|Snap V: Lucifer’s Watermark
Author: Guede Mazaka
John barely made it out of the cathedral and into the alley behind it before the screaming got loud enough to be heard from the street. That meant people were going to come looking, which was good in that it’d keep Corso from chasing too obviously and which was bad in that John needed to get himself and Balthazar away from the scene before they ended up in jail. And of course Balthazar would pass out now.
It’d been the spell he’d used to lure out the crippled angel. Well, the son of a bitch deserved it, for Hennessey and Beeman and now for Nilsen.
The alley was short, but Balthazar was goddamned heavy and he’d attract attention. John dragged them behind a dumpster, then propped Balthazar up against the wall and smacked his cheeks a few times till his eyes started to flutter. “Change,” John told him.
“What?” Balthazar blinked rapidly, then suddenly pushed forward and tried to look around John. “Why are we still here?”
“Because you’re like a goddamn rock. Either walk or change.” John winced as another scream rang out through the alley, then shoved Balthazar back against the wall. “You bastard. I just left my friend back there to save your goddamned—”
“Stop blaming me for it, John. You’re the one doing it,” Balthazar hissed. He grabbed onto the dumpster with one hand and pulled himself off the wall. His face went white and he hit the bricks just before he would’ve slid to his knees. He started to curse, then abruptly turned his head away and wrapped an arm around himself.
The sorry little…and he was right, which made John want to hit him even more, but now wasn’t the time for a fight. Why John bothered was getting to be more of a mystery than John’s short patience could tolerate. Balthazar wasn’t even a friend.
Then again, said the little voice in John’s head, if Balthazar was a friend, he definitely would have been dead by now. John snarled it into silence and yanked Balthazar off the wall, then started down the alley as fast as he could go. “Change, damn it. Then I can just say you’re my drunk girlfriend.”
“I am not--I’m ill, not drunk.” The last few words had a savage twist to them, a last sop to Balthazar’s pride. He snarled as he swayed into John and the pitch of it slid up the scale, lost some of its resonance.
His body tilted so John just had to step back and scoop under to pick him up. Balthazar dropped a few pounds when he shifted, but not that much; by the time John had jogged the last few yards to the street, he was wheezing unashamedly.
“What’s happening—hey, there’s someone!” called a bystander. A small crowd had already gathered on the cathedral steps and heads were turning. Up the street, the whining siren of a police car had just crested the hill.
John resettled Balthazar so he was mostly turned away from the other people, which hopefully would keep them from noticing the mismatch in clothes. “We were taking a shortcut back there and somebody started screaming bloody murder,” he said, putting on a dumb concerned expression. “My girlfriend jumped and lost her balance. Smacked her head on a dumpster.”
Sympathy bloomed like hayfever on the bystanders’ faces. They would’ve questioned two men, but for a man and an injured girl, they parted like a nicer version of Moses’ Red Sea. One guy even offered to drive them to the hospital, which left John scrambling for a couple seconds to come up with an excuse.
“She’s got a…uh…she’s got to see this specialist,” he finally whispered, leaning close. For extra effect, he glanced around as if checking to see if anyone was listening in—a few still were, but most were fascinated by the policemen now pushing up the cathedral steps. The first cop in came stumbling out a bare three seconds later, face grey with horror and arm over his mouth like he wanted to gnaw it off. John swallowed hard and reminded himself now wasn’t the time. “She’s got this condition—”
Something pulled on John’s tie, tightening it a little too much around his throat. He bounced Balthazar hard under the pretense of getting a better grip.
“Oh, no problem. I can drive you wherever,” said the guy.
John opened his mouth, but he just didn’t have any plausible excuse to give. The only thing left was to brazen it out. “Thanks.”
* * *
It was a good thing there actually was a doctor’s office near Midnite’s bar. John had never seen it before, but they pulled onto the street and he saw it then so he could coolly point it out to the driver. Mr. Good Samaritan left them standing on the curb—well, left John standing and Balthazar hanging onto John’s arm with a grip that would’ve put a junkyard metal-crusher to shame.
“John,” Balthazar said, his voice making up in acid what it lacked in volume, “Have you noticed the interesting roof-top decorations over there?”
As a matter of fact, John had never seen that either, but he didn’t feel so bad since normally that roof had a plain edging. But today it had little fluttering things that had the wrong outlines to be birds. Shit. So Corso wasn’t doing anything—John was going to kill Midnite.
“Inside.” John turned around and almost got two steps before he was too stretched out. He sighed and backtracked so he could get his arm under a slow, stumbling Balthazar’s.
The ungrateful bastard actually fought him over that, but only for a moment. After that, he was visibly too tired: his skin was waxen and a dull sheen covered his eyes. He looked like he might collapse at any moment.
“You weren’t getting this bad this fast before,” John muttered, dragging Balthazar closer so he could get a better grip. After they’d gotten through the front door—damned bouncer didn’t even try to stop them this time, thank God—John pushed Balthazar up against the wall. He started to reach up, but then Balthazar decided to change back so John had to wait.
Muscles and bone started to shift, then slowed briefly as Balthazar took a ragged breath. His hand was still clamped to John’s arm and it squeezed hard. It didn’t let up when the transformation got over its bump and Balthazar collapsed back against the wall. His cheeks were a furious red in contrast to the bleached color of the rest of his face.
Right. The gender-change was magically based. Every time Balthazar did it, it was draining from him, and considering how much power it took, probably by a hell of a lot. It must be like slow torture for him.
Which was exactly what John thought the bastard deserved, but somehow John couldn’t keep watching. His initial relish at Balthazar’s discomfort had faded; he could hate, and he could do it with a deep passion, but he wasn’t the kind who could enjoy hate for its own sake, loll in it like it was goddamned milk and honey. Hate was something he liked to have over with as soon as possible, whenever possible.
“It’s remarkable how situations seem to deteriorate the more time you spend around them, isn’t it? You must be very flattered,” Balthazar rasped. He worked his fingers around John’s arm, bunching the fabric of the sleeve between them. A slight shiver went through him and he wrapped one arm around himself, hunching over.
John laid his hand against Balthazar’s forehead. It didn’t feel hot as he’d been expecting, but instead was quite cold. He took it away and got out a cigarette, but didn’t light it right away. “Yeah, you would think so.”
He turned around as footsteps approached, flicking his lighter to the cigarette tip. In the brief halo that framed his vision, Midnite looked like some funeral god emerging from the depths.
Another second dispelled that. “Well, hey. Look, it’s Midnite, the witch-doctor who’s got no fucking idea what’s going on.”
“I’ll be charitable and assume you came for reasons other than insulting me,” Midnite calmly said. He stopped where he was and leaned on his cane, though that wasn’t because he needed to. He just liked how it arranged his body.
“Considering the results of your recent endeavors, insulting is about as much as you deserve,” Balthazar muttered. With a visible effort, he elbowed himself off the wall. He weaved in place, then slowly tipped towards John.
Midnite noticed. Midnite lifted his head so a little bit of surprise could be seen in his hooded eyes. He looked a bit more startled when John reached out to steady Balthazar.
“I think he’s losing his grip on the body,” John said, pulling them forward. He led Balthazar past Midnite to the bar, thinking that he could just drape Balthazar over a barstool. But they’d barely gotten a foot past Midnite when Balthazar’s knees buckled and they both nearly went to the ground. “Also, your fucking bookdealer killed Nilsen. In the cathedral. Goddamn it, Balthazar—you’re so heavy…”
After a moment, Midnite stepped around as if he were going to give John a hand. Not likely—he probably just wanted to see how Balthazar would react. If that was the case, he got an eyeful. From somewhere Balthazar got the energy to lunge out and rip a button from Midnite’s shirt. Then he sagged back, breathing so hard his ribs should’ve cracked.
Not one to take a blow lightly, Midnite had immediately raised his cane in defense. John shouldered it aside and half-carried, half-towed Balthazar towards the back office. “Knock that off. He can’t hurt you and we’ve got other problems.”
Balthazar twisted around and bit John’s hand. The slack way he flopped around when John shook him damn near got his skull cracked on the floor.
“Do you want me to drop you?” John snapped.
“Why don’t you? Or are you—are you going to merely keep talking about it?” Balthazar retorted. Hand over hand, he managed to haul himself up John’s arm till he was on his feet, even though said feet weren’t supporting any of his weight. He pressed his face into John’s arm. “Ah, Johnny. Never were good at following through, were you?”
“Now you sound suicidal,” John said in a scoffing tone. Though he didn’t get a negation.
Cane swinging pendulum-like, Midnite followed them into the room.
* * *
“So that’s what I’ve been up to. Tell me this doesn’t have Corso written all over it,” John said, slouching back in his chair. He stretched out his arm and extinguished his fifth cigarette. The ashtray on Midnite’s table was starting to get crowded.
Midnite didn’t even look up from the bones he’d just cast on the floor. He was squatting between the table and the couch, where Balthazar was lying half-conscious, with one hand lightly holding Balthazar’s wrist. Occasionally this would make Balthazar pissy enough to take a feeble swipe at him, whereupon Midnite would gracefully dodge and John would give the couch a jog with his foot.
“You barely know Corso,” Midnite replied. He finally dropped Balthazar’s wrist and folded his hands over his knees, frowning at the bones.
“Good point. I don’t. So you know anyone else that’d take the trouble to kill a bunch of half-breeds for their books, send hellhounds after me and invade a fucking cathedral?” John gave Midnite a moment, then pushed himself out of the chair. He pretended to walk towards the door for two reasons. The first obviously was to tell Midnite to drop the enigmatic act.
The second was to get Midnite away from Balthazar before Midnite said what he’d read in the bones. Midnite obliged John that much, anyway. They ended up standing to the left of the door, slightly out of Balthazar’s line of sight.
“I thought you’d deport him within the week,” Midnite said quietly. “It’s impressive how long he’s kept hold on the body, but he doesn’t have enough power on his own to keep doing it.”
“Shit. Figures.” That was John’s first reaction. His second was to mentally step back and ask why the hell he’d say that, and his third was to step back farther and smack himself for saying it in front of Midnite.
Eyebrow up, Midnite folded his fingers into each other. His eyes cooled till they could have qualified as glaciers. “And why were you investigating the grimoire? I didn’t ask you to.”
“Nope, you didn’t, and believe me, I have some questions about that. Also about what the hell you think you’re doing, messing around with that kind of shit, but right now I think the more important question is what is Corso doing?” The last couple words came out a little ragged. John thought that was understandable, but not by a guy like Midnite, so he reached into his pocket for his cigarettes. Of course the fucking pack was empty. “Damn it. Have you actually watched him or did you just send a bunch of zombie-pigeons to eyeball his hotel room again?”
Midnite’s silence and suddenly compressed lips told John which one. Of all the stupid…John leaned back against the doorframe. He needed something to hold onto so he wouldn’t punch Midnite.
“I still don’t see what Corso would have to gain from what you say he’s been doing,” Midnite carefully replied.
“Fuck what I say, it’s what I know.” In full Technicolor, courtesy of the damned visions…and if one hit John now, he was going to kill whatever was nearest. He’d had to see what had killed the priests and he hadn’t even been in the same room. “Nilsen is dead. Now, does this get through to you, or do I have to drag home an apocalypse too, like with Beeman and Hennessey?”
Sighing, Midnite turned to the cabinet beside him, which was crowded with skulls on top. He picked up one and splayed his hand over its polished dome, as if he could extract some brains that way. “You have an interesting memory, John. Or have you forgotten who was responsible for those two’s deaths?”
No. No, he hadn’t, but simplicity had been absent from his life for so long that he probably wouldn’t recognize it if it tried to kill him. He related better to someone he hated and had been glad to help kill than to even the most sympathetic outsider. Sorry, Angela, but Balthazar didn’t need anyone to teach him the ropes. He just jumped straight to trying to use them to strangle people. It kept John paying attention, at least. The last time he’d stopped caring about what went on around him, he’d ended up with breasts.
“No, but he’s useful,” John finally told Midnite. Nice and vague with just enough truth to keep Midnite guessing. “For one, he’ll translate old books without making me round up nail clippings from La Llorona for payment.”
Midnite obviously thought this was a dubious benefit, but then, he had his loa to always keep him company. He never had to worry about the long dreary dark and the point where everything had been ground down past raw to dull isolation, where even a crazy panhandler cursing at the back was cherished because it was some kind of human-human interaction. He never had to worry about starting to think too much like the angels and the demons.
“But getting back to my point—I don’t think Corso has the grimoire. Or if he does, he’s got an incomplete copy—something’s wrong. He’s trying to track it down,” John said.
“Then why would he offer to sell it to me?” Midnite asked. His voice was serious, not mocking, so apparently he’d been convinced.
That stumped John for a moment. He’d completely forgotten about how he’d ended up in this mess to begin with.
“Because if he’s looked up anything about you, he knows you’re careful, and he knows John can’t keep his nose out of anything interesting. He’s probably hoping you’ll lead him to it during your background-checks.”
The only visible part of Balthazar was his hand, thrown limply over the side of the couch. Its fingers twitched in a feeble attempt to convey his contempt.
“I might be rotting, but I can still hear.” The tips of his fingers were tinged with the slightest bit of grey-blue, as if his blood were slowly turning to ice.
Midnite lifted his eyebrow again. John shoved his hands in his pockets and tried to think about all the lives Balthazar had taken, directly or indirectly. But there were so many, and even John’s friends blurred into the rest—consequence of being the one that always fucking survived. Instead he ended up focused on the common denominator: they’d all been taken from him. Maybe he would’ve grown up to be an unselfish man if he hadn’t been born with too-open eyes, but he hadn’t and he wasn’t one and he was goddamned tired of always losing out.
“I want him alive,” he muttered to Midnite. He blinked once.
crack in the door wards slip around them
Blinked twice, then shook himself. He glanced at the door, but that wasn’t the right one so that was pointless. John gave himself another shake and went over to the couch to pick up Balthazar. “Time to go.”
“Why?” Apparently the vision had been so fast Midnite had missed its signs.
“Because—” Both John and Midnite stiffened as something severely tested the wards at the front entrance. The floor shook a little, causing Balthazar to swear weakly and dig his nails into John’s shoulder. “Because you know what I said about bringing home another apocalypse?”
Midnite’s hand tightened on the skull he held; he was obviously debating whether to flee or to stay and fight. The floor shook again, hard enough to rattle the skulls still on the cabinet. With a wince, he put the one he had back and took up his cane. The emotion on his face was momentarily bare to the bloody bone and John actually felt a little pity for the other man.
“You should stop saying that sort of thing. It invites too much trouble,” Midnite snapped, turning around. “If we go, it should follow and leave this place intact.”
“That’s the game plan.” John hefted Balthazar up a few more inches so he could get his arm behind the other man’s legs. He took a deep breath, then swung Balthazar up and into his arms. “I’ve got an idea where the real grimoire might be, but I need peace and quiet to figure it out all the way.”
Hopefully Midnite knew of somewhere to go, because John wasn’t chancing even his apartment after the mess at the cathedral. If that and this bar wasn’t safe, then he had no idea what possibly could be, short of the Vatican.
Midnite’s lip curled and he abruptly stalked past John to the back-door, trailing a cloud of anger so thick a blind man could have tracked it. But he did it with purpose, which made John a little…not hopeful, because that was stupid. Expectant was a little safer.
* * *
Balthazar shivered and shoved his face further into John’s neck. “Can’t you turn on the heater?”
John ignored him. It was close to eighty degrees out and he’d already wrapped his coat around Balthazar. Though that didn’t seem to help, because he could tell where Balthazar’s hands were by the icy impressions they left against his shirt. “Midnite, are we going where I think we’re going?”
“You went to see Map. Corso should be contacting him if your theory’s correct,” Midnite said. He sounded like he was choking just to say Map’s name.
“And I thought the idea was to stay clear of them so I could figure out how to outsmart them.” They slowly turned the corner so the dying rays of the day limned John’s window in gold, blazing like the halos in medieval engravings. He threw up his arm, squinting against the glare, and glimpsed something dark flapping by the car. But when he took down his arm, it was gone.
Of course it was gone. So far Corso had been methodical and thorough, if less than neat about his kills, and so they couldn’t expect him to slip up now. He wasn’t like the usual half-breed, only concerned with soul-snaring and petty infighting…
John lowered his arm and pinched at the bridge of his nose, trying to remember. He shook Balthazar a little; the other man looked up with feverish red eyes. “Hey. You said Corso was like a half-breed.”
“What?” Normally a careful driver, Midnite nearly jumped the curb when he looked over. His lips thinned and he wrestled the car back onto the road, only to guide it to a stop before Map’s hang-out a few seconds later. “He’s not demonic. I wouldn’t have called you in if that were the case.”
“Which is why Balthazar here said he was like a half-breed, isn’t it? Goddamn it, Corso’s still fucking human. Right? That’s why he could get into the cathedral. He’s got one hell of a power toolbox thanks to Lou, but he’s still a mere mortal like the rest of us. Right? Balthazar—” John jogged him with an elbow.
Balthazar sank his nails into John’s arm. “What? What do you want me to say? ‘Yes, you brilliant man, you?’ I’m human right now. Things I used to be able to see are incoherent blurs because human eyes are worse than pieces of dog-shit. I don’t…I don’t know for sure.”
“Oh, for…nobody ever does. Just give me your best guess.” This was really, really a great time for Balthazar to be having an anxiety attack, John thought as he got out of the car. Corso was after their asses, the grimoire was somewhere in the middle of the Sierra Nevada, and…and the front door of the old brothel was gone.
No, that was wrong. The front door had been violently removed by something that had left scratch-marks thicker than John’s arm. The usual mix of drunken tittering and low menacing curses had been replaced by dead silence, and all the surrounding porches and balconies were devoid of the gaming, arguing, scheming near-beggars that should have populated them.
“Now?” Balthazar was saying. He’d flopped over onto the seat when John had climbed out so he couldn’t see outside, but he still probably could sense the mood.
John reached back into the car and felt over Balthazar till he found the right coat-pocket, from which he drew a rosary of worn wooden beads and his cigarette pack and lighter. He jiggled the beads while he and Midnite, who’d also gotten out, assessed the situation.
“In a couple minutes,” John finally decided. He let a couple beads slip through his fingers, then pressed the rosary into Balthazar’s hand.
Balthazar instinctively flinched. Then he slowly wrapped his fingers around it and John’s hand, a bitterly-amused look on his face. “This is too pathetic for words.”
Whether he was referring to how useless a rosary probably would be, how defenseless John and Midnite would be against anything waiting inside, or himself wasn’t clear, but what was clear was how incredibly pigheaded Balthazar was. He reminded John of the old men sitting in the corners of coffee-shops, dressed in dated clothes and forever maundering about the good old days. It got on John’s nerves. “So what? You want to die? Well, then you’ve got a choice between Hell and Heaven. You want to live, you put up with the shit.”
Midnite shut the door on his side and stepped forward so he could catch John’s eye across the bulk of the car. “Nothing living is in there. We should—”
Maybe give up ties so helpless little shits that weren’t quite that helpless couldn’t use them to strangle John down a foot. He got his hand up and clawed the knot down, twisted at Balthazar’s arm at the same time—which pulled Balthazar forward. In retrospect, that was exactly what Balthazar had wanted to happen, because the next thing John knew, the only reason his lower lip wasn’t stinging was because it’d been crushed numb. He shifted how he was pinning Balthazar to the side of the door so he could get a hand up and feel his mouth. It came away pretty damned bloody.
Balthazar still looked like shit, but the malicious gleam in his eyes was pretty lively, and the way he licked John’s blood off his lips was almost like his old self. “Sometimes…I think you like wallowing…in misery,” he gasped.
John felt one corner of his mouth twisting up even as his teeth gritted together. That was better—if he couldn’t count on a demon to fight like a bastard till the very end, then he might as well bite it himself. He let go of Balthazar’s arm and slowly dragged his hand down Balthazar’s side, curved it around Balthazar’s hip and rocked the heel of it right up against Balthazar’s prick. Leaned in to tap his tongue-tip against Balthazar’s mouth, then backed off so Balthazar had to come after him. Which Balthazar did, because there still was blood on John’s lip and he latched onto that, nursed it like a baby at a tit.
Midnite coughed loudly; rolling his eyes, John pulled Balthazar off. “All right, you think you could wait to croak till I’m around to see it?”
Balthazar’s reply was to drop like a rock onto the seat, exhaustion slurring his movements. But he felt a little bit warmer.
John dug out his shotgun from the duffel bag on the floor before he shut the door and joined Midnite in walking up the porch. He graciously let Midnite lead the way, since the other man had his cane with him and that could be used an infinite number of times, whereas John only had so many bullets.
“You’ve got an interesting idea of self-motivation,” Midnite said. Of course. He never could help getting in a dig at John.
“If it works, it works. Anyway, when he’s not comatose he’s better at fucking than Ellie.” The door was gone, but a large table had been flung up against the gap from the inside and something was holding it in place. When John tried to push it, enough of a reek came through the crack to tell him what that probably was. He pulled up his cuff and clamped the fabric over his nose, then looked at Midnite.
The other man seemed a little ill. “I hardly needed to know that.”
“The end of the world cometh, Midnite. I have to take my kicks where I can get them,” John said. He backed up and started to get himself braced for a literal kick.
Midnite shot him an aggrieved look, stepped in the way, and lifted his hands in a quirky little twist. The table obligingly slid to the right, then toppled with a deafening crash.
John had yanked up the shotgun to level it at the space that was revealed, but nothing sprang out. Not all that reassured, he kept it up as he stepped into the house.
Dead people. Lots of dying sticky stains on the walls, assorted shadowy body parts scattered over the floor. After one heave, John’s stomach settled down and allowed his brain to blend the grisly outlines into the shadows. Of course, Midnite went about prodding pieces with his cane without a single sign of discomfort. He wandered in a half-circle about the front room, then headed for the stairs.
“I suppose I believe you now,” Midnite muttered. “They were looking for information on the grimoire. The souls of these people say so.”
“How utterly fucking gracious of you. Now can we go? I don’t feel Map around, so either he’s dead or he’s gone, and no matter which, it’s pointless to hang around.” John reluctantly followed after the other man, walking sideways so he could watch behind them. Once he spotted something fluttering past a window and nearly shot it, but it was only a scrap of trash floating in the breeze. “Besides, we don’t even need him. I’m the one that can find the grimoire.”
But Midnite kept walking. He put one hand on the stairway railing and the other on his hat, holding it in place as he peered directly above. “So can Map. It’s why we parted ways.”
“Huh? But I asked him—”
“And he lied to you. He’s good enough to get away with that around you, but he knows where it is and he never would tell me. That’s why I was eager—foolishly so—when Corso came along with his offer.” It sounded like Midnite was still bitter about that. He thumped his cane hard on every step, like Death knocking.
John slowed down a little so he had room to swing the shotgun around. He wasn’t about to shoot Midnite, but he was beginning to be afraid he’d have to knock the guy on the head a couple times. “Wait, what did you want with it again?”
“Again? I don’t believe I ever said why the first time. The grimoire’s an object of great power, John—power aside from the latent power of the spells written in it. It is said that in his wisdom, Solomon asked God to curse any other who attempted to read it so no one would ever be able to abuse its power,” Midnite said. The timbre of his voice deepened and softened. He took each step more slowly, till they were just about crawling up the stairs. “The last one who reportedly attempted it was the archive guardian, who wished to force man into obedience to God.”
“The crazy angel?” Normally John would be prodding Midnite to go after, but in this case, slow was good. Slow gave him time to think about whether he really would have to concuss Midnite, who was starting to sound a little unhinged.
Though the wince Midnite made was all him. “Yes, him. Solomon’s grimoire holds the key to rule over the earth, which is supposed to be beyond rule—free will.”
“And that explains Corso—Lou’s taking a page from his son’s book and naturally hired Corso to find the book. But that doesn’t explain you,” John said. Now they were on the second floor and cautiously edging towards the room Map had been using the last time John had visited.
“It’s a thing that shouldn’t be in this world. It holds too much power. I wanted to destroy it,” Midnite replied. “Map thought it should be kept hidden, but untouched. He insisted that God must have brought it into this world to balance some great evil also here, and to destroy it would be to upset the balance.”
That…made sense. More sense than Map’s pat little reasoning had. John turned his gun away from Midnite. “Kind of late to be worrying about that happening, isn’t it?”
“Exactly my line of thought. And thank you for lowering the shotgun, John…” Midnite turned around. His eyes widened and he threw up his hands.
John instinctively ducked and flipped the shotgun around to shoot blindly behind himself. There was a gurgle and then a loud thud as something fell literally at his heels; he leaped back from a light touch along his calf, then turned around to see what it was. For a moment he just had to stare.
“Fuck,” he said.