|Alliance II: Insurrection
Author: Guede Mazaka
Dwight’s idea of cleaning up the bathroom was using newspapers to rub away the blood, then making a bonfire of the rags and paper in the tub. Once he’d done that, he walked back out to make sure the window was open. He took off his coat along the way and slung it over a chair so John could see there were bits of wood sticking to it.
“Isn’t the smoke alarm disabled?” John asked. He waved his cigarette for emphasis.
“It is, but I don’t like sitting in a room full of smoke. And use an ashtray—last thing I need is for my apartment to go up in flames.” All that was visible of Dwight was his back, and talented man that he was, he made sure that didn’t change as he went back into the bathroom. The crackling flames leaped up before him, an optical illusion making them look as if they were curling about his body to reach for John.
John thought about pointing out the hypocrisy in Dwight’s statement, but decided to listen to his sense of self-preservation for once and didn’t. He grudgingly dragged over a trashcan with his foot and tapped off the ash into that. “So?”
“So you can’t stay here for too long and your problem has to be solved fast. We’re in the middle of our own war,” Dwight said.
Balthazar pulled his wrist out of John’s grip and rolled over to rest his chin on his hands. He shifted slightly away from John when he thought John wasn’t looking, and slightly towards John when he caught John looking. The end result was that he fidgeted back and forth over a range of about six inches, trying to look casual and only making it even more obvious how off-balance he was. “Is that why you smell like fresh blood?”
The color scheme of the world momentarily slanted towards red. Then Dwight turned around to look at John. “Is he always this—”
“Yeah.” John whacked at Balthazar, but the bastard was a little too quick. Though from the grimace on his face, moving that fast probably hurt him just as much. A good thing, since John was already frustrated enough by Dwight’s reticence. “So are we talking, or are we just pretending to so you can go to sleep feeling you’ve done right by me?”
Dwight took down the showerhead and turned on the water to put out the fire. “About your cancer. I might--might--be able to do something about that. But it’s just something I’ve heard of. Never done it myself.”
Everyone said hope was a flower, or a soap bubble or something sentimental and fragile like that. They were wrong: it was a monster with claws that leaped up in John’s chest and slammed hard against the inside of his ribs so he had to wrap an arm around himself. Thank God he was a smoker, because finishing off his cigarette gave him enough time to make sure he wouldn’t sound like the desperate fuck he was when he answered. “That can’t be the only catch.”
“Do you know how bloodmagic works?” The water fwished and splattered as Dwight moved the showerhead around the tub, rinsing down the ashes. He reached over his shoulder and kneaded at the back of his neck, as if he had a tension headache. “Because frankly, I don’t know that much. What I do know—the more you kill, the stronger you get. The stronger you kill, the stronger you get. What you’d want me to do has to do with life, and that’s the exact opposite of bloodmagic.”
“You’re preaching to the wrong person,” Balthazar dryly said. He’d snaked around to John’s back and now he was patting at John’s shoulder, condescending and gentle as a nun in a Catholic school. “Johnny doesn’t care. He’s the best show in L. A. if you want to observe the dregs of human intelligence.”
John’s first grab missed, but after so long fighting Balthazar, he knew better to rely only on that. He twisted around fast to catch Balthazar retreating and seized him by the neck, smothering his struggling with pure weight. Balthazar got a leg free and kneed John to the side, but John’s lower half was still on him and he couldn’t get loose before John had wrenched around and beneath, wrapping his arms around Balthazar’s to lock them up against Balthazar’s chest. Then he would’ve thrown Balthazar out the window, except his breath wasn’t quite catching up to him and sheer terror at the prospect of another attack held John back.
“He’d better, because if it doesn’t work he’s dead faster and more painfully than the cancer would do it. And as for you—” When Dwight came out and saw them, he needed a moment. He spent it leaning against the doorframe and rolling his eyes. “—well, first of all, I don’t think cuddling Constantine is a good position from which to talk about self-destruction. Secondly, you’re in the shit. There’s no balance here, so you’re fair game to everyone.”
Soon as they had a moment alone, John was going to have a couple words with Dwight about his smart mouth. Yes, Balthazar was more or less hugged up to him, and yes, Dwight had walked in on them twice, but there had been and were extenuating circumstances. And mostly John just hated whatever intuition let Dwight keep stepping into these situations.
But not quite as much as he did Balthazar, who had suddenly relaxed and was now damn near snuggling. He even rubbed his cheek along John’s jaw, stretching to follow when John jerked away. “What do you mean, no balance? Heaven and hell don’t simply cease to exist for certain places.”
“They might as well here.” Dwight watched Balthazar’s abrupt about-face with a humorless half-smile on his face, reading something in it that John didn’t see at all. He pulled a rag from his pocket and used it to clean beneath his nails. “I mean, nobody cares. Or maybe no one likes this place enough to bother. You and Gabriel are the first half-breeds to walk in here in years. Outsiders don’t have to come—Basin City breeds its own monsters, and they don’t fight for any side except their own. I never even heard of the balance before I went to L. A.”
The slight push of hips back against John’s groin was the last straw; he shoved Balthazar away from him and got off the damn bed before the snickering son of a bitch could snap any more of his nerves. As he stood, his vision briefly went fuzzy and his breath came short. His sweat froze on his skin, but John willed himself to stay calm and just breathe through it. Second breath came easier, looser, and he untensed. “Yeah, I noticed that the last time I came in. You’ve got something weird here, you know. Gets hungry every thirty years or so.”
“Hungry?” Deep interest flashed across Dwight’s face before being buried in faked indifference. Well-faked, but still, that was definitely one way to keep him listening.
“I was doing some reading in the newspaper backfiles.” Shrugging, John wandered over to the doorway to the main room. Halfway there he glanced back at Balthazar, but Balthazar was still on the bed. When he saw John looking, he swirled his tongue slowly over his lips so John looked away that much quicker. “You guys have a hell of a lot of deaths, but every so often you have a really, really big group of them all at once. Tenement fire. Highway collapse. Psychotic family wiping out a couple dozen people. Last one was thirty-three years ago.”
John got to the door and took up a pose similar to Dwight’s, with his back to the frame. Now to see whether Dwight would open up any.
Maybe it would’ve been a better idea to wait till they’d gotten away from Balthazar, but beggars couldn’t be choosers and John had no idea when one of Dwight’s girlfriends might walk in. They didn’t seem to be too deep into the magic end of the cesspool and Dwight had made it clear he didn’t want them educated about it, so talking in front of them was out. Anyway, it might also be fun to see what Balthazar made of all this; he’d certainly try to use it in his own ploys, but he was somewhat predictable that way. And for the moment, he needed Dwight as much as John did.
Several minutes went by while Dwight cleaned his nails. He threw the rag into the sink, then crossed the bedroom to flop into a chair. His hand came up to pinch at the bridge of his nose and his shoulders slumped. “It’s a problem,” he said quietly. “There aren’t enough rapists, psychos, what-have-you coming into town to keep it down. If I fed it Wallenquist and his men, that’d be enough. Or if I fed it you, or Balthazar. You’ve both got enough power by yourselves.”
“Though as far as I know, I’ve never hurt anyone in this town.” Balthazar spoke lightly, but the muscles in his back and legs had tensed up, and he was watching Dwight very closely.
Dwight wasn’t an everyday Good Samaritan, and the way he met Balthazar’s stare didn’t pretend to be. That half-smile of his got a little bit sharper. “Good,” he said.
“Or you could feed it Gabriel. He’d probably do it for the rest of your lifetime, at least.” A cough sneaked past John’s guard and he clapped a hand to his mouth. When he took it away, he was shaking until he saw that no blood had come up.
Wincing, Dwight leaned forward and spread his knees. He rested his arms on his thighs and looked up at John the way doctors did when they were trying to explain bad news in a way too complicated for the patient to fully understand until after they were out of the room. “John, I don’t know if I’ve said this yet, but I’m not God. I can protect you two as long as you stay in—as long as you’re in this building, because I’m not sure about Old Town right now. I might know a way to fix your lungs. But if everything was that easy for me, then I wouldn’t still be having problems with Wallenquist, would I?”
“There’s precedent.” Surprisingly enough, it was Balthazar who interrupted first. Of course he had to take a moment to smirk at getting in before John, but he made it a short one. Then he was back to explaining to Dwight, and he actually looked earnest about it.
Then again, he did have a hell of a grudge to take up with Gabriel. But John wasn’t all that reassured.
“Angels fall. Lucifer, obviously, but half-breeds will too,” Balthazar said. “Once that happens, they’re not much stronger than people.”
“But try getting the good Lord’s attention long enough to knock them over the edge,” John snorted. The first rays of dawn were beginning to slide over the windowsill, painting the floor in anemic shades of yellow and beige that made him drowsy just by looking at them. He meant to take a deep breath to counteract that, but instead that turned into a yawn. “Fuck. Gabriel was working out of L. A. till yesterday. He’s got to have slipped up somewhere. Let me just call—”
Dwight rubbed at his face again, and suddenly John noticed how bloodshot the other man’s eyes were. And how grey his face was beneath his tan, and how generally worn-out he seemed to be. He looked almost as bad as John did. “Not here. There’s a payphone on the corner. It—well, it’s day now. Things almost always happen at night around here.”
“Just don’t stand too close to the curb,” Balthazar called. “Or else somebody might try to pick you up.”
John flipped him the finger with gusto on his way out. First Chas to make sure the kid was back in L. A. and free for errands—no, actually, John could send him straight to Hennessey’s, see if anything had turned up while John had been gone. Then Midnite, if he was up yet. And then get that Miho girl back to babysit Balthazar so John could get Dwight on his own so they could talk more.
“And nap,” John muttered as another yawn took him over. The air rasped his lungs and something caught—he grabbed the rail and bent over, wheezing. After a moment, there was a splat on the landing a story below. He yanked himself back from the edge and hurried down the stairs, suddenly cold again. He didn’t look to see what color his spit was.
* * *
Dwight would be busy, Miho knew, so she headed for Gail’s apartment instead. Usually Gail was in at this time, but today she must have felt too antsy to turn in, for all the rooms were empty and had been so for the whole night. The clothes thrown over various pieces of furniture smelled of stale sweat and come, and the spaghetti and meatballs left on the kitchen counter had had time to form thick orange clumps of grease in the sauce.
Miho needed to let someone know that Gabriel was in town so they could start thinking about how to deal with Wallenquist and him. She also needed to sleep and eat.
She sat on Gail’s bed and reviewed her options. She knew Dwight would be home, but he badly needed to get his affairs in order. As good as he was, he had a tipping point and she’d seen it in action. Too much and he panicked, let his nerves drop something. So far he’d been able to recover in time, but with a matter like this Miho preferred to have the smallest margin of error. Gail would have to come in sometime soon, if only because she needed to change her clothes for ones that didn’t smell of blood. She was more high-strung and dramatic than Dwight, but she had less on the side to worry her.
Once in a while Miho missed Marv. She and he hadn’t crossed paths too often, but he could always be depended upon to carry out a chore without losing his focus.
She shrugged and unhooked her swords from her sash. Then she laid down and curled herself around them, settling in for a short nap. If Gail wasn’t back in an hour, then Miho would go to Dwight and make the best of what was available.
* * *
Dwight’s shoulders and back felt like someone was slowly replacing his bones with lead. His head hurt, his eyes were burning at the corners every time he blinked, and he was having problems with keeping one thought hooked up to another. There still was a blackish residue in the bottom of his bathtub that he needed to get rid of, Miho should be back soon with news, and deep down in his gut a craving that wasn’t his was fraying his nerves. So he needed to kill someone soon.
Ever since Damien Lord, it seemed like all Dwight ever did was kill people. Except for Lord—the innocent on Dwight’s conscience—he didn’t mind it morally, because they’d all been murderers and rapists, but the sheer quantity sometimes got to him. He used to have stains on his fingertips from the darkroom chemicals, but all that had gone out the window; he didn’t even bother with point-and-shoot cameras anymore. No, now the stains on his hands were blood traces that never went away no matter how hard he scrubbed, and cameras were something he avoided because his life did, in fact, depend on flying beneath everyone’s radar.
“Healing his lungs. That certainly will ingratiate you with Johnny. Though I’m not sure I’d recommend his way of showing his gratitude. An awful lot of his friends end up dead,” came a purr from the bed.
Dwight cracked open an eye and looked over Balthazar. John had left bruises all over Balthazar’s neck and wrists, and more shadowy patches were visible through Balthazar’s sleeves. Normal bruises weren’t actually black, but ranged from greenish to deep purple; with his fair skin, Balthazar should have had bluish ones. Of course, the skin currently covering him had been created through abnormal channels, so Dwight supposed it’d make sense for the bruises to be ink-black. “And if he’s planning to sell me out like you love implying, then he can’t do it.”
“Did I ever say that?” Balthazar slowly collapsed to the side with his arms stretched out, wrists crossed over each other. He raised his eyebrows.
He wasn’t too bad at this. Damned obvious, but also damned effective. Or maybe that was just because Dwight was so tired and still had to be thinking about so much at once. “No. Which is why I said ‘implied.’ Now, I’m curious as to what you’ll ask for.”
When Balthazar shrugged, his shirt bunched up around his neck. The top few buttons weren’t done up, and the shirt he was wearing beneath it was baggy, so when his shoulders went down the cloth gaped to show a delicate collarbone. “Like you pointed out, Gabriel is powerful. I’m hardly a pushover, but I don’t have Johnny’s overwhelming ego. I prefer to have the odds on my side.”
Gail had had a point when she’d called this one another Ava, and she hadn’t. Maybe Balthazar liked to use his undeniable physical appeal to manipulate people into doing what he wished, but he had to have other resources as well. Among the flaws that John had, sex wasn’t one of them. Yeah, it’d get his attention, but it didn’t shut down his mind, as Dwight had found out for himself.
“You already owe me for putting you back together,” Dwight pointed out. Hell, Gail and John. If his eyelids weren’t fluttering so much and his brain didn’t take closed eyes as a signal to shut down, he could construct some elaborate theory around the parallels, but he was too exhausted. He just hoped that they wouldn’t kill each other before he could work out a more permanent arrangement.
“I’m a demon. You can say that I owe you, but whether I choose to acknowledge that…” Balthazar shrugged a third time, then rose to push the hair out of his face.
He missed seeing Dwight get up, but as soon as he saw Dwight walking over, he went still. It wasn’t a flinch, but a flinch would’ve been less telling. Anyone could be scared; how they dealt with it was what made them.
The bed was a mess, but changing the sheets would’ve been too much of a pain. Especially since Dwight’s last set of spares had gotten used up in carrying Balthazar from the car trunk up to the apartment without losing any important parts.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and began to undo his shoelaces. When he’d reached the count of five, he felt the slightest graze of breath on the side of his neck: Balthazar leaning into his space. “Yes, you’re a demon,” Dwight muttered. “And I’m tired, and this is my bed, and you and I both know you can’t do a damn thing to me till Gabriel’s dead. Move over.”
“Aren’t you demanding. I’m injured. I was under the impression that you tended more towards the caring and concerned type.” Despite all his protests, Balthazar was quick to scoot out of Dwight’s way. He got onto his knees and watched with ill-disguised disbelief as Dwight kicked off his sneakers, then flopped across the bed. Two or three minutes passed before Balthazar realized that no, Dwight didn’t have anything up his sleeve.
Dwight closed his eyes and listened to the bedsprings creak as Balthazar slid back to lean very closely over him. If he thought about it too long, he could feel Sin City seething, its ravening hunger roiling just a hair beneath the surface. It fed off the worst parts of man, the hate and the anger and the violence, and that should have been all the more reason for Dwight to just say to hell with John, Gail, Miho and the rest, but he couldn’t. He said it was because he owed Gail, because he didn’t want to see John rot to die, but of course he was simplifying. Truth was, every sin had a virtue on its back, every coin had two sides, and he wasn’t enough of a saint to give up both.
“You know, just between you and me, I was a little jealous at first,” Balthazar conspiratorially told him. One hand skated up Dwight’s arm, gently tracing all the muscles, while the other went straight to his crotch, cupping his cock through his pants. That one massaged till Dwight’s cock was straining the fabric, then undid his fly with teasing slowness. “Suddenly Johnny’s all spacy, doesn’t seem to care when I’m tripping up his pathetic attempts to exchange good deeds for a passport to heaven. What could possibly hold that much interest for him? After all, getting a foot past God has been Johnny-boy’s greatest desire for the last twenty years.”
Fingers firm around Dwight’s prick, nails carefully tucked in to scratch every so often, just where the blood pulsed nearest the surface. The hand on his arm slipped away as he groaned only to land by his hip, counterbalancing as Balthazar’s mouth descended on him. At first just the tip, all the heat there so Dwight hoped John had locked the door, because there was no way he could move now. And then, fingers easing out of the way barely in time, wet warmth gliding down all the way to his balls. His eyes were still shut and he squeezed them closed even tighter, until the bright spots dancing in the dark were beating in time with the rhythmic press of Balthazar’s throat around him, with the sudden racing of his heartbeat. He didn’t bother fighting it, but let it go. Relaxed, breathed out, and when his climax came it crashed through him as easily as blood dissolving in water.
Dwight didn’t open his eyes until he felt air drying the spit on his prick. Then he looked up and watched with no particular feeling as the smugness slowly faded from Balthazar’s face. After a few moments of staring at each other, he reached down to do up his pants.
“John’s taking a lot longer to make his calls than you thought, isn’t he?” Dwight said.
Balthazar looked like he was going to try and punch Dwight, but he managed to restrain himself. He sat back on his heels and kneaded his knees. “Well, that’s interesting. I suppose you’re the closest John can get to a zombie without losing the heartbeat.”
“Oh, for…I live with whores, in case you haven’t noticed. Of all people, we can’t afford to throw fits over sex. And we know this game.” Dwight made as if to buckle his belt, but he suddenly twisted around to grab Balthazar by the forearms and drag him over, slamming them together. His nose actually smacked Balthazar’s cheekbone because he slightly misjudged the distance—he was goddamned tired. And abruptly, unexpectedly, pissed off. “What? Did you want me to hit you? Roll over and fuck you, roll over and let you fuck me?” he hissed, low and harsh. Gave Balthazar a shake, watched his eyes dilate. “Oh. Oh, yeah, baby. For you. For me, it’s just one kink in a long line of orders.”
As suddenly as it’d come, the anger evaporated. All Dwight felt when he tossed Balthazar back down was a pervading sense of fatigue. His town was rising against his people, his girlfriend wanted to kill the guy that he suspected qualified as his boyfriend, and he’d just blown off a demon who probably had a long memory. And all he wanted to do was lie down. He could only be so many things to so many people for so long, and he’d been overstretched since the moment he got down on his knees in front of John in that alley.
“Is that what Johnny and that delightful leather-girl of yours are for?” Balthazar spat. He looked upset. Well, his pride had just taken the last of several beatings, and a glance at his groin told Dwight that when it came to some things, demons expected just as much reciprocity as people did. “To keep you alive? Why don’t you just crawl into your coffin?”
“Because you’re catching me on a very, very bad day. I like being alive. I just don’t connect it with sex as much as I used to—bad experiences and everything.” Dwight collapsed on his back and folded his arms under his head, tracing the water-stain patterns on the ceiling with his eyes. “Look, I’m just a weird one. You go outside and pick anyone else, and I’m sure they’d fall for your ploy like a rich old millionaire for a Miami cheerleader. In two weeks you’ll be back in L. A. and back to normal.”
Nail points sank into Dwight’s arm, deep enough to draw blood. Which showed how much Balthazar was rattled, since he should’ve known better than to provide the very stuff that Dwight used to work magic. “Except for the fact that I’ve just had a pathetic human being pity and try to comfort me.”
Dwight opened his eyes again and glared. “Because you’re a pathetic half-breed demon that can’t step out of the role Hell’s given him. Now, will you either try to kill me or shut up? I’m trying to sleep.”
He shook off Balthazar and turned on his side, facing the headboard. Also facing Balthazar, but Dwight was comfortable and didn’t feel like moving. He shut his eyes and washed his hands of the whole thing.
Only to get it splattered back on him a moment later, when a warm body suddenly curled up against him. Balthazar nudged his head beneath Dwight’s chin and threw a leg over Dwight’s, knotting them gently together. It’d been…a long time since Dwight had had to deal with this kind of problem: Gail didn’t cuddle unless she was terrified or wanted a favor, and John wasn’t around enough for Dwight to know whether he was the type for it. He froze.
Two people walked into the apartment, then stopped. After a moment, one of them went on till they reached the bedroom door. “And you say I need to lock the door,” John rasped, sounding like he was in the mood to spit nails.
Well, fucking point to Balthazar, then.
* * *
Chas had been easy to square away. Apparently Hennessey had made the books when he was younger—something about a haunted house in Oregon—so the kid was thrilled to get a chance to hang out with him. He even bubbled all the way through John’s warning about Hennessey’s little love for the bottle.
Midnite, however, was trickier. *As I keep telling you, I offer no aid to either side.*
“And as I keep telling you, the balance is completely blown. Gabriel fucking barbecued Balthazar, okay? What do I have to do, get him on the phone and have him explain it in detail?” John snarled. He kicked at the side of the phonebooth and that helped a bit, but not much. His body was beginning to wear down too much for even adrenaline to handle and he wanted to get back inside so he could relax in semi-safety. Goddamn Dwight and his goddamn paranoia.
*That might help. Balthazar missed an appointment with me yesterday and that is unlike him, but even more unlike him would be--*
“—coming to me for help. Right. I guess if I told you we were fucking, you wouldn’t believe that, either.” Someone with things that glittered sharply in the light was coming down the rest. John instantly tensed, feeling like a bug under a glass, but soon he saw that it was only Gail. He didn’t exactly relax, but he stopped missing Beeman and his tools.
The pause on the other end of the line somehow communicated amusement. *I would believe that.*
It took a second for John to answer, mostly because he was fighting down his urge to just break the phone. “Fuck. You.”
Then he slammed the phone back on the hook. In about five minutes he was seriously going to regret doing that, but right now it felt pretty damned good. So he wasn’t in too bad of a mood when he pulled open the door and stepped out to go toe-to-toe with Gail’s steel-tipped boots. “Gail. Hi.”
“John.” She was smoking. Not to be outdone, John got out one of his and she graciously lighted it for him. “I was about to go to the corner grocery, pick up some things for Dwight. Want to come?”
Something about how she bit off her words told John this wasn’t a peace offering, but he would look like a bastard if he said no, and this was one of the few times where he didn’t want to look too bad. He could use some food himself anyway. “Sure.”
The store was literally yards away, which spared them the need to make any small talk. Gail needed the time it took to walk over to tell John what to get, and she was still listing things once they’d gotten in the store. He got the basket and she threw things into it, and both of them leaned away from each other to keep from ashing the food.
It took maybe fifteen minutes. She knew the cashier, so like all women, they had to spend some time chatting while the things were rung up. John let them rattle on, keeping open one ear, but all they went over was anecdotes about the crazy pick-up from the other night and the idiot townie who accidentally turned into the projects and got shot up with arrows.
Okay, the arrows got John’s attention for a moment, but not for much longer. He was busy staring at the aspirin and cough suppressant being sold alongside the candy at the register. His throat was dry and got drier every time he swallowed, but he didn’t pick up a bottle of the cough suppressant. The excuse that sprang to the tip of his tongue was that if Dwight hadn’t told Gail about the cancer, then John didn’t want to give it away, but the excuse in his head was that he wasn’t going to use the whole bottle.
Jesus Christ, all he had to go on was a ‘maybe it won’t kill you’ from Dwight and already he was making fringe bets. It was a stupid thing to do, but it made perfect sense to John’s self-denial. He’d already been incredulous that it would be something like this to take him down, and now he had a little ledge on which to cling. God. No wonder Dwight kept looking at him as if he knew this brand of idiocy. No wonder Balthazar got on his nerves so easily.
“Constantine.” Gail stood with hand on her hip, bag dangling from her other hand and toe tapping. “Earth to Constantine. Time to go.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he facetiously said.
Her eye flashed, but she pivoted fast so he couldn’t read it. She didn’t shove the bag at him like a lot of women would have, expecting the guy to take care of that. “Watch it. I’m not used to people calling me ‘ma’am’ outside of work.”
“What, I might trigger a bad reflex?” His cigarette was gone, so he pulled out another one and relighted it with the old butt so he wouldn’t have to ask her. The sun glared right into his eyes as they stepped out and he slowed, squinting till his eyes adjusted. “You know, you’re not exactly who I pictured as Dwight’s type. In girls.”
Gail didn’t wait up, but instead sashayed herself across the street so that even John couldn’t help looking. He certainly couldn’t fault Dwight’s taste in physical appearance, but personality?
“Can’t say I’m sorry to disappoint you,” she shot back over a shoulder. She stopped at the door to let him in.
He stepped over the threshold, trying to finish his cigarette before he went upstairs. The door started to swing shut and he moved further into the dingy excuse for a lobby, squeezing between Gail and the tarnished brass mailboxes that patched one wall. And she swiveled to pin him there, fast and furious as a slap. Knocked his cigarette out of his mouth and onto the floor, right next to the bag of groceries that Gail had dropped. John’s temper flared, then went out when he felt the prick of a knife-point at his balls. “For Christ’s sake. So you’re who he got that trick from.”
“Yeah.” The word hissed smooth as butter from between her lips, red and shiny as satin. Her lashes dropped and her lips peeled back like a wolf’s. “So you and Dwight.”
“Have screwed?” John suggested. He gasped involuntarily as the knife pressed closer, but kept his smile on his face. “Is this where you warn me not to fuck him up, then suck my cock dry?”
Gail laughed, one pro to another. Then she went ice and snarl, all sharp edges wherever John looked. The knife suddenly flipped to lie lengthwise along John’s prick and her fingers pressed over it, rippling and squeezing so his damned cock swelled despite the long razor nicking at it. “Nah, Dwight’s already fucked up, and I work the night shift. But he’s not yours, baby. He might spend the weekends down in L. A., he might cook you breakfast once in a while, but you don’t ever think of trading on him. You don’t own him.”
“Bet you wished you did,” John said through the teeth of his groan. He suddenly pressed back, grinding the knife between them, and the bit of gauzy fishnet nothing over Gail’s cunt meant he could feel her getting into it. He slid a hand up her arm and into her hair, bending the stiff strands out of their proud hairsprayed crown, and yanked her close. “Come on. Come on, give it to me. Give me whatever the hell chases Dwight down to me, what scares him the fuck away from you, you goddamn bitch.”
And she did. Their bodies surged up against each other so that the knife slipped and Jesus, John was thinking, Jesus, but no, that was only his button popping out from between them. His zipper got undone, somehow, and he felt the steel tip skid in a curve just under his bellybutton, gutting motion, but in the next moment Gail had flipped it away. God knew where she was keeping it, because he had his hands on her and back to hips to breasts, there was bare skin all over.
Her hands were claws and they raked through his clothes even though he never undressed except to shove his pants down to his hips. They wouldn’t go farther because of how close they were pressed together and how hard she was rocking against him, how rough they were grinding their sore spots and fury against each other. Seemed like that was how he got the bottom of her outfit snapped, just by sheer friction, and then his cock was deep into her cunt, sparing her nothing. But she was taking that and laughing in his face, the slashes of her lips rimming her white, white teeth as she stood up in her six-inch heels that meant he didn’t even have to lift her much. They fucked on their feet, loveless and raging, and when their mouths met near the end, it was no kiss. It was anger that melted into a strange sadness, because now John got it. Why Dwight ran, why Gail let him. Why John was so desperate for Dwight to know that this wasn’t just about getting him a cure, wasn’t just about mutual advantage—maybe even why Balthazar wasn’t satisfied with the little taste he’d gotten of it.
It was goddamn terrifying. But John stayed around for it anyway because he was like that, because he always stuck his head in the lion’s mouth. Or his tongue in the lioness’, as circumstances had it. He dug his fingers into Gail’s arm and he slammed up so hard that he inadvertently rose on his toes; she came down shoving a scream through gritted teeth so it came out shredded into tiny hisses.
She was good, and hard as he was. She wrapped her arms around his neck and stayed on her feet, her body clenching so smoothly and rhythmically about him that coming was almost something she did for him, so little did he have to do about it. His knees weakened a little and he ended up collapsing against the mailboxes, dragging her forward with him. One of the damn things dug a groove in his back. John reached around to rub it and coughed instead.
And he kept coughing. He got his cock out of her and turned over to push his arm against the wall, bent down to hack and choke, and finally a wet glob came cramming through his throat so he couldn’t breathe and he nearly panicked. There in the dingy little hallway, with his pants nearly falling to his fucking knees, and finally the wad of blood clots and spit came out. He closed his eyes, opened them and then blinked hard to get the sweat out of his eyes.
Right about then he noticed Gail efficiently redressing the two of them. She snapped his belt tight, then turned around to pick up the groceries. A streak of something curved from the cleft of her buttocks and down her thigh; John absentmindedly swiped it off and she nearly ripped her knife through his ear. He looked at the point hovering by his face. “Is this what you call a truce around here?”
“This is as close as we get,” Gail said, snapping her switchblade shut. She hefted the bag over a shoulder. “Miho did recon. Gabriel’s in town and knows you’re here, but he can’t get into Old Town for…Dwight knows about that better than I do. Anyway, that means he has to make a deal with Wallenquist, and that means Wallenquist is going to come barging in here.”
“Sorry about that.” And John did feel a little sorry for her, because of the toneless way she talked, like it was all old hat. He knew that attitude.
She shrugged. “If it hadn’t been this excuse, it would’ve been another one. Miho’s rounding up the girls for a meeting tonight so we can figure out where he’s coming in and stop him. But John? This isn’t a place where you can push. Got that?”
He nodded, mopping at his bloody mouth with the back of his hand. Then he had to laugh, even though his throat felt like an iron file had been taken to it. “I wanted to see Dwight,” he told an inquiring Gail. “But all I do is screw everyone else.”
She smiled. She kept her lips closed, but her smile reached her eyes. “Nothing wrong with that, as long as you don’t screw Dwight.”
“Yeah…hey, are you…did you…?”
Gail looked at him like he was an idiot. “No, no way you’ll have fatherhood to worry about. We make sure about that.”
“Right. Of course not.” John picked himself up and followed her up the stairs. He felt like shit, and he wasn’t looking forward to anything but a brutal fight, but he was beginning to think that hope wasn’t about to bite him in the ass.
And then they walked into the apartment, and hope revealed six-inch fangs that went straight into John’s gut. They came attached to a tousled Balthazar faking a look of surprise at their entrance—well, John was just going to smack that right off, and Gail could wait her turn since Balthazar was John’s little sideshow hell.
* * *
Balthazar actually hadn’t been planning for John and Gail to see. He’d had a sudden guess as to what Dwight’s weaknesses really were and he’d wanted to see if he was right, but not with an audience. Dwight was fascinating all on his own and it was always nice to have a few other bets going in case the lead horse—or lead Johnny—failed during the homestretch.
In addition, Balthazar could and was becoming tired. He ached, he found his reflexes slowing, and generally he needed a rest as much as Dwight did. Johnny always got physical when he was annoyed, but Dwight seemed to vacillate between that and simply relocating himself, which Balthazar had been counting on.
“I knew Ellie was a succubus, but I always figured your line of work was less in bed and more in the bar. Guess I credited you with too much dignity,” John was saying, slow and drawling and dangerous. He took an abrupt step forward.
Balthazar jerked backward, but hit Dwight. He composed himself as quickly as he could and began to scoot sideways instead, following Dwight’s legs until he could pull himself over the man. “I didn’t realize we had a double standard here, Johnny. I was under the impression that you didn’t believe in exclusivity.”
“You—” John would have leaped forward but for the arm that had hooked him back. Snarling and kicking, he twisted around to punch…and hesitated when he saw that it was Gail.
She didn’t, and in two seconds John was on the floor, rubbing at his jaw. She coolly met his glower, then spun around and clicked into the kitchen.
“Shut up,” Dwight said when John began to speak again. His arm bashed Balthazar’s shoulder as he heaved himself off the bed. Then he stalked after Gail, but he stopped in the doorway to elaborate on his words. “Shut the fuck up, all right? And stop fighting in my goddamned apartment. I’m tired. I watched you screw him, and now I can smell Gail on you, and I don’t want to hear it from you. You’re a fucking idiot about this kind of thing.”
He walked off. When Dwight was a safe distance away, John finally found his voice. “At least I wasn’t being all cuddly afterwards,” he called.
All he got was Dwight’s back. Gail was watching Dwight with a wary eye, but after he leaned in to peck her on the cheek, she relaxed. They shared a half-wry, half-angry look before they started moving around the kitchen; half the time Balthazar couldn’t see them, but from what he could see, they were putting away groceries. It was like watching a ballet—they didn’t need to say a word to know when to move aside for each other.
He found it oddly compelling. Though he’d never give up his demonic gifts for full mortality, he had to admit that people could forge some things that he couldn’t touch.
“Frustrated?” Johnny was still on the floor. His jaw wasn’t bruising up so he had no reason to keep rubbing it, but he was anyway. He probably was out of cigarettes and needed some way to fidget. “You can’t get to him, can you? And it’s driving you nuts.”
Balthazar pulled himself into the center of the bed and curled up. “For once, Johnny, you’re right. Though I have to point out that it’s only been a night for me, whereas it’s been…what, over a month for you? And you can’t get to him either. You don’t even understand the difference between the display of affection and the actual emotion.”
He was getting some sleep, whether Johnny liked it or not. And later, when he was well-rested, he was going to consider whether it might be time to diversify his interests. For nearly a hundred years he’d been the perfect soldier of Hell, following what Lucifer said without challenging it. But after being struck down by Gabriel, he’d realized how little he meant to Lucifer—his first instinct hadn’t even been to tell Lucifer about Mammon because he knew he wouldn’t be believed. And after meeting Dwight, Balthazar was beginning to see the possibilities in working more directly with certain people.
The mattress sank down. Frowning, Balthazar lifted his head and much to his surprise, saw Johnny climbing onto the bed. John’s smile was mercilessly ironic as he flopped down by the headboard, only a few inches away. “Actually, I do understand the difference. I just wonder who’s the mindfuck that makes you let me fuck you senseless.”
And then he simply closed his eyes and was asleep, quick as a candle-flame pinched out. Balthazar realized he was grinding his teeth and made himself stop. He contemplated ripping out Johnny’s throat.
“Don’t even think about it,” Dwight said, coming into the room. “We’re having a meeting tonight and I need him. Also, I only have that one set of sheets, so if you get them bloody we’re all on the floor.”
“Should I ask why you have a king-size mattress when you live by yourself?” After a moment, Balthazar decided he might as well move aside for Dwight. His hip bumped John’s knee and John stirred, grunted and resettled himself.
Dwight snorted as he got on the bed. “No.”
Then he rolled so his back was to Balthazar, who stared at it for a long time. It was less than a foot away. The shoulderblades jutted out so Balthazar could stretch out a hand—he did—and just drag a fingertip over the sharp angled curve—he didn’t quite.
He turned over and looked at John’s face, gaunt and pale and when still, looking like a suffering angel. And Balthazar drew in his hands to himself and thought that Johnny was uncannily close to the point sometimes, but never quite there.
* * *
Miho couldn’t go herself because Gabriel knew who she was, but she handpicked the girls Gail sent to slip into the high-end restaurant where Wallenquist was currently taking dinner. The man was smart, but like all men he was a creature of habit. He might have long since created his own line of call-girls and escorts so he didn’t have to rely on Old Town, but he only used this restaurant for entertaining his most important guests. And it hadn’t been long before Dwight, who still had some connections with the newspapers, had figured that out. A few of the kitchen crew had kin in Old Town and were more than happy to make a discreet phone-call whenever Wallenquist dropped by.
So Gail had dolled up the girls in a few evening gowns and sent them in on the arms of clueless rich kids, and now they were reporting back. Miho perched on the edge of Gail’s couch and listened. Gail sat in the armchair and chain-smoked, expressionless as she fired off question after question, wanting to know all the details.
Yes, there’d been a curly-haired blond…person. No, well, it could’ve been a man or a woman. It was hard to tell, and that was saying something because Bess there was a transvestite herself and she didn’t have a clue. Wallenquist had talked a lot about Old Town and how it needed to be properly regulated, the Kraut bastard. No, the blond hadn’t really agreed, but he’d nodded a lot and he hadn’t looked like he’d disagreed. He didn’t say much. He had said he wanted them alive. He’d said he’d get them himself. He just needed a decoy attack.
“Them who?” Gail said. The ash scattered from her cigarette-tip to dot her knees with flakes. She was balancing an ashtray on her lap, but she seemed to have forgotten about it. On her arms and beneath the fishnet on her sides were deep half-moon impressions: fingernail marks. None of the girls looked at them twice—even if Gail didn’t do that kind of job, there was always Dwight and very few of the other women understood exactly what Dwight and Gail were to each other.
Miho did, and that was why she stared at them. She knew the spread of Dwight’s hands, and even if he’d lost his mind and they were his, then his fingers had lengthened slightly and his hands had gotten narrower.
Dwight for sure. Once the blond guy—girl?—had said something about the one who interfered and Wallenquist had muttered about McCarthy and the murder of poor Damien Lord. Then the blond guy had said it was interesting that Dwight was so skilled at evasion, only he’d said it so it was all snooty and Wallenquist had looked really red in the face. And there was a long name, a weird one that started with a B and sounded sort of Middle Eastern, maybe. Also there was a James or John. Blondie had murmured that one. He really had a grudge against John or James.
“All right, all right, thanks to all of you,” Gail said at the end. She told them all to rest up and come back at eight packing heat, and then she shooed them out in ten minutes.
Gail drank a lot of Turkish coffee, but when she was feeling shaky or just before a fight she wasn’t sure about, she preferred tea. When she measured out the leaves, she spilled some on the counter. “Goddamn it!”
Her swipe with the rag almost upset the whole tea tin, but Miho caught it in time.
“Goddamn it,” Gail repeated more weakly. She put her elbows on the table and her head in her hands. Her shoulders shook once, but when she lifted her head again, her cheeks were dry and her mascara unsmudged.
In the meantime, Miho had finished making the tea. She poured a cup for herself and left the pot to Gail, taking her own tea over to a chair where she sat and blew gently over it.
The other woman poured out hers with a steady hand. “Dwight’s…well, he’s going to end up fucking both of them if he hasn’t already.”
That was about what Miho had figured, but she had had a tiny bit of hope that it wouldn’t work out that way. She could tolerate Constantine, but she disliked Balthazar. Two also meant more than the sum of them when it came to how tightly Dwight would be bound to L. A. Basin City had enough to keep him busy without adding that to the equation.
But what happened was what happened. Dwight had an overdeveloped sense of debt and he took stupid risks, but he did it all with open eyes. He wasn’t stupid himself, and he didn’t want to die any time soon. It was possible he needed the breathing space, and that they gave him one, however improbable that seemed to Miho.
“Maybe it’ll be good for him,” Gail said. She stared morosely into her tea. “God knows I can’t do it for him. I just drive him closer to the deep end. This whole town does. I’d like to rip their fucking eyes out, but I’d rather have part of Dwight than none of him.”
The real question came down to whether everyone understood that. As far as the personal situation was concerned, at least. If they guessed wrong about Wallenquist’s plan, then that was a moot point.
“You saw that Gabriel can’t get in. So that’s why he needs Wallenquist—Wallenquist’s men aren’t limited by magic. Guess they’ve got a way to make it so he can get in, once they’re in.” Gail took a long sip of tea, plan formulating behind her eyes. A concrete problem to solve always settled her down the fastest. “Wallenquist knows where Dwight lives. The only reason he hasn’t come in here yet is because he knows we’ll be waiting for them.”
And John and Balthazar had spent entirely too much time squabbling to have a really good idea about local politics. For that matter, Miho suspected they still thought the niceties of Sin City were provincial nothings compared to what they had to handle in L. A. They were probably right in the long run, but the short run was what got people killed the quickest.
“He’s going to offer one hell of a bait to get us out of the way. That’s the only thing that really worries me—what’s he going to do? But after that, it’s easy. We pretend to go for it, let him come thundering down on Dwight and then get him from behind.” Another sip of tea, and then the cup was rattling on the countertop as Gail moved towards the phone. “Timing’s going to be tough. Miho, are you…oh. See you.”
Miho had already finished her tea and was climbing out the window that lay in the direction of Dwight’s apartment. She was done here.
* * *
Dwight didn’t like the plan. For one thing, he was going to have to move again. “There’s no way we’re getting back in time to salvage this place, and I like it. I’ve spent a lot of time…customizing it.”
“Well, suck it up,” Gail snapped. “Daisy phoned in from the docks and Carla from the train station—Wallenquist’s pulling in all his big guns. Time’s running out, so if you’ve got any better ideas, speak up now.”
Okay, fine, he could deal with losing the apartment. It’d happened before; it was a pain in the ass to redo all the wards and everything else, but he could do it and that was a small price to pay for everyone making it through alive. But that wasn’t the only reason he’d dragged Gail out into the hallway in the middle of their war session, in front of everyone. “You’re also leaving John and Balthazar mostly by themselves.”
She waved her cigarette so the smoke swirled in his face. “They’re big boys, Dwight. And even if they can’t do—what you do—don’t tell me neither of them know how to use a gun.”
“I wish people would stop blowing smoke in my goddamn face. It doesn’t do much good.” Because she was misunderstanding his point, and she goddamned well knew it. He tried to hold onto his temper. A good solid seven hours of sleep he’d gotten, somehow, and he wasn’t going to let that go to waste without a fight.
“Look, you already said we can’t do much about Gabriel. We just have to hope that whatever’s holding him out of Old Town slows him down enough. And you damn well aren’t staying here, not when you’re the one those bastards really want.” Gail impatiently tapped her heel and looked towards the door.
Dwight gritted his teeth and lowered his voice. He wanted to get back in there as well, but not before they got one last detail into the open. “I’m not burying them.” He saw the facetious light flash maliciously in Gail’s eye and added, “I mean John and Balthazar, and you know that.”
“I never said you had to!” She turned and tried to stalk past him, but he slid in front of her. They bumped shoulders and then his shoulder blocked her fist. “Dwight…”
He raised an eyebrow. “Gail.”
“Oh, for…” She yanked the butt from her mouth, stomped it out, and then swung him around by his coat lapels into a long, brutal, deep kiss that scraped up his lust from beneath the coils of worry that had buried it.
In the middle of that, somebody opened the door. There was a wolf-whistle, and an eye-rolling sigh edged with irritation that had to have come from John.
“Nothing wrong with making sure they appreciate you,” Gail murmured in Dwight’s ear. This time, she slipped past him.
Dwight followed in a black mood, pushing his way through the women crowded into his place. He kept going, calling over his shoulder that he was headed for the bathroom. Not a chance in hell that Gail or Miho, or any of the old hands would buy that line, but he didn’t give a shit.
He picked up a tail. When he turned around, he nearly clipped off his and John’s noses. “What?”
“I need to rinse out my mouth,” John blandly said. He stepped forward, forcing them further into the bathroom, and pulled the door shut behind them.
“We’ll take care of your lungs afterwa—” Dwight started.
Hands fisted in his coat and a hard mouth came down on his still-numbed one, bringing feeling violently back into his lips. He stumbled back a little, hit the toilet and grabbed at John’s waist to steady himself. Then he said to hell with it and just…enjoyed it.
That worked for a good long time, and slowly it turned softer, slower. More about just kissing than making a statement. But then John shuddered against him and Dwight tasted copper in John’s mouth; he pulled back and turned John around so the other man could lean over the sink. At first John tried furiously to shake off his arms, but soon John was clutching at him for support.
When the coughing fit was over, Dwight handed John a wad of toilet paper to wipe off his lips and chin. Still hunched over, John just stared sideways at it. He snorted, then chuckled and turned his head to splash water on it. After that, he took the paper. “I didn’t come in here because of—God, I fucking hate this.”
“So why did you come in here? Gail? I know she—”
John irritably waved a hand, mumbling something through the toilet paper. When he saw that Dwight couldn’t make out what he was saying, he stopped to throw away the bloody wad of paper and straightened up. “Yeah, your girlfriend’s got a really interesting way of making her disapproval known. But it wasn’t that, either.”
Dwight looked at him.
“Maybe she made me a little more enthusiastic, but I don’t dance to anyone’s tune, much less a catty bitch like her,” John said.
Tact, Dwight thought. Why couldn’t he ever be attracted to someone that was tactful? “Watch. It.”
“Sorry.” Of course, John didn’t appear to be anything like sorry. But he did turn serious as he stepped forward, hands coming up to rest lightly on Dwight’s coat lapels, and it came off as genuine. “You know, I’ve been here nearly twenty-four hours and that’s the first time we’ve kissed so far?”
“Usually we’ve fucked and I’ve slammed your own door in your face by now,” Dwight dryly agreed.
John smiled and ducked his head at the same time so Dwight almost missed how self-deprecating the smile was. “My coffee isn’t that bad. You could at least stay long enough so that it’s not a blatant fuck-and-run.”
The center of Dwight’s chest tightened up. He stared past John at the door. “I don’t like L. A.”
“And the longer I stay here, the less I like it.” A shrug and a scuffle saw John only an inch away. “So what else is new?”
Dwight slowly lifted his hand to cup the back of John’s head. He massaged tiny circles with his fingertips along John’s hairline, watching almost dazedly at how John tilted his head back into the touch. “Balthazar.”
Now John gave him a look.
“Keep him in L. A. Gail likes leaving Basin City even less than I do. And it’s still one. Big. Mess,” Dwight murmured. The last word got caught between their mouths.
It was short—just a press and then a lingering trail away, and then Dwight was swinging John around to walk back out.
“Like either you or me could do anything but,” John said. “All right, let’s go let your girlfriend set me up.”