He’d taken off his jacket and yanked his shirt out of his pants in an effort to change his appearance, but he had a feeling that all but the dumbest were going to suspect. So no more incognito jaunts here.
He’d only gotten a couple yards down the street when the hellhounds came padding out of the house, nostrils flared wide as they fruitlessly tried to track him. One sat down on its haunches and pointed its nose to the sky in a frustrated cry, while another came wandering up to John. He stopped and stared at it, holding his breath.
The beast had its nose glued to the ground and moved like it was being dragged forward by a string threaded through its nostrils. It whuffed up to within six inches of John’s foot, paused…and kept going, leaving a smoking trail behind itself.
John damn well near dropped dead with relief. His switch had changed his scent just enough to fool them.
“Yeah, you’re busy,” cackled a one-eyed man lounging on a nearby porch. He twirled a dried lizard on a string. “See you.”
Fuck—actually, John had a better idea. He yanked off his tie and wadded it up, then flung it into the man’s lap. Away from his confusing scent, the tie smelled mainly of his male form. The hellhounds whipped around on dimes and made a beeline for it.
He’d just lost his tie, but John thought this exchange made him feel a hell of a lot better than the one that’d taken place between him and Map. He tossed his two cigarette butts into a nearby trashcan and kept on walking while the screaming and yelling behind him turned more and more panicky.
* * *
Balthazar, unsurprisingly, was in the bathroom when John got back. He absolutely refused to use a pad, but he and tampons never had managed to negotiate much of a compromise, so he spent long stretches of his period either squatting over the toilet or sprawling on a towel near the drain, just letting it drip out. Currently he was going with the second choice, dressed only in one of John’s old shirts.
“How ladylike,” John said, stepping in. He turned on the faucet and bent over the sink to splash his face and his hands, which were a little cut-up from bashing the grenade in that hellhound’s face. “Guess what I did today.”
“Went to see Map, was chased by hellhounds and had to turn into a woman to get rid of them,” was Balthazar’s succinct reply. He rolled over and wadded up some toilet paper, then dipped it into a bowl of water he had beside him. Then he sat up with his knees apart and started mopping at his thighs. “Don’t look at me like that, Johnny. You don’t have to be precognitive to take a phone call. And apparently you walking through town with no bra and your nipples poking up your shirt is worth a few.”
Shit. John stopped with a double-handful of water smashed up against his face and blew bubbles through it, wondering if he could use this to justify a wholesale deportation. But no, he didn’t have time for that. Damn it, as if he was going to change in plain sight, and it wasn’t his fault he hadn’t been able to find a private area to switch back right away. It wasn’t like he’d enjoyed the experience, either—he’d had to punch out one guy for trying to trap him into a grinding session against an alley wall.
“If you wanted to find out Midnite’s motives without raising his suspicions, then that was definitely not the way to do it,” Balthazar added. He took the wet red clump of toilet paper out from between his legs, glanced at it and flung it a little more hard than he needed to into the trashcan. “I assume that that was why you were bothering with Map.”
“Maybe I was asking him about the whereabouts of the grimoire. You know, independent confirmation that it’s even still around? He’s called Map for a reason.” After a last splash, John pushed away from the sink and sat down on the toilet. “Who called?”
Balthazar grimaced and laid back down with his face turned away from John. His breasts rocked back a little before settling into place and he didn’t bother closing his knees so John could glimpse dark coarse hair. “Ellie.”
John pulled off his coat and dropped it on the toilet back. He bent over to unlace his boots. “Did you ask her about the succubus who converted Corso?”
“You know, I hear she was at Mammon’s welcome reception, but does she suffer for her betrayal? No. She’s still happily snaking from bed to bed.” The bitterness in Balthazar’s voice could have poisoned a basilisk. He turned his head as John got off the toilet and squatted barefoot beside him, but to judge by his expression, was still moody over the perceived slight. “Why don’t you ask her? She still seems to be fond of you in spite of everything—she was surprised to hear that I was still here.”
“You didn’t ask her.” After pushing up his sleeves, John bent over and put his hand on Balthazar’s thigh. “Cramps?”
Balthazar closed his eyes, as if just looking at the world was too much effort for his delicate system. “I’d like a spell that inflicts them on her. Why does she have your phone number?”
“Because she was at Mammon’s reception, and the only reason she got out of that was because I let her. She owes me and she’s a little better at paying that back than you are,” John said. He slid his fingers through the trickle that’d just made it past the crease where thigh joined pelvis and threaded them through the matted hair. Some of the blood there had half-dried and he had to force his fingers through, which made Balthazar jerk and hiss.
And take a half-hearted swipe at John, but by the time his hand made it to John’s cheek, John had rubbed away enough of the blood to find Balthazar’s clit. The smack turned into something that was almost a caress before Balthazar’s hand dropped back; Balthazar arched up so the little pad of flesh pressed hard against John’s thumb, half-biting back a whine. His arm flopped about before suddenly regaining direction; he latched onto John’s wrist. “Hurts…”
“Yeah, well, give it a moment. Prostitutes call this all-natural Vicodin.” John moved his thumb in slow circles, distracting Balthazar while he probed around with the tip of his index tip. It finally slipped in, then stuck and Balthazar jerked hard at John—wrong angle. John shifted onto his knees and his finger slid in like it was greased with butter.
Balthazar bowed upwards and went stiff, cheek pressed so hard to the floor that it was amazing the bone didn’t snap. His hips pushed downwards in encouragement. “You would…know that kind…of jargon.”
“You’re such a snob,” John snickered. He fumbled with his fly for a second before it came undone and he could push his pants down to his knees. He added another finger and kept them moving in and out, nice and slow; he could actually feel the contractions and he did his best to move with them, sort of smooth out their abrupt ends. His thumb glided off Balthazar’s clit and Balthazar half-turned on his side to try and follow it.
John worked out of his pants and pushed Balthazar’s knee back so he could climb on top. His dick was showing a lot more interest now that he was looking at Balthazar’s breasts instead of all that blood. Maybe red on white skin was aesthetically pleasing, but it brought up memories of the couple times John had had periods before he’d figured out how to skip them, and that definitely was a mood-killer.
So was discovering he had sympathy for Balthazar. He shoved his head into Balthazar’s breasts and stabbed upwards with his fingers. Balthazar banged his head against the tile and promptly bitched at John for it. John ignored him because Balthazar wasn’t wearing a bra and it was more in John’s interests to rub his face in the lovely loose warm softness beneath the shirt’s thin cotton. For such a bile-filled son of a bitch, Balthazar always managed to smell appealing. “Such a snob. And when you’re lying half-naked on the fucking bathroom floor…it’s like you want me to walk in and fuck you.”
Balthazar started to curse, but moaned instead because John had pressed himself up so his face was nuzzling Balthazar’s sweaty throat and his cock was just nudging along Balthazar’s cunt, rubbing over John’s hand. John pulled out his fingers and flicked them around till he could get his prick between them, guiding it so his tip was just barely inside. The blood made for a weirdly hot and smooth glide, but after a couple seconds, John decided the sudden tightening in his balls meant he liked it.
“You don’t even shut your goddamned knees,” he muttered. He got a sharp rake of nails down his back for that, but he also got his own back by shoving all the way inside. The throat smashed up against his mouth vibrated with a long, high keen, and the body beneath him moved like warmed honey. He kept his thumb wedged over Balthazar’s clit—couldn’t move it much, but every time he shifted, his weight pressed his thumb down and Balthazar shuddered. “And you think I’m a slut—”
Balthazar abruptly flung his arm around John’s neck and dragged him down into a collision of mouths. His teeth ripped the hell out of John’s lip and his tongue fucked its way past John’s lips in a way that demanded an echo. John’s hand slipped, then squeezed back and slashed a hard line over Balthazar’s clit, around the curve of the prick John had just driven hard into Balthazar. Then John was bracing himself, pushing his ass up so he could get more leverage, and Balthazar was finally helping a little by locking a leg around his waist. They moved inelegantly, purposefully, madly together and it was goddamn unbelievable how hot Balthazar was inside. Hot enough to melt John’s brains even as they were wondering whether more demon was seeping back into Balthazar, hot enough to make Balthazar almost blur into someone…someone that John could…almost.
* * *
“Now will you stop being so damned annoying and be useful?” John asked. He gave his wet hands a shake over the sink before starting to button up his fresh shirt.
Balthazar winced, then brought the tampon applicator out from between his legs and tossed it in the trash. He demurely licked off his fingers before wiping them on some toilet paper. “Johnny, the definition of a slut requires public embarrassment. Which isn’t possible if you stay in and don’t parade around outdoors.”
John just rolled his eyes. It was obvious the fuck had helped Balthazar a lot: the skin around his eyes was still sallow, but it’d lost that pinched look, and when he pulled up his pants, he moved with a bit more grace. Obvious, and yet it still wasn’t getting John anything. “Jesus Christ. Faithfulness isn’t like a privilege, you little fuck. What have you done for me lately?”
“Not tried to negotiate a deal with Lucifer to deliver your soul in exchange for amnesty,” Balthazar calmly retorted. He met John’s look with an arched eyebrow. “You don’t seriously think you’re so almighty that you can protect Ellie from his retaliation.”
“And you’re pretty weird for a demon, disapproving of backstabbing and doublecrossing. I never seriously thought Ellie wasn’t going to cut her own deals on the side. But if she’s giving me some real help before she tries to boot my ass downwards, it’d be stupid to turn it down.” After some thinking, John remembered where he’d put his coat and retrieved it. He held it up to check if it was still wearable, found it’d escaped the mess and put it on. “I don’t even like you. Don’t tell me suddenly we’re supposed to be all lovey-dovey now.”
Balthazar let out a noise that was half-snort and half-strangled growl, which sounded funny in his higher-picked voice. He leaned against the sink, fingers tap-tapping on the porcelain like an angry woodpecker. “I merely want—”
He stopped there, abruptly looking away. The shirt he was wearing had slipped so the raw pink flesh of his healing cuts was visible; the area looked a little inflamed from all the friction earlier. In contrast, the skin of his throat was very pale and translucent, as if a light touch might break it. Not likely, but…and he was sleeping so much, even when he didn’t have a period. While John was at it, he might as well bug Midnite for more details on the resurrection spell the other man had used.
“I did ask Ellie. Carefully,” Balthazar finally said. He absently reached up and pulled the shirt back up. “I thought I’d remembered a rumor…some European succubus thought it’d be fun to drive a few people mad with The Nine Doors.”
“That fake?” Hell, John hadn’t been twenty before he’d heard all about that con. As if Lucifer would make reaching him require some rare book and a complicated ritual when that’d cut down on the number of souls he got.
Balthazar’s fingers tapped faster. “She lured Corso into believing it, only Lucifer interfered and actually took him to Hell. He’s probably an agent for the Morningstar now.”
“I guess Midnite would be a pretty big catch for that bastard,” John muttered. He put his hands on the edge of the sink and leaned over it, pulling his head together. Not only would Midnite be a big catch, but he’d be another jab at John and John had taken too many damn losses in the past year. “Why was she calling me?”
“Because now the whole city knows you can change genders.” If Balthazar’s tone could have beat John’s face in with a brick, it would have already been doing it. He was utterly contemptuous. “She wanted to invite you over for dinner and ‘see for herself’ what you looked like.”
John rolled his eyes for two reasons. The first was that in all the years they’d known each other, John had never eaten any food Ellie had ever offered him, or that he thought she’d had a hand in making. The second was that Balthazar was starting to sound pissed off again. “Great. I fuck you better and the first thing you do is fly into a jealous rage. Remind me never to do that again.”
“This is not a jealous rage,” Balthazar snapped. He looked just as angry but less firm when John turned to look him over. “This is concern—”
“I can’t get diseases from Ellie. At least, not that kind. So it’s not concern,” John snapped back. Balthazar started to turn a cold shoulder to him and he reached over and jerked Balthazar back around. “What the hell is—shit, you can’t get pregnant, can you?”
Balthazar had been about to come back with some scathing retort and the change of subject visibly threw him. He blinked a few times. “No. You two picked a corpse with a badly-scarred uterus. And even if an egg managed to implant itself, I’d make sure…that actually scares you. What is it, the responsibility or the knowledge that you’d completely fuck up any offspring? If they even survived.”
It was John’s turn to blink, but he did it because he needed a couple seconds to calm down. Killing Balthazar would get him into far more trouble than the satisfaction gained would be worth.
He started to reply, then said to hell with it. He still needed to find out whether Corso actually had the grimoire. Devil’s agent or not, having that book would make a big difference in the odds and shit, not now—
--book again chains hanging from rafters wood wooden floor too window what was outside where was it no wait not yet not--
John came back clinging to the doorframe, breathing hard so his…fuck, he’d changed. He had breasts smushed up against the wood.
And he didn’t; he changed just as he realized Balthazar was shaking him. “John?” Balthazar was saying. “John, what’s…” he went still and stared at John “…what happened to your eyes?”
“What?” John said.
Balthazar opened his mouth, then closed it. He stepped back to lean against the other side of the doorway, arms crossed over his breasts and eyes narrowed. “Never mind, they’re back to normal now. You’re having visions, aren’t you?”
“What?” John repeated. It wasn’t out of stupidity—he was still wrung-out from the sudden attack…which had been a bit worse than the first couple…and also he didn’t want to give himself away.
Except that didn’t seem to matter now, because Balthazar nodded. “You are. When did you start?”
“How would you—”
“I’m just surprised it hasn’t shown up earlier. You were a magus to begin with and you’ve already been dead and alive. Tiresias went through a couple other dichotomies before he gained the power of foresight, but you only really need two pairs,” Balthazar drawled. He waited. And waited, and finally rolled his eyes. “God, you have no education. Tiresias.”
“Ancient Greek prophet. So?” John slowly pushed off of the doorframe and tried out his feet. When they held him steady, he let go of the frame.
Balthazar looked pained. “So he gained his prophetic powers by experiencing many states of existence. Dead, alive, human, animal…man and woman.”
Oh. Come to think of it, John had known about that, but he hadn’t really connected between it and his current condition. Not that the new knowledge helped any, because now he was stuck with the damned foresight and the thing that’d gotten him it—the gender-change—wasn’t useful any more. If Ellie knew, then the whole occult underground knew and no more anonymous jaunts. No more slipping away from ‘John Constantine’ for a few hours.
John had always known it’d come to an end some day, but that didn’t soften ‘some day’ any when it actually arrived. He bit down on his tongue, but the trace of blood that resulted only enhanced the intense bitterness in his mouth. Goddamn it. Goddamn it.
Someone hissed. Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t John; Balthazar had dropped his arms to press against his abdomen.
“Well, we’re both screwed by this,” John said. “Maybe that’s why I don’t throw you out. It’s nice to have someone around that’s more pathetic than I am.”
Balthazar slowly lifted his head, eyes half-shuttered with pain and fatigue. “John—”
The phone rang. John went to answer it. It was Midnite, and halfway through their conversation, John noticed that Balthazar had trailed along. He lifted a hand to wave Balthazar away, but just then Balthazar closed his eyes and sagged against the refrigerator, so he wouldn’t have seen the gesture. John paused, then went back to his talk with Midnite. The bastard was probably doing it on purpose, but still, Balthazar looked too sorry to even kick.
“Corso says he can take Midnite to a preliminary viewing of the grimoire in a week,” John told Balthazar after hanging up. “So that’s seven days to find it first, if it’s really in town. And steal it.”
“If that were the real reason, you’d go out of your way to let me feel miserable. Consistently,” Balthazar muttered. He wearily opened his eyes. “Are you going out to research now?”
“Yeah.” John stepped aside, wavered, and didn’t step back. But he did lean forward to run his finger along a nearly-healed scrape on Balthazar’s jaw. “All right, go to bed. If it’s the only damned way I don’t end up having you pass out all over…”
He withdrew, then turned and walked out before he said anything else.