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How to Plan a Funeral

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“John Constantine?”

The man standing in the hallway was, if possible, paler than John. He was wrinkled into an indeterminate age that bounced around from Methuselah to maybe mid-fifties after years of soaking in formaldehyde, which smell came off of him in gigantic waves. The skin beneath his eyes drooped to his mouth and the skin of his hands was the same dingy yellow as the linoleum on John’s kitchen floor. He didn’t ping as demon, but John kept on the chain anyway. “Who’s asking?”

“The morgue.” The grin was even worse: acres of jagged brown-stained nubs stabbed out of the guy’s gums. “Do you know a man named Gary Lester?”

Gary. Did John ever. Today he hadn’t woken up with a headache, but the one exploding between his temples now was making up for the lost time like a hooker on speed going down. He leaned against the doorframe and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “Yeah. Look, whatever happened, I was at—”

“Oh, no. It’s quite clear he died of cocaine overdose—he did once in front of a police officer, and once on the gurney when we were shelving him.” Instead of being annoyed, the guy sounded creepily gleeful. His fingers riffled around on the edges of his clipboard in a hungry, caressing way that made John close his eyes and think hard about not thinking about the time he’d walked in on Ellie “putting her face on.”

Fuck. It was too early in the morning for this. Gary was dead—had met a horribly undignified end, if John was reading the morgue man’s leer right—and the only real surprise was that hell, he’d still been alive. Way John had heard it, Gary had bitten the wrong ampoule two years ago in Vegas. “That’s a shame.”

“Yes.” When John opened his eyes, the guy was still there, and still licking his rubbery lips. He had flipped around his clipboard so it faced John, and now was holding out a pen that still had flecks of spit on it.

At least, John hoped it was spit. When everything smelled of formaldehyde, stuff that looked like bodily fluids couldn’t be trusted. He shifted up on one foot and stared down, whipping out a cigarette as he did. Soon as it hissed alight, he was starting to feel better; there was nothing like a quick shot of nicotine to the system. “So…”

“So sign at the bottom, please.” The guy grinned with his mouth wide open so his cavities could show.

John grimaced and glanced over the paperwork. Then he looked again. And then he grabbed the clipboard from the morgue man and read it even more closely.

“Gary Lester, you limp-dicked fuck,” he snarled.

“You can claim the body any time between eight in the morning and nine at night. Of course, the morgue is open twenty-four hours, but not the public areas.” Every word slithered like a worm from between the guy’s teeth. Actually, his tongue looked like a worm squirming around in a filthy cage. “Please bring some form of identification and your receipt in order to prove you’re next-of-kin.”

“Like hell I am.” The headache swelled up and completely crushed the soothing nicotine in John’s blood. Gary was dead. And he’d listed John as the guy who was supposed to take care of his goddamn sloppy druggie corpse. The last time John had seen him, Gary had accidentally transported an elemental from rural Africa, where it couldn’t do much, to L. fucking A. where it’d nearly eaten the whole city. Sending back that bastard had put John in the hospital. For only one night, but one night was two too many. “I’m not his fucking family.”

The morgue man smiled thinly. “Of course you aren’t. If the body lies unclaimed for another three days, it’ll be donated to science.”

Fuck. Couldn’t happen. With what Gary had been doing, anybody slicing him open had half a chance of getting eviscerated right there. And the other half was that they’d live, and panic the whole world by providing proof of the supernatural. Not to mention that that’d eat into John’s piece of the monopoly on otherworldly happenings.

John sucked on his cigarette, then roughly took the pen. Something squelched beneath his fingers.

The guy made a little ticking sound with his tongue.

With a wince, John signed the papers.

* * *

A call to Chas didn’t get an answer. Neither did the second or the third. By the fourth, John was down three cigarettes and couldn’t find a fucking tie. He’d gotten into a minor scrape the night before and had had to burn the one he’d been wearing, but he should’ve had a few left. Nope. His closet was empty. “Goddamn it.”

He turned away and snatched up his phone, dialing again.

Ring

Ring

Repeat ad infinitum since Chas wouldn’t get an answering machine—something about how that was asking for the wrong callers. If he was talking about the possibility that he’d pick up ghostly calls, then John could’ve told them that they were as boring as calls from the living: they had forgotten to turn off the stove before they’d gotten mugged, they wanted that damn freeloader off their former wife, etc.

John slammed the phone down on its hook and stared at himself in the mirror. Shoes—check. Shirt—check. Suit—check. Tie—no check. He drummed his fingers on the edge of the dresser a moment longer, then said to hell with it and walked out. He looked unfinished, he was breaking his routine…well, he was taking a casual day. Seeing as he’d already started off on the wrong foot, it couldn’t get much worse.

The first stop was Midnite’s, since Chas didn’t like stuffing bodies in the trunk and anyway, Gary was going to need a special coffin. At this time in the morning, the bouncers had just finished kicking out the last of the bar dregs, which kept them busy enough for John to duck around and inside.

When the lights were on, the place looked a lot more shabby. It wasn’t a reflection on Midnite, except in reverse—apparently ragged and beat-up was in this year. Lots of money spent on aging brand-new leather and denting shiny steel when John could’ve just directed him to a few haunted townhouses that could be ransacked for material.

No one seemed to be inside, so John wandered over to the bar for a quick pick-me-up. Alcohol normally wasn’t his thing, but he thought he might as well make an exception there, too. He was just leaning over the bar when he suddenly felt the need to turn around. Not that he did. “Hey, Midnite. How’s it going?”

“John, I need you to step into my office and listen carefully.” No little showing-off of his crazy psychic skills, no contemptuous delivery of advice. Midnite even sounded a little worried.

Which in turn led John to grab the bottle of whiskey instead of pulling himself a beer. He turned around, bottle tucked beneath his arm, and took out another cigarette. “You know, when you say things like that, I’m more inclined to leave and come back later. Problem with your clientele?”

“Only when you’re in the bar,” sighed a third voice. Mock-sighed, because Balthazar was never depressed when he could kick around John. “Why, John, how daring. No tie today?”

“Ah, that one.” John snapped his lighter past his cigarette tip, then leaned back to let the tobacco start burning. He flipped a hand at Midnite. “Give me a second. I want to enjoy the anticipation before I boot his ass out of here.”

Balthazar, who was poised perfectly between vain preening and arrogance behind Midnite, disgustedly curled his lip. “So sorry to disappoint, but you can’t.”

“Oh, really?” The whiskey was nice and heavy. It had a good heft in John’s hand. “And what’s to—”

Midnite sliced his hand through the air and things wobbled. He looked briefly annoyed when John tapped off some ash and made it stop. “Me. John, you have to sleep with Balthazar or else all three planes of existence will crash into each other. And you will. I have too many arrangements that would be disturbed.”

Now, that was a great opening to a joke. Except for the small, small fact that Midnite didn’t make jokes, and furthermore, had sold his sense of humor a few years back for immunity against Azrael. There was a tiny possibility that he’d gone insane, but no matter how much John searched for it in Midnite’s face, he didn’t see it.

John looked at Balthazar. Balthazar blew him a kiss.

On second thought, the whiskey bottle would break easier if it was partly empty.

* * *

The chair was goddamn lumpy and it was next to Balthazar, which gave John two good reasons to be fidgeting like a kid without his Ritalin. He slouched in it, jerking his foot, and glowered at Midnite when the other man shot him a disapproving look. “I just want to say I’m here under extreme duress.”

“So you’ve said. I don’t care.” Midnite nodded to the zombies on either side of John’s chair, who grunted and shuffled out. Then he put his elbows up on the desk and steepled his fingers, brows lowering like a cranky old professor trying to explain the facts of life to his students. “Hell, Heaven and the earthly plane are in danger of mutually annihilating each other. This has occurred in the past, so fortunately a solution has already been worked out.”

“I actually came here to talk about Gary Lester,” John interrupted.

Balthazar deigned to break his model posing to look mildly intrigued. “Lester? Isn’t he the friend of yours that you got hooked on mainlining powdered dragon bone? Finally get around to throwing him to the dogs?”

Ignoring both of them, Midnite pulled out a thick book. It had the requisite cracked-leather binding with age stains and gilt decorations almost rubbed away, swollen and yellowed pages and weird musty smell. “You can credit an ancestor of yours for it. Somebody of the Constantine line must mate with a half-breed demon of Balthazar’s type.”

“No, I’m here because he’s dead and I’m organizing the funeral. I’m pretty sure I can fit in your corpse, too—feel like visiting home?” John leaned over the chair-arm, his hand slipping into his coat-pocket. He smiled so his canines showed.

“Gary’s dead? Interesting.” Except Midnite sounded bored as hell. “The mating of you and Balthazar will result in the birth of the antidote.”

Pink flickered behind Balthazar’s creamy white teeth as he leaned sideways to purr at John. “Not before our little precious is born. I do like to bring home gifts for the Morningstar.”

“I bet he’d appreciate your spleen, you—wait. What?” John turned around and stared at Midnite. “Did you say ‘birth’?”

Midnite pursed his lips and reshuffled his fingers, which was about as close as he ever got to showing that he was uncomfortable. He rapped the book before him with his knuckles. “Of a sort. There’s no actual offspring, but the sexual conjunction of you two will result in an accelerated pseudo-pregnancy and then a birth of a repelling power great enough to push the planes back apart.”

It was seven feet to the door. Five if John just twisted around and jumped over the back of the chair.

He suddenly found himself clutching his Bible like a doddering old pensioner trying to stave off a heart attack. He pried his fingers off and stared at Midnite. “No. No fucking way.”

The other man didn’t say anything. He just pointed at a skull on the sideboard.

“That was an accident!” John protested. “It was slippery out!”

“John,” Midnite said, voice heavy with responsibility that he was about to offload onto John’s lap. “The world will end.”

“But—there’s got to—when? Can’t we think of an alternative to—to--” And fuck, because John hadn’t noticed his cigarette had burned down far enough to burn his lips. He hissed and yanked it from his mouth as Midnite scooted the ashtray across to him.

John threw it at Midnite.

The butt sailed through the air to within an inch of Midnite’s hat, then suddenly did a perfect corner and zinged into the trashcan. On the shelf, the skull clattered its teeth. Balthazar heaved another sigh and began examining his nails; after a moment, he took out a silver-edged emery board and started filing away. “That was childish.”

“Shut up,” John muttered, putting his head in his hands.

“The deadline is midnight tonight,” chimed in Midnite.

After a bit, John looked up. “And my ancestor thought of this shit?”

“It’s nice to see that self-destructive self-preservation instincts run so far back in your line. I like consistency in a human. They’re like steak—you want even marbling throughout.” For gratuitous effect, Balthazar added a slurp. It pretty much ruined his attempt to project the airs of a refined asshole. “Look on the bright side, John. I’ll have you at my mercy.”

“You’re supposed to look on my bright side, you prissy son of a bitch.” John’s headache was a killer now.

Midnite coughed. When both John and Balthazar had looked up, Midnite steepled his fingers in a distinctly amused way. “Actually, Balthazar, you’ll be carrying the…force.”

Balthazar froze, emery-board still in hand. Then he very slowly put that away and sat straight, moving like everything was made of glass. “Excuse me?”

“You’re the half-demon. It’d rip John apart in five minutes. You’re bottoming.” Even though Midnite said that in a deadpan flatter than Kansas, John got the impression he was having oodles of fun with it. Maybe it was the glint in Midnite’s eye; nice to know Midnite was also equal-opportunity when it came to making people squirm. “Naturally there’s a ritual involved—sex alone wouldn’t do it. My people are preparing for it, so come back in two hours. Now, John, what did you have to say concerning Gary?”

“Wait, wait.” Oh, so now Balthazar was having second thoughts. In fact, he looked distinctly squeamish, if that was possible for a demon. He held up a hand, then put it on the edge of Midnite’s desk and leaned forward, whispering like he wanted to have a private conference. “What? You didn’t mention that. What kind of damage—”

“It’d be like indigestion, only lower,” Midnite dismissively said. He cold-shouldered Balthazar and looked to John. “Gary?”

It took a second for John to switch off his grin. Yeah, he still had to fuck Balthazar and God knew what nasty surprises that’d include—Ellie had forgotten to hide her other mouths and a close call there had been why John had backed off from seeing her—but at least he was on top. Something to work with was all he ever really asked for. “Oh, yeah. He’s dead, bastard listed me as next-of-kin…so I need a coffin. And a hearse for getting him out of the morgue. Considering what I’m about to do for you, I think you can spare me that.”

Balthazar was still leaning over the desk, trying to get Midnite’s attention. He was starting to get desperate enough to tap his fingers.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Midnite replied after a moment.

“Great.” John got out the cell phone he was using and thought a second till he’d remembered the number. He looked up to see Midnite giving him a hard stare, smiled in response, and got out of the chair to scribble the number on a scrap of paper, which he shoved at Midnite before heading for the door. “Call me when it’s ready and I’ll come by to get the hearse.”

Before he’d quite made it out of the room, Balthazar called at him. “Since when could you afford a phone plan?”

“Since your buddy Melchior went a little too far with a family in the ghettos,” John cheerfully answered, tucking the phone back in his pocket. “Oh, you didn’t know? Sorry, honey. I’ll make it up to you in a bit.”

He shut the door in the face of Balthazar’s enraged snarl and shook out a cigarette as he went. Just when he was about to light it, the damn phone rang.

John paused, then went ahead and flicked on the flame. Then he answered the call. “Yeah?”

*It’s Chas. Look, I can’t come by your apartment today. The boss is in a bad mood and suddenly he’s all up and riding our asses, so I’m pulling a double shift. Hey, so can I curse him? Nothing major, just something to make him go home—*

Getting Gary out of the morgue was definitely going to be a two-man job, so that put a crimp in John’s plans. Or maybe not. “Meet me at the coffeeshop in half an hour.”

*So you can do something?* Chas hopefully said.

“Don’t be late. I’m in a hurry.” And click went the phone as John started thinking about the next item on the agenda: the priest. Since Gary claimed to be a Catholic and all.

* * *

“Oh, that’s such a shame. His poor family. His parents must be devastated.” For extra brownie points, Hennessey whipped out a handkerchief and noisily blew his nose into it. The corners flipped out and speckled John’s cheeks with snot.

Goddamn it. If Gary had ended up in Hell, then John was going to leave him there for a couple weeks just for putting him through this shit. If he’d ended up in Heaven, then he’d better be screwing the hell out of St. Peter to get John’s name on the books.

John slowly pulled out a rag and wiped off his face. “Gary’s parents died five years ago. He’s got no family, remember?”

“No? Oh. Oh, dear. Poor man, he died all alone.” Hennessey made icky love to his handkerchief for a few more seconds before turning around, shoulders slumped as if he had the whole fucking weight of the world on them. He put his hands on the great, dusty Bible he had on the side-table. “At least he’ll not be alone in death. John, you’re doing a great thing. Better than I expected from you.”

“Thanks,” John muttered. He took out his pack of cigarettes and checked the contents: only five left. Hell. Well, there was a drugstore right next to the coffeeshop, so he could stop by and pick up his main reason for preserving the earthly plane.

Sniff. Sniff. Then Hennessey apparently decided he’d faked enough and shuffled into the kitchenette to start poking around in the fridge. “Though I hope you’ll have enough respect to get a tie for the occasion.”

Oh, for Christ’s sake. “If it were the other way around, Gary would show up with a sugared nose and vomit on his fucking shoes. If he showed up at all…but look, I’m defaming the dead and I shouldn’t do that. The funeral’s tomorrow afternoon—tack up something out of Ecclesiastes, all right?”

It took two clicks for John to get his cigarette lit; he checked the lighter fluid and found he was running low on that, too. He knew Hennessey kept around a refiller bottle somewhere for when he needed to suck up to John, so he went poking. Piss stain…whiskey stain…crumpled up bunch of filthy white collars…old bills—ah, there it was. At least this wasn’t going to ruin John’s day.

Though it looked like he’d ruined Hennessey’s. The other man had stood up from his fridge and was staring at John with the stricken gaze of a wounded deer. If Bambi had done the modern thing and nested on his couch with a giant bag of fried potato skins after his mom had gotten blown away, that was. “John…”

“He would’ve wanted you to do the blessings,” John said. His cigarette was lit and he could finally inhale the sweet smell of burning, so his ancestors could take a flying dive into their old traumas. Bunch of whacked-out warlocks and witches they’d been—sometimes John wished the Inquisition had gotten all of them. “It’d be the right thing to do, Father Hennessey. You owe it to Gary. And anyway, we’re having it at Midnite’s, so he’ll mash down the corpse if you accidentally get it too excited again.”

“John, I’m honored, really, but—” Hennessey started.

And the phone interrupted. John ignored the curious look the cell got from Hennessey and held it up to his ear. He was careful to keep his thumb over the small symbol scratched on the edge so he wouldn’t get a spike through his head. “Yeah?”

*Johnny, I’m only agreeing to help save humanity because I fully expect to have your pathetic ass for it later.*

John covered the phone and looked over his shoulder at Hennessey, who was still stuttering protests. “Keep it under ten minutes, okay? Gary’s already been in the morgue for a while and he hasn’t been embalmed.” Then he pivoted and walked out the door, returning to the phone. “And here I thought how it’d go was that I got your ass.”

*How juvenile of you. This is a momentary arrangement, nothing more. And speaking of that, I believe you’re going to need some rules. You seem to do better with some…restriction.*

“Ha-ha. Listen, Balthazar, it’s been a blast, but I’ve got people to curse, places to exorcise…you know how it is.” It felt really fucking good to hang up on the bastard. Almost as good as taking a drag and feeling it hook hard into the pleasure centers of John’s brain, rasping nicely along his nerves.

Then the stupid cell spoiled it by ringing again. It was Midnite.

*John, there is a coffin available, but I have no hearses free. You’ll have to get the body yourself. And I will remind you that you are coming back here in forty minutes whether you like it or not.*

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll…be there.” Hanging up this time just made John grimace. He supposed he could just dig in and pretend it was plain sex, but for all he knew Balthazar kept spare teeth down there. Fucking for good. Jesus.

* * *

Chas was bouncing on the steps of the coffeeshop by the time John got there, and the moment he spotted John, he was up like a puppy. There was a newspaper blowing around on the sidewalk and John seriously considered it for nearly a minute. “Jesus, kid. Calm down.”

“You’ve really got nerve, you know. I’ve been waiting here for five minutes, and my boss is on the radio every other minute yelling. I’ve got him convinced I’m waiting for a fare to come down from their apartment, but any longer and he’s going to come down and bust my ass.” The words rattled out of Chas’ mouth as he scurried around to the driver’s side and slid in. While John got it, Chas kept busy with neurotically fixing his mirrors so he’d catch not only the traffic coming up on him, but also any apparitions. Or something like that. It was the latest bit of the knowledge of the ancients that Chas had turned up. “So where to? Him? He’s taking lunch now so we can—”

“No, we need to get to the morgue.” John needed to tap ash off his cigarette after that, so he mostly missed Chas’ minor freak out. He relaxed into the sagging seats and blew a smoke ring at the ceiling. “You heard me.”

“Oh, man,” Chas whispered, putting the car into gear. His mind was probably shooting off into nonsense about necromancy and so forth.

Well, Gary might’ve been an airheaded, unreliable addict, but he’d been halfway to a magus and that meant his burial might bring up surprises. For one thing, Midnite was probably going to charge an arm and a leg for pulling the strings to get one in a consecrated graveyard. Maybe John should just toss Gary into a dumpster after the laying-to-rest ritual and torch the body. An urn would be cheaper, and then John wouldn’t have to get his human ashes from Midnite for a while.

They pulled up with a screech in front of the morgue; John was sent slamming forward and nearly banged his head on the seat before him. He barely caught himself on the head-rest. “Chas!”

“Sorry, sorry. But what are we doing? I mean, I’m not that mad at him. Normally he’s an okay guy, but today he came in panicking…” babbled Chas.

Chas’ boss wasn’t the only one panicking. With a sigh, John stabbed out his butt and began to unwedge himself. He opened the door and stepped out, patting in his coat for the receipt. “We’re not here for your boss. I’m picking up a friend.”

Well, that shut up Chas. Long enough for them to get inside and for John to spot the slimy specimen of humanity that’d invaded his hallway earlier. He raised a hand and in return he got a crooked, yellow-pus grin that sent him scrabbling for his fresh pack of cigarettes. Nicotine haze made looking at the bastard slightly more tolerable. “Receipt and ID.”

The ID was actually John’s old cigarette pack, now empty and squashed flat. For a second he wasn’t sure if it’d work on this weirdo, but the man took the pack and the paper without a murmur. He walked over to a computer that looked as if a techno demon had spit it out of its ass and began entering info.

It impressed Chas. “Cool. When are you going to teach me that?”

“That’s not something you teach—that’s something you practice in the mirror.” John inhaled shortly and blew some smoke towards the hunched back of the morgue guy. He was disappointed when it spread normally instead of doing anything interesting. Fuck. Still human.

“All right, Mr. Constantine,” simpered the morgue man. “Mr. Lester’s body is just this way. You’ll want to move your vehicle to the loading dock; that’s just around the corner.”

“…loading dock? Oh, my God. John,” Chas urgently hissed, yanking at John’s sleeve. His eyes were gigantic. “John, you’re not sticking it in my trunk. John—John. It’s a corpse. Have you lost your mind—wait. Wait—I knew something was up. You’re not wearing your tie. Why aren’t you wearing your tie?”

It was times like these where John appreciated his height. Maybe he had to duck a lot, but it was easier for him to just keep walking when everyone else was below his line of sight. And what the hell was it with everyone and his clothes? “I ate it. Think of this as practical training, Chas.”

Chas moaned like a kicked puppy. “My boss will kill me if he finds out. And it’s gonna stink up the back…”

Unfortunately for him, John had had a bad experience with a golden retriever puppy that had turned out to be a demon. He jerked his arm free of Chas’ grip and shooed him off. “We’ll stick some air freshener in there, and I promise not to tell your boss. Cross my heart, hope to die.”

“I’m kind of tempted right now,” Chas grumbled, going off.

* * *

The morgue guy pulled out the shelf with a flourish. “There’s your friend. He’s a little banged up.”

No kidding. John grimaced and stuck his cigarette firmly between his lips, then started rolling up his sleeves; Chas had to turn away and cough a lot. But at least there was a plastic bag.

The morgue man clicked his tongue. When John looked up, the guy pointed to where John had just begun sliding his arms beneath the plastic and Gary. “You have to bring your own liner.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” John asked. He nearly lost his cigarette because his jaw dropped so far.

And that was a fucking no. Five minutes later, Chas came back with a bunch of hastily-scrounged trash bags, which kind of mitigated his worry about the smell. They definitely weren’t going to be smelling Gary on the drive over.

“Have a nice day!” the morgue guy called from the door.

“In hell.” With a grunt, John leaned Gary against the car and waited for Chas to pop the trunk. At least Gary was stiff enough to prop up.

The trunk groaned open like the overstuffed alligators at the zoo. Chas came back around and wrenched it farther open, then stepped back to eye the space. He still looked greenish, but he’d set his jaw and had apparently bought John’s line about practical experience. Actually, any good magus should be able to leave the bodies where they were and make a quick get-away, but today had been marked down as ‘John Constantine’s day of shit’ on somebody’s calendar.

“We gotta bend him,” Chas finally pronounced.

Well, fuck. Gary was rigid as a bar of steel. When they tried to wedge him in, they could get either half in, but the other half had a bad habit of springing out before they could slam down the trunk lid. Once Gary’s head caught Chas in the stomach and Chas yelped and fell on his ass, scrubbing hard at his shirt. “Oh, God. I’m gonna bleach everything when I get home.”

John decided to be nice and not mention what Gary had been into. He regretfully got rid of his smoke and pressed back on Gary’s head. Things creaked and made nasty popping sounds, but slowly Gary started to fold. Then the resistance suddenly slackened; John quickly kicked out to force Gary’s feet to wedge on the side of the trunk instead of shooting out. He shoved one last time to get Gary’s head in, then dodged back. “Down! Now!”

Chas obediently slammed down the top. He was still complaining about having to clean everything later. “Tell me we’re not going to keep it for long.”

“Nope. Straight to Midnite’s. He’s hosting the funeral.” Excitement whooshed up next to John so he almost felt bad about crushing Chas’ hopes. “No, you’re not going in. The club section’s closed, and anyway, this deal’s for old friends only. But believe me, you didn’t want to be Gary’s friend.”

“How do you know—” Chas began, looking pugnacious.

Two interruptions happened at once: Chas’ radio crackled, and John’s cell went off. On the radio, some guy who sounded like he was fifty pounds overweight and beat on his girlfriends started chewing Chas out so Chas went hopping forward to soothe him. John ambled after him, not particularly wanting to answer his call since he had a pretty good idea of who it’d be.

And yep, it turned out to be Balthazar. *Johnny, really. There’s coy and then there’s late so the zombies will gut you and have your liver for dessert. I want to get this…ridiculous charade over with.*

“I’ve got ten minutes.” Which wasn’t going to fly since rush hour had been going for a quarter hour already, but John wasn’t about to admit that. “Why don’t you go freshen up and wait for me to get done? Since, you know, I have legitimate business waiting on me.”

“Gotta make a quick stop,” Chas gasped. When John looked up to protest, Chas already had hooked his arm and was dragging him into the car. Before John could right himself, Chas had slammed the door and was revving the engine. “Oh, Christ. If I don’t go, he’ll fire me but if I do go, he’s gonna find there’s a dead body in my trunk…”

*Johnny? Is that that cute apprentice of yours? What’s he going on about?*

Okay, now the hanging up and getting unexpectedly thrown into corners was just annoying. John shoved his heels into the floor, said to hell with being connected and tossed the cell out the window. So much for that little experiment with technology. “Chas…”

“It’ll be quick, really.” Chas gripped the wheel and scraped his hubcaps between two huge semis.

Quick. Yeah, like getting pancaked on the road. While there were a lot of ways John didn’t want to die, that was pretty near the top of the list. “Chas!”

“Well, if you’d cursed him, this wouldn’t be a problem,” Chas muttered. Then he hung so hard around a corner that he went on two wheels.

Fucking great.

* * *

“…I don’t give a shit whose auntie is dead, I want to know why you were goofing off with this fucking gook-eyes when you were on call!” Just as John had expected, Chas’ boss was fat, loud, and greasy. He liked to point with his half-eaten sandwich as he stomped around so pickles and oily bits of lettuce went everywhere. “And what the hell is he doing here anyway?” Shake of sourdough at John. “Shouldn’t he be down in Chinatown killing his yakuza buddies or something like that?”

John took out his cigarette and casually reached into his pocket for his charms. Maybe the guy pinged as human, but John really wasn’t in the mood. Not to mention the jackass couldn’t even keep his racial slurs consistent.

But Chas shot him a pleading look, so John held off for a little longer. Then Chas went up to the guy, hands spread wide. “He’s my fare, and listen, he’s in a hurry so—”

“Oh, like fuck. He’s your buddy—you green-card bastards all stick together, loafing off and—and who the hell are you?” snapped the man, spinning to face the opening door.

And in walked Balthazar, looking like a greenhouse daisy in the middle of all the crumpled-up food wrappers and smelly stains. “I know you have difficulty remembering what’s important, Johnny, but—” he turned to stare at Chas’ boss “—oh, hello, Duppy. So this is where you got to.”

Duppy—which hadn’t been the name Chas had called him—looked at Balthazar, then shot a panicked glance at John. “Oh, fuck—that’s—that’s—”

Fwhish!

He didn’t even scream. A little Latin and the bastard just…melted. Dropped into an icky brown slick on the floor. It matched the shit-colored chair seats.

Chas blinked. “I…was working for a demon?”

Balthazar winced, then adjusted his tie. “Duppy was hardly a demon. More like a…wart that accidentally gained sentience. Now, Johnny—we’re late.”

“But…but who’s going to pay me now?” Chas plaintively asked. “Did I just lose my job?”

“Think of it as a step towards higher things. And we kind of do need to get going…I think I can smell Gary thawing.” Not that John wanted to, considering that Balthazar seemed to have reconciled himself to…what they had to do. And that was worrying, since that meant Balthazar probably had found something nasty to shove up his sleeve. “Jesus. And he thought we were the illegal immigrants…”

Sighing, Balthazar tapped his shoe on the floor. “If you don’t hurry up, I’ll be forced to call in the zombies. Midnite happens to agree with me on this.”

“I’m coming, I’m coming.” John threw up his hands and stalked out the door. “Christ, it’s like you want me to fuck you.”

“Wait, what?” Chas screeched.

* * *

“Come out whenever you’re done,” Midnite said, closing the door.

John and Balthazar were in a converted storage room. It still smelled like dried animal parts, but somebody had laid a mattress on the floor and there was a convenient rack of bottled oils to one side. “I thought you guys were all painwhores.”

“Stop projecting, Johnny. And you’ll use one of those unless you actually do get off on fucking nonhumans.” Balthazar just kept standing there, like he was waiting for John to do something.

Frankly, what John wanted to do was light up and smoke his way through half a pack in fifteen minutes, but Midnite had confiscated those before shoving them in here. He stood in place and stared back. “So?”

“So I believe this requires us to undress,” Balthazar sarcastically drawled. “Don’t tell me the great John Constantine is body-shy.”

“Hey, all I need to do is undo my fly.” Goddamn it. Look on the bright side…Balthazar was fairly attractive as long as his outer skin wasn’t breached. And as long as John thought really, really shallowly and repressed several years of memories of what Balthazar had orchestrated. “Why don’t you drop ‘em?”

Somebody banged on the door. “Do not make me come in there and direct,” Midnite threatened.

And yeah, there was the factor that they had an audience on the other side, listening in so they could match their ritual to the…progression of…oh, hell with it. Balthazar thought John was shy? Well, John would give him fucking shy.

He grabbed Balthazar by the tie and yanked him into the kind of kiss described as ‘soul-sucking.’ Which John had firsthand experience of, thanks to the disaster that’d been his senior prom.

John actually had meant to make a point, not get stuck in mouth-fucking. But even Ellie didn’t have as long or as flexible a tongue as Balthazar did, and anyway, John hadn’t gotten any in over two fucking months.

When they came up for air, they’d somehow gotten on the mattress. One of John’s hands was tangled up in the stupid suspender-things Balthazar used to keep his suits so nicely conformed to his body, and Balthazar had his legs pretty firmly around John’s waist. He was flushed and blinking hard as he looked at John. “I hope you weren’t expecting me to swoon. You kiss like you think your teeth are your lips.”

“Would you just shut up?” Eyes rolling, John dove back down. He ended up making them fall as he did, and no matter what Balthazar said, his hand seemed pretty eager about getting John’s cock free.

He had the easier job. Getting Balthazar stripped down was an exercise in fashion that John hadn’t really wanted. A suit should have three fucking pieces at most, yet John was scrabbling for buttons and buckles and stupid little—hell with that, too. He got his fingers hooked into the top of Balthazar’s shirt, distracted the bastard by biting at his throat, and just ripped it all.

“That’s over three thousand dollars!” Balthazar hissed. He was all shiny-eyed and gasping for breath now.

John shrugged and twisted Balthazar’s nipple. That shut up him—finally. Though a couple minutes later when John was busy pushing his cock into Balthazar’s ass, the bastard got him back by squeezing, and Jesus, demon muscles. Damn near crushed John’s cock. “Goddamn it, you want my dick stuck up there permanently?”

Balthazar made this breathy little sound. When John looked closer, he saw that Balthazar’s eyes were dilated till they were nearly all pupil, and Balthazar wasn’t exactly focusing on anything. It was sort of flattering, except for the fact that John’s fucking cock was getting turned into spaghetti. He cursed and shoved and finally he leaned down to suck on the bit of tongue that was dangling inelegantly out of Balthazar’s mouth. That worked.

As soon as they were done, Midnite shouted something on the other side of the door. Then he knocked again. “It was a success.”

“Great,” John muttered. “Congratulations, dearie—you’re knocked up.”

“You have lousy foreplay,” Balthazar replied. He finally relaxed and let John loose, then rolled over and started trying to fix his hair. “And you owe me a new suit.”

“John!” Midnite suddenly shouted.

Too late, because the door had already banged open and there was Gary’s mottled white and scarlet face lurching through. He wasn’t too steady—it looked like he couldn’t bend his joints very far—and he seemed confused. Which was understandable, since he was supposed to be stone dead.

John scrambled back into his clothes and simultaneously backpeddled; it was a trick he’d had a lot of chances to practice. “Gary?”

JohnnyJohnny, I’m cold…,” hissed the corpse. It lurched past Balthazar, who scooted away with wrinkled nose before calmly pulling on his pants, and came straight for John. Then it tilted its head. “John…tie?

Normally John was a fairly coolheaded man, but sometimes he just couldn’t do it. He felt his temper whiplash around and let it come out, stalking right back at Gary. “No! No, I’m not wearing a fucking tie! I didn’t feel like it, okay? Get over it, you goddamn dead—”

Gary’s eyes suddenly rolled back into his head. He clunked on the floor.

From the door, Midnite looked faintly apologetic. “Possible side-effects of the impregnation ritual included temporarily raising any nearby dead. I forgot about him when I was setting up the prevention wards.”

“Well, thank you, Midnite. Thank you so very much.” John stared at the corpse on the floor, then grudgingly started to roll up his sleeves. Time to get Gary back to his coffin. “So can I go now?”

“Of course,” Midnite said. But he held up a hand so John had to straighten up again. He pointed at Balthazar, who had stopped buttoning his shirt to clutch at his belly and look faintly ill. “But you have to take him. Part of it is personally nurturing the…ah, force.”

Balthazar glowered at Midnite. “This is not what indigestion feels like.”

“I’ll see you two here again at eleven this evening.” With that, Midnite made a quick exit. The sneaky son of a bitch.

John stood still for a moment, wondering how many bodies he might be able to stuff in the giant pinewood coffin Midnite had dug up for Gary. Today was really getting on his nerves.

“You’re going to get me raw chicken livers with pesto sauce,” Balthazar suddenly said.

And that was actually more disgusting than picking up Gary and feeling how his flesh had warmed up enough to be repellently soft. So John heaved the corpse over his shoulder and ignored Balthazar.

* * *

“I don’t think you’re allowed to eat in here,” John muttered.

Balthazar merely chewed louder. He chopsticked up his livers one by one, pausing before he ate them so the clerk at the front of the store could get even more scared. The pesto sauce made the livers look like they were props stolen off a sci-fi show, so John could sort of understand.

The average human yielded around five pounds of ash, but Gary had been so skinny by the end that he probably wasn’t going to run more than four. So that urn was going to be way too big, that one would have done if it hadn’t cost more than John’s cigarette budget for the past ten years…that one just didn’t fit. Shopping for the dead was surprisingly tough.

“Why don’t you just stick him in an old milk jug?” The last of the livers disappeared into Balthazar’s mouth. He took out a handkerchief and began to delicately dab the sauce off his mouth, only to stop and wince.

“See, that’s what happens when you disrespect the dead. I’m getting Gary a proper urn and that’s it.” John rounded the aisle and began poking in the bronze section. He figured since he’d had to let Midnite extract Gary’s heart and take some shavings of his ribs, the least he could do was get Gary a decent container. Decent being the keyword, since paying off for storage at the morgue had done a number on John’s finances. “You aren’t going to swell up, are you? Because I’m not carrying you around.”

The clicking of Balthazar’s shoes on the floor went in a stop-start, stop-jerk-start rhythm. The cramps were getting worse, unfortunately for him. Maybe that would teach him to fuck around with people. “No. This isn’t an actual child, you idiot. And that’s a good thing, since you’d probably lose a newborn within a week. Just get the cheapest urn—I need to eat again.”

“Are you sure? Because you’re snacking like a pig and I’d really hate for you to lose your figure, honey.” The last urn in the row looked promising, so John took it down for a closer look. Nice tight-fitting lid, plenty of smooth clean surface for him to scratch sigils, reasonable price…where the hell was the catch? “What’s the rush?”

Something snagged John’s elbow: Balthazar had grabbed it. His claws poked through John’s sleeve. “Johnny, my pelvis is shifting. This is painful. This is, in fact, so painful that I may need to turn that clerk’s vague tendency towards depression and morbidity into a grandstanding suicide in order to make myself feel better.”

“Jesus, you can’t ask for vanilla ice cream and pickles like every other girl?” Though to tell the truth, John was getting sick of shopping, too. He tucked the urn he had beneath his arm and started for the desk.

Balthazar grimaced. “That is a disgusting combination. Now, once we’re out we’re going to my office because I can get heart dressed with Marmite that I know is of reasonable quality.”

John didn’t really know what Marmite was, but it sounded unappealing. “I don’t understand how I managed to fuck you without throwing up.”

“Because your natural state of being is half-nauseated. Why else would you have fooled around with that slut Ellie?” Balthazar replied. Then he caught sight of his reflection in a chrome urn and stopped to tweeze a strand of hair back in place.

“Oh, are these the mood swings showing up? You’re so cute when you’re bitchy.” When John passed behind Balthazar, he was careful to elbow Balthazar so the bastard messed up his hair even more. “Well, always wanted to walk into your boardroom and say hi. With a shotgun.”

* * *

The boardroom was pretty nice, even if the prissy coffee-boy gave John the evil eye for not wearing a tie. John gave it right back and barely missed being splattered.

Balthazar stopped at the edge of the puddle, bowl of…his snack in hand. He raised an eyebrow.

“It slipped out. What, were you expecting me to knock off the demon-hunting just because you’ve got a bun in the oven?” John stepped over the puddle and started to pour himself a cup of coffee. Weird thing was, the coffee had teeth. He checked the labels on the various pots again, then dropped his cup in the bin in the cart’s bottom shelf and poured himself a fresh one. Then he checked the cream and sugar before he used those.

“I didn’t touch your baby apprentice. You could at least leave my toys alone.” But Balthazar didn’t sound too upset. He probably grew his coffee-boys in the basement and used them for target practice after-hours, so John didn’t see why he should be.

He started towards the head of the table, but halfway there Balthazar stopped and reached for the top of the nearest chair. This time the pain was bad enough for John to see that Balthazar was gritting his teeth. And yeah, the bowl being crushed in Balthazar’s other hand was a reasonably good clue-in.

“You all right?” Not that John was actually concerned for Balthazar’s well-being, but he hadn’t gone through this whole damn rigmarole only to have Balthazar miscarry and force them to start over. He checked his watch—still an hour and a half till they had to be at Midnite’s. Given L. A. traffic, they might as well start back. “Probably time to go…”

The doors exploded open. A handsome man in a silver suit that matched his steel-colored hair came stomping in with finger jabbing at Balthazar. “Balthazar! I’ve heard the most disturbing rumors about the crisis and John Constantine, and I’m giving you five seconds to tell me why I shouldn’t believe them.”

John coughed politely.

The half-breed’s gaze swung to him. Silver eyes swelled till they were just about popping out, then tracked back to Balthazar. “What are you doing?”

“Oh, I don’t know—trying to ensure our survival after your cock-up?” Balthazar airily suggested.

“You know, I always had my doubts about you—about your commitment to our cause,” said the other demon, voice shaking with rage. “But I thought you at least had taste. And yet here you are, consorting with—with—he can’t even be bothered to dress professionally!”

The one fucking day John couldn’t find a tie…and it looked like grayhead was about to take a shot at Balthazar, which would fuck things up even more. John unbuttoned a cuff.

And Balthazar casually reached into his pocket, pulled out a handful of change and flung it at his colleague. The coins streaked bigger as they traveled, and by the time they hit the snarling grayhead, they’d morphed into giant silver needles. He was slammed back against the far wall and mounted like a butterfly.

“Your spacing’s pretty good,” John had to admit. “You’re not going to break down into tears now, are you?”

“I’m a demon, not a housewife. Go dig out his second stomach for me…it’s the blue pulsing spot. And douse it in cream,” Balthazar ordered. He glanced at his nails, then pulled out that emeryboard and started filing away a nick in one of them.

John snarled. If Balthazar wasn’t going to play emasculated, then there definitely was no reason why John should. “Get it your fucking self, darling. I’m going to tell your driver to get the fucking car around.”

“I’m not in labor yet—” Balthazar paused. His eyes flickered. “Never mind.”

“Oh. Oh, great.” Throwing up his hands, John walked out before things got worse.

* * *

“I’m going to rip out your guts and string them from the thirteenth floor! You bastard--” Followed by something in what John thought was Aramaic, but his ancient languages were pretty rusty.

Also, he was on his back and trying to hold Balthazar still without letting the bastard bite into his stomach, which took up most of John’s concentration. He tightened his grip on Balthazar’s arms and dodged around till he could glimpse Midnite, who was working between Balthazar’s legs. “How much longer, damn it—gah—ow—goddamn it, let go let go let go!”

Balthazar sneered through the white spittle flecking his mouth and just clutched harder at John’s arm so everything went numb. Then he threw back his head, lips peeling away from his really fucking long teeth, and convulsed, knocking hard against John’s knees.

“Can’t I flip him over?” John hissed, ducking a lunge-and-snap. “I thought you’re supposed to lie on your back! Or squat!”

“That’s if you’re a woman, or built like one.” Midnite shuffled back long enough for one of his zombies to pour more oil over his hands, then dove back in. “Balthazar, stop trying to tear out John’s throat and push.”

Balthazar’s response raised fires in the corners of the room. A couple of the zombies lurched off to put them out, while Midnite did something that made Balthazar repeatedly slam his forehead against John’s shoulder. He had a skull of granite, so that really fucking hurt. “Ow! Fucking son of a—just get it the fuck out already!”

A long, shuddering breath gusted over the side of John’s neck. It sounded so pained and pitiful that he almost felt sorry for Balthazar. But then Balthazar reared up and let go of John’s arms to go for his balls, and to hell with that. John barely deflected Balthazar’s grab to his wrists just in time, because Balthazar clamped down hard. They both screamed.

Something bright briefly filled the room. It was hazy and all colors, and where it touched John, he felt oddly spaced out.

But then it vanished, and he was snapped back into a reality where a sweaty, furious Balthazar was within biting reach of his neck arteries. “Guess it really must’ve been an impending apocalypse if sunshine came out of your ass.”

Balthazar snarled and dove at him. Midnite stood over them, wiping his hands off on a rag. “Don’t bleed on the floor, John. It’ll set off the wards.”

* * *

Hennessey raised a trembling hand and quickly blessed the coffin and the incinerator before swigging from his bottle. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…”

Both John and Midnite glared at him. He coughed, shook himself and smiled apologetically before restarting.

“Sorry. I meant, On this sad occasion we are gathered here today to mark the…”

And so on, and so on. John rubbed at the butterfly bandages on his throat and caught up on his sleep until suddenly Midnite was elbowing his side. He jerked up his head, blinked, and then remembered. “Right. Gary Lester, you were an asshole and you still owed me fifty dollars, a girl and a ride to San Diego on top of all the bills I’ve piled up while getting you laid to rest, but you were a friend. Rest in peace.”

Midnite looked disapproving, but didn’t say anything as they stepped back and a huge zombie stepped forward. One shove, and then the steel door was clanging shut. So long, Gary. So long, best wishes, and good riddance.

John turned, then stopped. He lit a cigarette while Balthazar sauntered up. “And here I thought you’d still be moaning about your poor sore ass.”

“Oh, Johnny. You always estimate the strengths of others according to your poor self,” sighed Balthazar. He glanced at the incinerator. “Having a look at your own fate?”

“Much as I’m enjoying this little talk, I have better things to do,” John said. He stepped around Balthazar and walked on, raising his hand in a one-fingered salute.

Midnite cleared his throat. “Actually, John…you have to keep having sex with Balthazar for a while. In order for the brace to hold.”

John stopped. Then he slowly turned around; Balthazar was doing the same thing.

What?”