|Snap VII: Devilish Little Typos
Author: Guede Mazaka
Corso had a room at the back. Getting to it from the front would’ve involved walking through the lobby and taking the elevator without somehow getting noticed by the hotel staff. On any other day, Midnite could’ve done it, but not with crusts of gore still beneath his fingernails and dust all over his suit. And that just wasn’t John’s style, even when he didn’t have a cigarette dangling from his lip that was expressly forbidden by the neat little signs all over the place.
They didn’t say anything about the former demon hanging off his arm, but he had a feeling Balthazar didn’t fit the dress code either. “It’s too bad you can’t flip to breasts without passing out right now. You’re cutting off the circulation in my arm,” John muttered.
Balthazar didn’t loosen up. He just stared up the back wall of the hotel, eyes flicking from balcony to balcony. “It feels like an ordinary building to me.”
“It feels the same to me,” Midnite said. His tone made it clear that he didn’t find this reassuring in the least. “John, I hope you aren’t improvising again.”
“Me? Of course not.” John was just waiting to see what was going on before he solidified any plans. Since they couldn’t do that effectively from down on the ground, he started walking towards the back-door.
It was one of those places where every outside door aside from the lobby had a card-swipe lock on it. Sighing, he shouldered Balthazar off to the wall and held out his hand towards Midnite. “You have a credit card or anything?”
Midnite barely didn’t roll his eyes and waved a charm made of human fingerbones at the lock. It wasn’t the Hand of Glory, but it worked just as well: the little light changed from amber to green. With a last look at John, Midnite pulled open the door and stalked inside.
“There’s more than one way to pick a fucking lock.” John yanked Balthazar off the wall and dragged him after the other man. They moved cautiously at first, but picked up a little speed after it was clear Corso hadn’t set any warning spells down here.
“Johnny, I need to—” Balthazar was hissing.
They were just passing a set of public bathrooms, which was convenient. He stopped where he was, then turned around and hauled Balthazar towards the men’s room. He was pushing open the door when Midnite noticed and came back to glower at him.
“What are you doing?” he hissed.
“Well, we can’t leave Balthazar in the car again, but he looks like shit. I was going to splash water at his face, smack some red back into his cheeks. You know, neaten him up.” None of this seemed to sound very appealing to Balthazar, but John couldn’t have cared less. He got his arm around Balthazar like he was trying to support more of Balthazar’s weight—which he was now, but the change in position also had the effect of smashing Balthazar’s indignant muttering into John’s shoulder. “You go on ahead. Corso probably thinks this’ll be a bargaining session anyway and that’s your line of work.”
Midnite was unconvinced. “And what bargaining stance am I supposed to take?”
“I don’t know—be territorial and pissed-off. Say he’s fucking with your clientele by killing them off. Read him the riot act. You’re good at that.” Weak as Balthazar was, his teeth hadn’t dulled. They were sinking straight through John’s shirt and that was starting to get on his nerves. “I’ll be up in a while.”
“You mean you want me to stall while you go off and wreak mischief,” Midnite dryly observed.
Rolling his eyes, John kicked open the bathroom door and jerked Balthazar inside. He had to wonder if it’d occurred to anyone else that they’d get a lot more done and done sooner if everyone stopped being so nitpicky and just did what he said. “Fine. Yeah, I want you to go distract Corso so I can fuck around. So will you go now?”
Shockingly enough, Midnite nodded and left. For a moment John had to stand and stare, because bare honesty usually didn’t get him that kind of reaction. Midnite must have been a lot more worried than he’d been letting on.
Well, it wasn’t something John could do much about, since Midnite definitely was not the kind of guy you tried to boost with a pep-talk. The man should be able to handle himself, which left John free to…wrestle Balthazar into one of the stalls. He shoved the man down on the toilet and locked the door, then leaned against it. The duffel bag he’d also been carrying went on the floor between them.
“Now’s not really the time, even if I had the inclination,” Balthazar wearily said. He slumped against the toilet tank, pulling John’s coat closer around himself.
“Get your mind out of the gutter. Honestly. We just fucked next to a corpse—you can’t be wanting the next round already.” John pulled off his tie and wadded it up before stuffing it in his coat pocket. He pulled his shirt out of his trousers as well, then pried one half of his coat from Balthazar’s grip so he could dig in the inner pockets.
He didn’t come up with anything useful. There still was the shotgun, but John only had a few bullets left and anyway, that wasn’t going to be any good against what Corso could bring up. With the proper preparation, the angel-wings might have, but of course they didn’t have time to pluck all the feathers and dry the wing-muscles over a mix of incenses and precious woods. John flapped his coat back at Balthazar with a disgusted sigh.
“You don’t really have a plan, do you?” Balthazar rested his head against the side of the stall and closed his eyes. “You’re just hoping Midnite can pull a rabbit out of his hat, like when you let him drive us to Map.”
John ignored him and looked around the bathroom, checking out the décor. The hallway had been done in the same general color scheme of faded antique reds and browns, with one running theme being the dark-stained wood molding that ran around the edge of the ceiling. It had a pretty distinct pattern that resembled hundreds of ugly little faces if looked at slantwise. He’d never been here before, but he’d seen that molding—about two hours ago, while standing on the porch of Map’s house.
“…how that ended up, with some insane angel muttering about ripping up pages of horrors before smashing through a windshield,” Balthazar was saying.
But the room John had seen in his vision hadn’t been the dusty one of previous visions, though it was definitely more sparsely furnished than this bathroom. Maybe a basement or a storage room—wait. “What? He said what?”
He leaned down and jiggled Balthazar by the chin till the other man looked up, startled. “What?”
“What did the angel say? What were you saying about pages of horrors?” John asked sharply.
Balthazar blinked. Afterward, his gaze was a good deal more shrewd, though it still was dulled with exhaustion. “That he’d read some book and found it, and then he tore it out to hide it. John. Why did the angel go mad?”
“Midnite says it’s because he read that goddamned grimoire,” John muttered. Well, that changed everything…and it changed nothing. He braced himself against the wall, concentrated and shifted. After taking a long breath, he opened his eyes and spent a few moments getting used to the different body structure, moving his weight from one foot to the other. “That’d explain why I heard it was in North Carolina and you said it stayed with the Spanish missions. It’s in two parts. Corso’s got one, but he needs both.”
“Now you’re saying he does have something.” It figured that no matter how sick Balthazar got, he’d still be well enough to annoy the shit out of John. “Were you lying about what you saw in your last vision?”
John reached down and retrieved the duffel bag, slinging it over his shoulder. His breasts swung and bounced as he moved, creating a constant sense of imbalance that was almost more distracting than Balthazar. But seeing as the goddamned visions hadn’t warned him to pack a bra, he’d just have to put up with the damned nonsense.
Balthazar kicked at him. The bastard actually kicked at him. Maybe the effort turned Balthazar grey in the face, but that didn’t satisfy John all that much. “You did. What did you see, damn it? You’re not leaving me here till you tell—”
He winced and jerked back from the sharp smack to the knee John gave him, but only so he could use the recoil to swing him to where he could latch onto John’s sleeve. A couple pulls told John that ‘death-grip’ wasn’t just a metaphor, so he reluctantly turned back. “I saw another fucking grimoire, okay? In a nicer room, but it still looked like a basement.”
“Which this hotel happens to have,” Balthazar replied, grating the corners roughly off each word. He tightened his grip. “I think I could find the room for you.”
“Sure, and I’m going to drag you around while looking like this, and nobody’ll notice. I’m already pushing it by hoping I’ll be different enough as a woman to not ping Corso’s wards—at least, not right away. You’d be like taking around a—”
“You are not leaving me here.” Balthazar’s grip on John’s sleeve was so hard his knuckles seemed ready to burst from his skin. His hand had taken on a slight shaking and his eyes had violently darkened. “I’ll—”
John wrenched his hand free, but almost immediately had to grab for Balthazar. He pushed him back onto the toilet before reaching for the door-lock. “For God’s sake, he’s got no reason to come after you, and anyway you can barely keep up with me.”
“Does anyone else do better?” Balthazar snapped.
Ironically enough, no. But John had already commented a thousand times on how unfair it was that the one that’d fit his life best was a bitchy little former half-breed who used to spend his spare time killing off John’s friends. There wasn’t much point in dwelling on it now. Especially since they were losing time; Midnite could keep up the imperious bullshit pretty well, but he couldn’t do it forever.
“Well, someone has to stay here and make sure Corso thinks I’m babysitting you,” he told Balthazar.
That didn’t go over well, but Balthazar backed off. His selfishness didn’t completely drown out his sense of self-preservation. “What am I supposed to do? Bang the walls and moan?”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something,” John said, throwing a too-bright smile Balthazar’s way. He stepped out just as Balthazar’s nails raked across the back of the door.
* * *
A way into the basement was easy to find, but all it seemed to hold were laundry and bulk storage rooms. John prowled around looking for hints of magic, spell remnants, but all he saw was the occasional stiff-faced maid carrying sheets or cleaning bottles around. The hotel wasn’t all that big, so even having to dodge the staff, he managed to circle the entire basement in about fifteen minutes.
He stopped near a spot that, if he’d kept track of his position correctly, should be right under Corso’s room and started to pull out a cigarette. Then he shoved it back and only refrained from smacking himself because he was running out of time. If Balthazar had an idea of where the room was, then obviously it was going to be lower than the public levels.
Most of the basement floor was solid concrete, but one quarter—the part John was standing on—was wooden. He dug in his pocket, but he’d forgotten to take back the rosary from Balthazar. Luckily, dowsing implements didn’t have to be all that fancy; he took out a cigarette and lit it, muttering over the tip. Then he held it out and watched which way the smoke moved.
A couple moments later, he was kneeling on the floor behind tall stacks of toilet-paper rolls, his bag beside him, and tracing out a trapdoor with his fingertips. The area all around it had a thin layer of dust on it, but the trapdoor itself had been freshly wiped. Around its edges were scribbles of a dark, sticky-looking residue that John was careful to avoid touching. The wards on the door were very thick, but so well-done that they couldn’t be felt unless you practically had your nose in them. They were also very complicated and couldn’t be undone without anyone noticing unless John wanted to spend a couple weeks down here.
John gazed around himself, then up at the ceiling. So far nothing out of the ordinary had happened, so he had to assume that things were going his way upstairs. He checked his cigarette; it was almost gone, so he put it out and lighted another one, which he stuck in his mouth. Then he rolled up his sleeves, took a long drag, and slammed his forearms together and on top of the trapdoor.
He didn’t have time to get into the incantation. He barely had time to throw out his arms to catch himself as the damned thing just blew.
It sent John sprawling backwards over his duffel bag, eyes shut just as wood splinters shot at them. He ducked his head so most of them went past him, but a couple stabbed into his face. Soon as things settled down, he pulled out one from near his temple and another one from his chin, which took a little working to get out.
The damned door had blown out his cigarette. John spat it to the side and got out his lighter and pack before he stopped, staring at the hole. That should’ve taken more effort.
He rolled onto his feet and cautiously peered down to see a room that was identical to the one in his vision, right down to the six-foot tattered book lying on a table that was directly below the hole. Then he turned around.
“Mr. Constantine,” Corso said in a genial tone. He was holding his own cigarette, unlighted, the way an aristocratic lady might’ve just before she stabbed it into the arm of her slave-girl. He was also holding a gun. It wasn’t all that big, but it looked like it could get the job done. “Or would it be Miss, given the circumstances?”
On his right was Balthazar, leaning against the wall and looking exhausted and pale and smug. “It’s Johnny either way. I wouldn’t bother with the courtesy title,” he dryly suggested.
John considered the situation for a couple seconds. A little bit of blood had beaded up beneath his chin and he absently wiped it off; Balthazar’s eyes briefly flicked to it. Then he shrugged and lit his cigarette. “Let me guess. Balthazar was a…what is it now…three-timing piece of shit and offered to cut a deal with you?”
“He did have some interesting information.” Corso followed John’s glance to the ceiling and gently smiled. He adjusted his glasses. “Your friend Midnite is fine. He’s deep in a haggling session with a very fine simulacrum of me. I’m a bit pleased but, I have to confess, not that shocked that he hasn’t yet noticed.”
“Well, shit. Midnite really needs to take a vacation, do Haiti for a month and get his groove back or something, because lately he’s just been making slip-up after slip-up,” John said, holding out his lighter.
After putting up a hand to refuse, Corso took out his own lighter. The flame came with a faint hint of brimstone that made Balthazar’s nose wrinkle slightly. “Now, Johnny. I understand you’ve got a notion that Solomon’s grimoire has actually been split in two. Not only that, but you know where the other one is.”
John had to raise his eyebrows at that, because Balthazar knew damned well that John didn’t have useful directions to the place. Little bastard had been playing it up, of course.
“You’ve seen the part I have. It’s been rebound, but it is definitely incomplete, and I don’t think I have to tell you that the whole grimoire would be vastly more valuable,” Corso went on. He gestured at the hole. “I could reward you handsomely.”
“I can’t really bring myself to believe that.” One long suck as John pulled his sleeves back down, and then he lifted his head to meet Corso’s puzzled look. “Come on. Lou’s not going to let me off the hook—not after what I did to him last time. And you’re his point-man, aren’t you?”
Corso’s smile widened a little. “You could consider me his representative.”
John produced his own smile. “Glad we got that cleared up. Now, you can take your offer and shove it up your stiff ass. I don’t and never did deal with Lou. Or his goddamned minions.”
The smile on Corso’s face dropped right off. He glanced at Balthazar, who gave a little shrug. “I told you. I might be slower to find it, but at least I know where my best interests lie,” he said, looking pointedly at John.
“I see…” Corso took the cigarette from his mouth and dropped it on the floor, where he ground it out with his shoe-heel. Then he raised his gun a few inches.
“You don’t actually think that’s going to be enough, do you?” John kept smoking and tried to estimate how far the drop behind him was without actually turning to look at it. The way he remembered it, it was about five feet to the table: not that bad, but if he missed the edge, he’d stand a pretty good chance breaking his neck.
Not that that was new. He took a last pull on his cigarette before flicking it away, reset his shoulders and rotated his head a couple times. Being a polite kind of guy, Corso considerately waited. “No, but it should hold you off long enough for me to do this—”
The other man reached into his coat and then jerked out his hand in a throwing motion. A glittering arc of powder followed his hand, spreading outwards into flames so intense that John felt the air being sucked past him into it.
He threw up his hands, which was stupid since he’d promptly jumped backward into the hole and needed his hands for balance. John clawed outward and just barely grazed the edge of the hole with his fingertips, which swung him around enough for him to land mostly feet-first on the table. His ankles went numb, then seemed to balloon with pain.
The whole thing rocked with a vengeance so he slipped and went down hard to one knee. His palms hit the book and threw up a thick, choking cloud of dust; rapidly shaking his head, John rolled to the side and down. He looked up.
All of the flames had passed overhead, but they’d caught on something because he could hear loud crackling and feel the heat. And something else—some kind of struggle.
“John! Get back up here, you—” Balthazar’s voice drifted off into a pained gasp. Another burst of scuffling covered up whatever he said next.
It sounded like they had moved away from the hole, so John climbed back onto the table and reached for the edge. The gap turned out to be at least seven feet, which was too tall for him to just reach and he didn’t have time to change to his taller male form.
His ankles bitched again, but the book had cushioned his landing pretty well, so he didn’t feel bad about gritting his teeth and jumping; his foot caught on something and he kicked out till it fell over with a thump. He got a good grip on the edge and swung his arm over, then squirmed till he was all the way over.
John was just in time to see Balthazar wrench the rosary so hard about Corso’s throat that the string broke. Balthazar swore and tried to throw his weight higher up onto Corso’s back, but Corso twisted and flung him off. Corso’s glasses were shattered, their wire frame twisted so they dangled from one ear. If Midnite hadn’t noticed what was going on in the basement, he had to now with all the power flickering in and out of Corso.
He went down again as Balthazar kicked free of him, then reared back up. His neck was banded with angry red, but his eyes were even redder. He slashed a handful of long claws at John, who ducked and rolled to grab his duffel, then kept on going till he ran up against a crate. John ripped at the zipper till it was down and he could reach in for the shotgun. He started to bring it up, but Corso lunged too quickly and John ended up having to belt the man aside. Intense heat seared past John’s left side and he instinctively threw himself the other way, landing half-on something soft and cursing.
“Do you know how fucking expensive that rosary was?” John hissed, shoving Balthazar out of the way. He tried to take aim at Corso again, but Corso had also swung around and John ended up smashing at his face with the shotgun butt again. Something white and black flapped up in John’s face; he nearly shot that before he realized it was just ripped and charred pieces of his shirt flipping around.
“‘Thank you, Balthazar, for taking the worse deal and helping out’—move!” The sarcasm in Balthazar’s voice screeched to alarm. Balthazar slammed his elbow hard into John’s side, spinning him painfully about.
Corso wasn’t there, but a black mist was. Fortunately, Corso had already ripped open one of John’s sleeves; tearing open the other cuff took one second. John shoved up his arms and shouted a counter-incantation, hoping the blackness hadn’t grown too large yet.
At first he thought it would be: the darkness spiraled down towards his arms, but not quickly enough to keep tendrils of it from reaching for him. He jerked around, doing his best to avoid their cold, cold touches, but it wasn’t working fast enough.
And then the mist shuddered, as if it were a living being. Sudden as a gunshot, it turned brittle, then shattered apart. John glanced behind himself at Balthazar, but Balthazar was stretched out on the floor, face grey and mouth wide-open in great heaving gasps. He shoved John again. “Shoot!”
John whipped back around and brought down his arms, put up the shotgun. This time, he got off a shot, but not to a vital area. Corso was still moving too fast, no matter what was fucking around with his spells.
The shot went somewhere in his leg, which brought him down, but didn’t seem to incapacitate him too much. He immediately rolled over and gashed a long cut in John’s pant-leg, then swiped higher. John shoved the shotgun forward horizontally just in time to gag Corso’s suddenly fang-infested mouth. They teetered in balance for a few seconds, but then the metal began to bend.
“Corso!” Balthazar had gotten somebody’s lighter and crawled with it to the edge of the trapdoor, where he was holding it over the hole. If he dropped it, the book would go up like a bonfire.
Corso was distracted just long enough for John to get his knee under him. One sharp push and Corso went flying; John dove forward and grabbed Balthazar’s ankle just as Corso slammed into Balthazar, then toppled into the hole. He would’ve taken Balthazar with him if John hadn’t dragged Balthazar back.
“You fucking son of a—” John started.
He was interrupted by a…a…
It involved a blinding column of light streaming from the room below, a scream that shook even John’s hardened bones, and the smell of crisped flesh. John searched around till he’d found a rosary bead and tossed it into the hole. Instead of a sharp plink or even a dull plonk, he heard the same sound a drop of water made when it hit a pond. Apparently Corso plus lighter plus part of Solomon’s grimoire equaled enough of a trigger for some spell to work.
“What page did you open it to?” Balthazar asked in a faint voice. He’d collapsed over John’s legs and didn’t seem inclined to get up.
“How should I know? It wasn’t like I was looking when I kicked it—and you!” John twisted his shoulders, took a deep breath as his chest flattened, and then jerked Balthazar up by the arms. “You little fuck! You—”
Balthazar’s eyes fluttered weakly. His head lolled with however John happened to be shaking him, though his fingers reached out to feebly clutch at John’s shirt. “Don’t give me that. You knew. That’s why you left me in the bathroom. How did you—”
“…you left me hanging for a fucking long time,” John said a little more calmly. He loosened up on Balthazar, who promptly flopped forward. With a sigh, John pulled Balthazar closer and got them both up on their feet. “He said you could come back to the fold, no more punishments, didn’t he?”
Instead of answering, Balthazar moved his face till he was pressing it into John’s neck. He took a couple deep breaths.
“Someday I’m going to hear you admit it. You like this life better than your last one. Not that Lou, for all his centuries, is ever going to understand that.” John looked around, but didn’t see or hear anyone coming their way, so he stood in place. He was still a little out of breath and needed the break.
“You hesitated enough times. I don’t see why you’re complaining,” Balthazar muttered. “And regarding your complaint about faithfulness…never mind, that can wait. Corso was remarkably…weak.”
Footsteps were coming from the right, accompanied by a third tapping. After a moment, John remembered Midnite’s cane. “Balthazar, Midnite’s been messing around with zombies since his daddy gave him his first little plastic shovel. You don’t actually think he’d be fooled by a simulacrum, do you?”
“No,” Midnite said, rounding the corner. Soot covered his torn clothes, and he’d wrapped up one hand in a rag. His hat was askew and dented, but the half-irritated, half-interested look on his face hadn’t changed. “I’d like to know how you knew that Dean would split his powers like that, and that I’d be distracting the simulacrum while you had the real man.”
“Well, it’s a pretty good explanation for how he could be killing everyone without your spies noticing. You tagged the real one, so the real one stayed put. The fake one went out and did the dirty work; simulacra can walk into cathedrals like ordinary people, too.” And that was the truth: John had worked it out on the way over, because for all his faults, Midnite was still a very skilled magus and it was hard to get things past him. Corso just being a very, very smart human wouldn’t have been enough. But the guess about who’d get who had just been a hunch, figuring that Corso would dislike Midnite enough to want the added bragging rights for fooling the man. Most of Midnite’s business partners were like that.
John hefted Balthazar up again, then frowned and looked closely at the other man’s eyes. Their dullness wasn’t only surface-deep anymore. “Balthazar?”
Balthazar needed a visible effort to focus on John. Whatever strength the adrenaline of the fight had lent him, it was fast disappearing. Damn it. If there was one thing John was tired of, it was having people die on him right after he’d won the damned fight. “Midnite, we need to—”
Midnite was peering into the hole. “We need to go. The book’s so badly burnt it’s useless. I set a temporary spell so no one would notice us, but it won’t last for long. The ashes will have to wait.”
“Fuck the goddamned ashes—” John spat, glancing over the edge himself. His eyeballs suddenly exploded—
--or had felt like they had for too damned long. His vision came back into the dark and John almost panicked before he realized he’d just shoved his face down into Balthazar’s hair. He lifted it to see Midnite staring hard at him.
“I know where the rest of that goddamned grimoire is,” John said. He looked down into the hole again, and this time he picked out a strangely-shaped coil of a hump in the crisped papers. “And we’re going to need that key. It must have been hidden inside the book…”
Midnite started to say something, but stopped and instead surveyed the situation. Balthazar couldn’t stand without John holding onto him. John needed both hands to do that, and also had to stay where he was.
“I’ll hold your cane,” John sarcastically offered.
Midnite grunted irritably and firmly tucked the item in question under his arm. He looked at the hole again, then sighed and leaped down into it.