|Demons I: Hotel California
Author: Guede Mazaka
It was a plain, no-frills card of thick paper, which had a weird texture that clung to Dean’s thumb after he ran it over the paper, a little like soap film. The typeset was heavy so when he flipped the card over, the indentations of the letters stood out like grave mounds on a plain.
“I told you boys once and I’ll tell you again, I don’t know what walked in your house twenty years ago except that it was pure evil.” Missouri nodded firmly, hands wrapped tight around her purse.
They were still standing on the sidewalk before the old house, and despite Missouri’s cheery verdict a few minutes before, all three of them occasionally had to glance apprehensively back at the place. Sam had on his polite face, but his shoulders gradually were sinking into the slant that meant at least a hundred miles of sullen, withdrawn silence. It looked like he was finally getting the idea about not ever coming back to this damn place again.
Not that Dean was going to indulge in an I-told-you-so moment. For one thing, Sam really had no sense of humor about that, and being stuck with a broody, snarling twenty-two-year-old over miles of highway wasn’t all that great for sanity. For another…Dean still shied away from really thinking about it, but he couldn’t shrug it off so much that when he looked up at the windows, he didn’t wish he was seeing some other blonde woman walking around behind them. “So why give us this card?”
“Because you asked for help, and I’m giving it to the best of my ability. Boy, I’m giving you slack for not having your mother round to bring you up proper, but you are getting on my nerves,” Missouri snapped. She was about an inch away from shaking her finger at him like an ornery grandmother, but then she looked over her shoulder and a fine tremble shook that out of her. “I’m a woman with a little bit more sight than others. It’s enough for me and for rural Kansas, Dean. But I’m not the be-all and end-all of things that go bump in the night…thank God.”
“But somebody at this place—at…” Sam squinted at the card “…‘Midnite’s’ would know more.”
Sorrowful again, Missouri looked at them both with big liquid eyes. But it was Sam she chose to raise her hands to and cup his face, which was fine with Dean. “Sam, dear, they’ll know all right. They’ll know, but I’ll warn you this one time that knowing’s not always a good thing. I’ve got the card, but I’ve never been there myself and that’s because sometimes you can’t know without studying in the dark. And I don’t study that, honey. I’m happy where I am.”
She was talking to a lost cause; the moment she’d acknowledged that somebody down there might have an idea about Jessica and Mom’s killer, the little light in Sam’s eyes had clicked off. He took Missouri’s hands off of him gently enough and said goodbye with the crooked little smile that would get him laid like that if he ever bothered, but he was already a thousand miles away.
Dean was a few feet down the sidewalk, still looking over the card. “Los Angeles.”
“If we take turns driving and sleeping, we can make it by the end of tomorrow,” Sam muttered, walking quickly past Dean. Once he’d made up his mind, he sure as hell didn’t have a problem with turning his back on the old house. But then, he never had.
It was a little harder for Dean, even if now the house looked and felt like a sweet, quiet home. He didn’t have to stare hard to see the ghosts of flames shooting out into the blue sky.
“Dean! Come on!”
“See you never, hopefully,” Dean finally muttered. Then he turned around.
* * *
Sam made a nervous grab for the card that almost sent it fluttering out of Dean’s hand and into the puddle of…of…of whatever at the top of the stairs. “Are you sure you got the address right?”
“Yes! Watch it!” Dean hissed, hastily shoving the card back into his wallet. He smacked Sam’s hand away, then jerked at his coat. Warm as L. A. was this time of year, it was freezing where they were standing. In fact, it was almost like down the steps before them was some kind of portal to Antarctica, given the chilly breeze that swept up to them.
Hell, that actually could be it for all they knew. The building above seemed to be a small warehouse, while all they could see down at the bottom of the steps was a set of open doors, a velvet rope and a huge pro-wrestler of a man standing behind it. He had a little table beside him that held a deck of cards, which was a little weird but not enough to creep out Dean. What actually did was the way the guy stood: motionless. He wasn’t holding still—he was motionless. Dean and Sam had been standing at the top of the stairs for ten minutes and Dean swore to God that the guy at the bottom hadn’t blinked. It was like looking at a corpse.
Making a disgusted face, Sam jiggered around in place with his hands shoved deep into his pockets. He looked like a nine-year-old trying not to embarrass himself, and when he opened his mouth, he sounded like one, too. “Do you really think Missouri would send us to a nightclub? I mean, that woman dressed up in her Sunday best to go exorcise our old house!”
“Would you stop moving around like that? You’re acting like a kid going to his first school dance, for Christ’s sake. Didn’t you ever have fun in college?” Dean turned around and checked across the street, but nothing was over there except some dingy little stores and a 7-11 on the corner. He hadn’t made a mistake with the address, so this had to be it.
Well, Missouri had mumbled all that stuff about looking in dangerous places, and Lawrence sure as hell didn’t have bars like this there.
“Are you sure—” Sam started again, but he was interrupted by someone pushing him into Dean.
Not that Dean really begrudged the other person that once he’d gotten a good look. White skin, black hair, cheekbones that could cut steel and a body that could revive the dead. And tall, too—she had to be almost six feet. Mix of something ethnic, given the sloe-eyes. She slanted a bored glance at them as she sauntered down the stairs, ass moving nicely in the black pants she wore.
Sam elbowed Dean. Hard. “Not in your league, man. Not even in your age group.”
The woman did look to be in her mid-thirties, but she carried it like it could go fuck itself if it got tired. She stopped at the bottom and took the cigarette from her lips to tap off the ash while the guy there finally moved to pick up a card from the deck.
“Stop being so rigid, Sam. No wonder you never get in anywhere—you’ve got to have a little flexibility,” Dean muttered. He grabbed his brother by the arm and casually dragged them down the steps, pricking up his ears. If they were going to get in, this probably was their best chance.
The bouncer held up the card, but sideways and with its back to the woman. She looked vaguely irritated. “Dog in the manger,” she mumbled, sticking her cigarette back between her lips.
The card came down, the rope was unhooked, and she stalked into the bar without so much as a backward look. From where he was behind the rope, Dean could see a little bit of the interior: smoky with flashing lights, plus the edge of a table of brushed steel. Someone passed near the doors and Dean leaned forward to try and catch a glimpse of them, but was abruptly shoved back.
“Hey, watch the coat.” He shook himself and settled back on his heels just in time for the bouncer to nearly cut off his nose with the edge of the card. For a second, Dean just stared at the blurry print on the back. What was this, some weird code system?
“Um. Look, our friend left something inside and asked us to swing by and get it.” From the sound of things, Sam was smiling like a liar. He’d used to be pretty good at this, but he’d gotten damn rusty in college. And Dean had always had the impression that higher education favored the best bullshitters.
The bouncer wasn’t buying it. A little girl wouldn’t have bought it either, but she wouldn’t have whacked Dean in the face with the card. He started to protest and grabbed the guy’s arm, but the man had muscles like iron. Seriously. Dean yanked and he didn’t feel the slightest bit of give. He tried again, putting a lot more effort into it, and felt even less movement.
“Please, it’ll just take—” Sam started.
The card whipped at Dean’s nose again. He hit it with his knuckles before backing up a couple steps, rubbing at his nose. Okay, they couldn’t bluff their way in. That woman had just sort of blurted out something, but that had been a different card, and anyway, what she’d said hadn’t sounded like the pictures on any deck Dean had ever seen. So…
Hell with it. They weren’t going to figure this out in time if they just stood around and thought it over till it was a done deal. He said the first thing that came to mind: “Flying pig.”
Dean stared at the space that the velvet rope had been barring a couple seconds before. After a little bit, he became aware that Sam was staring at him. “Dean?” Sam said, a little shaky.
To be honest, Dean was pretty creeped out by himself too, but they were wasting time. He got Sam by the elbow again and walked them inside. “Well, you have weird dreams. Maybe I’m a good guesser.”
“It’d explain the poker,” Sam muttered. “God, I hope we’re dressed all right. I knew I should’ve made us change before we came here. We still have those suits.”
* * *
As it turned out, the dress code was out of their league as well. In fact, Dean wasn’t sure whose league it belonged to. It went more towards expensive suits and designer gowns whose prices were probably in inverse relation to the amount of cloth they used, but something about them was…off. Not like with cheap knock-offs where a seam would be wrong or something, but less obvious. More subconscious, like the feeling Dean sometimes got on a case when he knew they were missing the point.
A round, hard thing whacked Dean in the back, and pain crunched down on Dean’s ankles; Sam had walked into him again. Okay, the place was seriously vibing in a bad way, but Sam was twenty-two. They didn’t need to huddle.
“Dean, is it just me or is everyone’s eyes glowing?” Sam muttered.
Dean was a little busy trying to figure out where the hell the bar was so they’d have some landmark to go by, but he’d noticed that too. He’d been hoping it was due to the freaky strobe lighting they had, but the pair Sam pointed out were sitting in a corner so dark that their eyes were literally all that Dean could see. “You remembered to bring a cross along, right?”
“Yeah—whoa!” Sam tried to walk up the backs of Dean’s feet a third time as a dancer bounced into him. And having gotten there, she was smiling and winding her arms around Sam, looking pretty happy to stay.
Which would’ve been okay with Dean because God knew Sam needed to relax except for one tiny detail: the woman’s fingers had curved around Sam’s neck…and kept on going, elongating till they were like snakes with well-manicured heads. Dean shouted and whipped out his squirt bottle of holy water. At the same time, he jerked hard at Sam’s shoulder.
The woman screamed in a way that definitely wasn’t human. Smoke and a stomach-turning bitter smell billowed up between Dean and Sam, but Dean kept squirting and yanking till finally something gave way. A little too damn fast, because the loss of resistance kicked the knees out from under Dean. He went over and smacked hard into the floor, elbows and one shoulder going numb from taking the brunt of the impact. Then something heavy and squirming landed on top of him, and that definitely didn’t help.
“Jesus!” Sam stabbed his chin and knees into Dean a couple times while trying to get off, then rolled to the side and looked up. His eyes went wide. “Jesus Christ!”
The music had stopped, Dean suddenly noticed. That couldn’t be good.
“Oh, my God…what is that?” Sam breathed, still staring at something on the floor. “Oh, my God.”
Also, all the people around them were flinching a lot. There was a guy sitting at a table about five feet from Dean’s head, and his lip curled every time Sam said ‘God.’ Either he had one lousy dentist or he was part-wolf with those canines. “Uh, Sam…maybe you shouldn’t…”
“God. That’s a…God. Jesus Christ.” Sam scooted back till he bumped into Dean, which startled him into looking up. He went stiff, then started to reach into his coat. Somebody snarled a weird, bone-chilling snarl that had more than a little bit of snake’s hiss to it.
Forget the suits. Dean knew he shouldn’t have listened to Sam and left the guns in the car.
“Not really. I’m sure Jesus was prettier than that. God does like his eye-candy,” somebody drawled. A tall, oddly familiar-looking man wandered into Dean’s field of vision. He used his foot to jab at something lying just beyond Sam. It sounded like he was kicking at a pile of leaves.
That didn’t seem to please the rest of the club too much, but the guy obviously couldn’t care less. He stuck a cigarette in his mouth and flicked a flame over the tip in a well-practiced move, eyes idly scanning the room.
“So were you planning to stay down there? Because Midnite’s got softer floors in his backrooms,” the man said.
“You’d know, John,” somebody jeered.
John instantly looked up, eyes narrowed. He turned his head and jerked it in a curt nod, then glanced at Sam. “You’re twitchy. Got a question, or what?”
“Um. You said Midnite. Is that—that the owner? Because we’d like to see him.” Sam said it in a rush, hands twisting fretfully against the floor, but he got it out coherently and calmly enough. He absently reached out as Dean started to sit up, giving Dean a hand. “I’m Sam, and this is Dean.”
For a long moment John looked at them, and Dean had the uncomfortable feeling that the man was reading a lot more than, say, fortune as written in Dean’s facial features. But then John gave an amused half-smile and nodded towards the side. “Go knock on the door over there. If he’s with somebody, just go ahead and kick them out.”
“Th—thanks,” Sam muttered, hastily getting to his feet.
They never would’ve seen the door if John hadn’t pointed it out to them, but the moment they got within three feet of its outline, it swung silently open. This whole situation was getting a bit much even for Dean, and he would’ve suggested coming back in the morning except that sounds of fighting broke out behind them. Given how unwelcoming everyone had looked, it didn’t seem like a great idea to go back through the club.
The room—the office, actually—was cozy. Kind of. It was like a cross between a small natural history museum, a specialty undertaker’s establishment and a bordello. The walls were dark reds, the wood trimmings looked like pieces of coffins, and there were an awful lot of stuffed animals leering from various nooks and crannies, which were only outnumbered by the grotesque masks lining the walls. Most of the light came from candles that stood in front of what looked like little shrines. It was a cozy place if you were in hoodoo.
It only had one person in it besides them: a black man that somehow managed to exude a formidable air of dignity despite his pimp cane and gangster-like fedora. He was sitting at the desk at one end of the room, one hand on a skull and the other busy marking dots on a map.
“Sam, Dean. Have a seat,” he said without looking up. “And Dean, you may put away the holy water. I am human.”
Dean suddenly realized he was holding the bottle ready at his hip and quickly slid it beneath his coat. He had the feeling it wasn’t really a good idea to threaten this man unless the odds were fifty to one on your side. And maybe not even then.
He and Sam warily sat down in the creaky, strange-smelling leather chairs that flanked the other side of the desk. “Mind introducing yourself?” Dean asked.
The other man finally looked up, but not at them. Somebody walked in behind them and Dean turned around to see a disheveled John saunter in with an expression like a street-cat that had just gotten away with the biggest fish in the market. He had a new bruise on the left side of his jaw, a split lip and blood on his cuffs. His tie was wrenched halfway out of its knot. Soot smeared over his knuckles.
“Tell me you cleaned up after yourself this time,” the man at the desk said in a long-suffering tone.
Ignoring him, John flopped down on the couch that stretched along the wall to Dean’s left. “I’m John Constantine, by the way. This is Midnite: bar-owner, voodoo master and all-around tight-ass.”
“John.” Midnite’s calm had seemed impenetrable, but it’d dropped off like a rock the moment Constantine had come in. He seemed like he was going to add something else, but at the last minute turned irritably back to Sam and Dean. “I understand you two came here with some questions.”
Sam shot a look at Dean, which Dean didn’t actually see because he was keeping close watch on Midnite, but which Dean could read loud and clear anyway. “Did Missouri call ahead?” Sam politely asked.
“Who?” John put up his feet. The couch was too short for him, so his shoes ended up grazing Dean’s elbow.
“Lawrence, Kansas,” Midnite curtly said. “John, this is none of your business. Leave.”
Constantine ignored that as well, though he did shut up. After a moment, Dean turned around and saw that John apparently had decided to take a nap. The guy really did look familiar…
“You have two queries from what I understand: your father and your mother.” Midnite paused till Dean was looking at him again before continuing. “I can offer you no help about your father, but I may be able to provide information about your mother’s death and the death of the girl Jessica.”
Flinching, Sam sat up straight and opened his mouth. So Dean got in first.
“And you’d do this out of the goodness of your heart?” Actually, Dean had come up with a hell of a lot more questions since he’d walked into this place, and he wasn’t so sure that they weren’t of more immediate importance. He and Dad had followed up their share of false leads about what had killed Mom, and a couple of them had nearly suckered them to their deaths. He wasn’t in the mood for a repeat.
Sam was glaring again, but Dean ignored him. They weren’t dealing with local law enforcement and they didn’t know what the rules here were, so it was in their best interest to figure out those fast instead of pussy-footing around.
Anyway, Midnite seemed to have slightly more respect for them after Dean’s question. He stopped writing and finally put down his pen. “No. For an exchange of services. I understand you two have made it your business to dispose of…restive supernatural occurrences.”
“You could say that,” Sam guardedly replied. When John’s comment got put together with the surroundings, it had to be hard for even Sam to see why the hell Midnite would need them to help out. Midnite looked like a guy who could definitely see to his own homestead.
And he was a guy that was smart enough to understand where Sam and Dean’s thoughts were going. He lifted up the skull and took the map out from under it, then handed it to Dean: it was of the area to the south of Los Angeles, and the route marked out on it would take one deep into the sparsely-populated desert.
“I am able in such matters myself, but for various reasons, I cannot leave this city for very long periods,” Midnite said.
“And a guy like you, with a place like this, doesn’t have any buddies he could weasel into doing the job for him?” Dean hoped he looked real skeptical, because he was. This really was starting to sound like a set-up.
A laugh rasped behind them: John was awake, after all. “Not any that he can trust to not turn things against him.”
“Why would we be different?” Sam asked. “We’re strangers. For all you know, we could be just as bad.”
“Well, for one thing, you are from out-of-town. Anything happens to you, it’s not going to fuck up the L. A. rackets.” John’s feet swung off the end of the couch, coming within a hair of clipping Dean’s elbow as they did. Then the other man pushed off the sofa and stood up, lighting himself another cigarette. “For another…I’m pretty sure you’d have no idea what to do with it. You even know what Salome out there was?”
From somewhere was coming a low whistle. It wasn’t a happy one, but was more like the warning whistle of hot air through a small crack just before everything blew up. After a moment, Dean traced it back to an otherwise expressionless Midnite. “So what is ‘it’? We don’t take blind jobs,” Dean said.
Which was kind of a lie, but if Dean ever felt guilt over lying, it definitely wasn’t going to be in front of Midnite. The man really set his nerves on end. He also gave Dean the impression that instant refusal wasn’t going to be healthy, so Dean and Sam had better play it vague for a while. Till they learned more, anyway.
“John,” Midnite finally said. “Sam and Dean have to be tired after their long trip, and I also have another appointment in five minutes. How about you show them to somewhere for the night, and in the morning we’ll discuss things in more detail?”
“Well, I don’t know, dear. See, I’m not them.” John flicked his eyes to Dean, then to Sam. “Want to come home with me? Have Johnny tell you the story of the universe?”
To be honest, Dean wasn’t feeling all that more confident about John, but so far John had come off as a straighter shooter than Midnite. And they didn’t seem to like each other, so odds were that John could be talked into revealing useful information about Midnite.
Dean looked at Sam, who was obviously uneasy, but who shrugged the decision back to Dean. Figured. As much as Sam complained about Dean ordering him around, when it came down to it, Sam still tended to leave tactics up to Dean.
“We’ll check it out,” Dean slowly said. “But we reserve the right to refuse if we don’t like it.”
“Yeah, obviously.” John dismissively flapped his hand, then turned towards the door. “Might as well go now. I need to get home before he gets all pissy and jealous again.”
Sam blinked, paused halfway out of his chair. “You have a roommate?”
Something got caught in John’s throat. He coughed once and made an elaborate production of smoothing out his face. “Sort of.”
“Hey.” A weird thought had occurred to Dean, and he figured he might as well ask. “Do you have a sister?”
This time, John outright laughed. “No,” he wheezed. He made an attempt to stop, then gave up and just stumbled out the door, still chuckling. “No, I don’t.”
Rolling his eyes, Sam pushed past Dean and walked out first. “Can you stop thinking about that for one second? With the mess we’re in? Christ…”
Dean winced and carefully didn’t look around as they went into the main part of the club. “Sam, please don’t say that word. At least, not till we’re outside.”
“What’s wrong with it?” Sam raised his eyebrows.
“Because I really don’t feel like getting killed by something that I don’t even recognize,” Dean snapped, hurrying them along. This club really, really gave him the creeps. It was bad enough to make him wish they’d stayed and questioned Missouri a little longer about what they were in for.
Well, too late for that. They were just going to have to find out for themselves.