It had been one of those weeks where someone was trying to tell him something. Years later, after the end of all that business with Hell, he’d finally realise what it was.
But that first time, all he’d known was the tang of magic in the South London air, the blue-spark smell of lightning simmering over a field at night — a sign that something was about to happen.
John had been having the same nightmare for sodding days. A woman and a crone and a little kid would be sitting in a circle, sewing his innards into shrouds for the sleeping and the dead. He had tried to tell himself it was only a dream, but the bastards had kept right on knitting.
Of course, the nightmares had been a way of life since Newcastle, but it seemed that as of late, it wasn’t just him having them. There was the woman in Primrose Hill who’d woken up one morning and taken a golf club to her husband’s skull, still dreaming of him being a serial killer with enamel for eyes. The truck driver who’d had a waking vision of the childhood friend he’d shoved down a well, and who had ploughed his ten-wheeler into a busload of old age pensioners traversing the M 25 in the other direction. The vicar from St. Swithens’ church in White Hart Lane whom they’d had to carry off in a straitjacket because he’d somehow turned all the wine in the communion cups into blood.
London’s streets were uneasy, her dreamers were seeing things they shouldn’t, and something big was on the way.
John headed out into his city — grey, raining, filled with people — and the dream signals pursued him. The jukebox in Ed’s diner played Patsy Cline rather than Marvin Gaye, the telly kept changing channels from ITV to Strange But True?, Mad Hettie flagged him down at the corner shop and handed him a fable about the Sandman as if it were a Stafford scone. He had meant to properly chase down this dream business, but what with the new leads on his Fear Machine investigation, he never quite got around to it.
It was almost a relief, when on the third day that something finally caught up with him.
John knew who he was, right enough. The Dream King was impossibly tall and rail-thin, his skin as white as marble, his eyes stars in twin pools of night. He wore a long robe that trailed the skulls of those lost in the Dreaming. John had never met him before, had only seen an old and badly drawn picture that he now realised was a really shitty likeness, but it was as if he’d been dreaming about him all his life.
The Dream King’s voice was the darkness of oceans, cavernous and deep. “John Constantine, I presume?”
“You’ve the advantage of me, mate. I suppose you must be…?”
He didn’t introduce himself, of course; his kind never did. They just showed up and told you what they wanted. “Something of mine came into your possession. A leather pouch full of sand. I want it back.”
John tried to think. It was surprisingly difficult with the heady smell of power curling around him, filling his dingy flat with crackling ozone. “That pouch? That was years ago, a garage sale in San Francisco. I knew it was powerful, but I couldn’t get the drawstrings to open.”
“Where is it now?”
“Odds are, it’s in Chas’s lock-up in Cockfosters, together with the stuff from Paddington, and the Notting Hill flat. And all me vinyls from the Pleistocene era...” John’s voice dwindled under the Dream King’s glare. Blow him, but ancient anthropomorphic entities had no sense of humour.
They ended up taking public transport to Zone Five. Patrons of the London Underground were too stoic and British to bat an eye at one down-on-his-luck magician in a trenchcoat, even when he was in the company of a punk-rock god almost too tall to ride the Piccadilly Line.
John stared at the Dream King every chance he got. Goddamn, but it was hard to look away. The old book said he had many other names: the Lord Shaper, Morpheus, Oneiros, King of the Dreaming. That shock of dark hair, the slant of those thin shoulders, that angle of cheek and jaw, all of it was strange and familiar at the same time.
Under the flickering lights of the moving train, King Dream met his gaze, and John felt himself flush like the bollocks. He needed to say something quickly before this got even more embarrassing.
“So, you didn’t say how you knew me. Trust me, I would’ve remembered if I’d ever had the pleasure.”
The thin lips stretched in an approximation of a smile. “We have not been formally introduced, but the Laughing Magician is known in the Dreaming.” He paused, gravely, and then added, “I knew an ancestor of yours, once. She, too, was good enough to favour me with an important commission.”
Hello, this was new. John asked curiously, “Don’t suppose you’re going to tell me what she did, or who she was?”
“We have arrived,” the Dream King said instead, as the train pulled into the station.
The lock-up in Cockfosters held the detritus of half of John’s life, but the pouch was gone, like a sandcastle on a shore.
Memory dug its claws into John’s shoulder. The pouch wasn’t there, or half the vinyls he remembered, but there were stacks and stacks of old photographs. He’d forgotten how much of a sap younger-him had been. Old girlfriends, the odd boyfriend — and then, there she was.
“Rachel Salisbury!” —Junkie Rachel: brown hair, a Page Three girl’s body, voracious eyes. “Now I remember: she took off with a bunch of me stuff two years ago while I was in the States. Thought she’d only gotten me Silver Surfer comics, but it looks like she might’ve nicked the pouch, too.”
”Where can we find her?”
According to the phone book, Rachel’s father still lived in Wiltshire. John rang up a very wary Chas and got him to drive. Poor Chas didn’t know what to call the Dream King, either.
The length of the London Road echoed like a ley line that was now visible to John. At the end of the Brambles, lurking in the gathering dusk, the Salisbury house reeked with the Dream King’s power, drawing dreams and dreamers into a vicious whirlpool of a night that had no end.
“The pouch is here,” Dream announced, unnecessarily.
“You don’t say,” John said, grimly. “Chas, you stay in the cab. Let me and His Nibs sort this lot out.”
It was even worse inside the house. The walls and ceilings crawled with nightmares, shadows making dark pools of the floor. Rachel’s father had been consumed by the visions, the shell of his body barely still intact on a living room couch that was overgrown by mould and hallucinations. And as for the lady herself…
…Most of her hair had fallen out; her flesh hung slackly on her bones. She was lying in her childhood bed, under a Frank Zappa poster John remembered, rubbing the dream-sand into the open sores on her skin, against the place between her legs, and inhaling it like the only drug she would ever need.
She could still sing, though.
“…dream dream dream … whenever I want you, all I have to do…”
She focused with some difficulty on the men in the room. “Why, it’s Johnny,” she said, and lifted a skeletal hand to him.
John couldn’t think, could barely breathe, an iron band tight across his chest. He slid onto the rancid sheets beside her.
“Hello, love. It’s been a while.”
He gathered her very carefully into his arms. She was a bag of bones, barely kept alive by the dream-sand, her skin unnaturally hot with fever.
Dimly, he was aware of the Dream King reclaiming the pouch, and making ready to depart.
“You can’t leave her like this,” he said; he didn’t recognise his own voice.
Dream paused, and then a heavy hand fell on John’s shoulder. “Your kind has always walked over the flotsam of those you sacrificed for your own purposes. What could one more ex-lover possibly mean to you?”
John’s eyes burned. He ached to tell the bastard it was a lie, and knew he couldn’t. “The fuck you’d actually know! I said, we can’t bloody leave her like this!”
Another, longer pause. Then, “I know enough. Hold her closer, John.”
He felt a whisper of fabric sweep over his shoulders, light as a gossamer dream of wings, as the Lord Shaper drew his cloak around the three of them.
The Dream King’s embrace was both strange and familiar, at once impersonal and shockingly intimate. Under the robes, his smooth white skin was as cool as Rachel’s was deathly hot. Once upon a time, John might’ve been moved to write a song about it. A pity his front-man days were over; then again, he hadn’t been a particularly good musician.
Sheltered beneath the Dream King’s raiment, John could feel Rachel’s fever begin to ease, could feel her blossom in his arms as youth and life returned for a moment. He stroked her hair, and tasted the slow sweetness of her smile.
“You’re right as rain, now, love. Right as rain.”
“That’s nice,” she said, and closed her eyes, and breathed out one last time.
John was very conscious of his own unsteady breathing as he held her silent, cooling body and in turn, the King of Dreams held them both.
Time slipped and slid away from them in Rachel’s bed. It could have been mere moments, or it could have taken hours. Eventually, though, Dream withdrew, a whispering of feathers and shifting sands, and John let go at last.
He rose from the bed, blinking, rubbing his eyes, as if he’d just woken from a deep, restorative slumber. The pale dawn streamed through the window into the Salisbury house freely for the first time in months. All across London, dreamers were waking to a new day.
All except one; but that was all right, that was to be expected. It didn’t make it any easier, though.
John really needed a cigarette, like he always did, not just after having sex, and he didn’t think he’d just had actual sex; in fact, quite the opposite.
“Well, then,” he said. This was pretty awkward not-really-morning-after conversation. “Congratulations, you’ve got your sodding sandbag back. I’d best go wake Chas, and then head back up to the Smoke. Where are you off to next?”
“Mate, aren’t we all. What’s there for you?”
”I must retrieve something else. From the Morningstar, or, failing him, from the First of the Fallen, who used to rule in Lucifer’s place.”
A frown crossed the brow of the Dream King, and John didn’t press further. Afterwards, he’d kick himself for not having probed, because it might’ve spared him some of what happened later.
Instead, they walked to the front door in silence.
John briefly considered asking the Dream King for a boon in exchange for the favour and the not-sex. He could do with the Newcastle nightmares being taken from him, for instance. Then he thought the better of it: the dreams kept him honest, made sure he’d never forget. And, who knew? Maybe the King of Dreams might visit him once in a while.
“I’ll be seeing you,” John said, faux-casually. He made himself hold Dream’s gaze, so that he wouldn’t forget in the way that dreams always made you forget.
“Goodbye, John.” King Dream took a step back, and began to dissolve, becoming starlight, becoming dawn. Then he paused, for the last time.
“Your ancestor, the one I knew… Her name was Johanna.”
And then he was finally gone, and John wondered if he’d dreamed that last brush of fingertips against his cheek.
He should have realised it, then — it wouldn’t be the last he saw of the Endless.
* * *
Most times, magic works by tricking the universe into believing a tremendous lie. And sometimes the magic shows you that the universe is the biggest lie of all.
John felt it every moment he was onstage with the Mucuous Membrane, when it’d shaken him something wicked and made him go back for more. He feels it every moment he spends fucking and being fucked: the rush of Emma and Judith and Helen and Stan and Mandy and almost too many others to remember.
The hot, sweaty flare of showmanship, the intoxication of sex, the high-wire dance of the long con — and underneath everything, there’s the fever magic that’s delirium given flesh; that gives him the stones to fight and fuck and ride all the synchronicity highways of the world.
So life, as most people knew it, was just another fairy story — so sodding what? He was young and magic was the bollocks and he didn’t have to give a fuck about anything else.
It doesn’t stop when Newcastle happens, nor does it stop when the Brujera’s primordial Darkness comes for him. The invunche takes Emma, and Judith pukes her guts out and turns, terrifyingly, into a cawing bird. Mandy vanishes. Helen survives to get married and move to Glasgow. Stanley runs away, though God knows what he’ll do when he finally finds out about John’s little scam with the Rasputin clock.
It doesn’t matter. He finds new lovers, or they find him, like trouble always winds its way to him wherever he is — Zed and the Resurrection Crusade, Marj and the Fear Machine, Papa Midnite, Zatanna and Clarice.
Mad Hettie has always been Delirium’s creature, but she’s always given it to him unvarnished. These days her comments are getting harder to ignore. “Storm’s coming, boy, you best get your noggin on straight.”
In those early days, there was part of him that belonged to the madness, no question: body and soul and tripped-out mind. He figures it's always been that way with the Laughing Magician: from that first legendary king Kon-Sten-Tyn, to Lady Johanna, to this latest wisecracking, Silk Cut smoking incarnation.
Storm’s coming: years later, he’d finally understand what Delirium was trying to tell him.
Time for the come-down. Johnny Con-job — sprawling face-first in the gutter on Charing Cross Road, bracing himself, eyes open, for the hard morning of truth.
* * *
Spring came, and everything in the world woke up.
The new elemental needed to awaken, too, to a home on Earth. Called into being before her time by the collective force of Nature, the tiny sprout had to be born into the world or she’d be consumed by the wild. Problem was: the Swamp God, the Green’s protector, had a human wife, and had no ordinary means by which to procreate so as to give her a child.
Enter John Constantine, the Laughing Magician, the world’s biggest conman — the bloke who lurks in the shadows, ready to deal with the madness, who’ll kick your demons in the bollocks and spit on them when they’re down, leaving only a nod and a wink and a wisecrack. Who’s got it all sewn up, who’ll save you from the powers of darkness, if it takes the last drop of your blood to get the job done.
Who’ll even knock up your old lady for you, if you, and Destiny, ask him nicely.
The being calling itself Alec doesn’t ask him very nicely.
He’s prepared himself, of course; it’s his idea, even. But nothing could have prepared himself for this— being flung out of his body, the explosive pressure of a god displacing his spirit from his earthly flesh. Below him, someone else is sliding into his skin, taking control of his reflexes and muscles and neural pathways, then a god is using his clumsy limbs and lips to take beloved Abigail to bed.
High above the Green, John feels his body as she feels it, as they feel it — cradled by her human arms and the swamp god’s green and inhuman embrace. They touch, and fibres and flesh and taken breaths merge and intertwine until it’s impossible to tell where he ends and where they begin.
With the swamp god in the driver’s seat, hopped up on the headiness of this first coupling, Constantine can’t be pissed off; not that he can do anything but enjoy the ride, through the sap in the bark and leaves and new grass.
Through Abigail’s body, he sprawls with the Louisiana swamp, steaming and sopping-damp. Beyond the both of them, he wrestles with the earth, sinking in loam to his arse and his eyebrows. Moss encrusts his flanks, vines climb his calves and trail up the knots of his spine, the rich soil finding its way into the crevices hidden between his lips and his thighs.
Above them, the birds and moths and dragonflies couple, below them, horned beetles battle and threadworms make love. Across the world’s surface, warm-blooded mammals large and small fight and fuck and come together in birth and death.
There is no contradiction, only the pulse. Within the world. Within her.
The spores are spilt; the egg is pierced; the sprout attached a new green shoot to the abundant loam of her mother’s womb. Her name is known in the Green: Tefé, for the New Earth.
Spring comes, and everything in the world wakes up — including John Constantine, his seed planted in Abigail Holland’s fertile soil, the occasion marked with a tree that a god has tattooed on his arse.
* * *
John wasn’t too proud to turn tail if it suited him. Other magicians who tried to play hero and stand their ground usually wound up dead. John Constantine, on the other hand? After his latest run-in with the First of the Fallen — where he'd infected himself with demon blood and won back his soul, and made the current ruler of Hell look like a right pillock — skipping town for a bit might be the better part of valour.
The problem with planning to lie low, was that trouble had a funny way of finding him.
John had figured he would just check in on the Hollands in Louisiana and Zatanna in New York City, but something else had other plans for him, drawing him to the West Coast and laying out dead bodies in a bloody string of pearls, a pattern that was aiming itself like an arrow at the heart of Los Angeles.
Case in point: one fancy downtown apartment, two dead spell-casters. The men were each wearing fishnets and fake wings and a latex thong. Clearly magicians did things differently in the City of Angels.
John examined the rough pentagram on the floor. It was the same pattern as the last five along the major West Coast cities: the self-inflicted wounds, the scrawl of blood spelling out LUCIFER in crooked letters. They’d all been trying to summon something, and it hadn’t worked.
One of the corpses had a packet of Silk Cut in the pocket of his leather vest. John palmed a fag out of long habit.
Someone stepped out of the darkness, struck a match, and held out the open flame.
John smelled the faint scent of summer peaches, and took in the figure in the blood-red jacket, skin as pale as smoke, cut-glass cheekbones slanting in the moonlight. It left two shadows: one dark, the other wavering and yellow. It was like every gorgeous and terrifying thing anyone ever did see.
Not the Devil, but definitely a being you wouldn’t want to run into on a night like this, unless you were John Constantine.
“Don’t tell me. These blokes belong to you?”
Desire’s voice was both a man’s smooth tenor and a woman’s alto at once. “Yes. As do you, Constant One.”
“I don’t think that’s true at all, mate,” said John, which he knew was a bit of a lie. “What can I do you for?”
At least Desire didn’t pretend they were just passing through. “You mean, who can you do for me,” Desire said in a lush, silken purr. “I want you to broker a meeting for me with Lucifer Morningstar, the previous King of Hell.”
John frowned. Despite his history with the First of the Fallen, he’d never actually had the pleasure of meeting the First’s predecessor, though of course he knew about the transfer-of-power ruckus that’d gone down down below — with the Morningstar abdicating and leaving the keys to his Kingdom in the hands of the Lord of Dreams, and the First assuming the throne of Hell in Lucifer’s place.
“Lucifer’s here, in L.A.?” Suddenly the string of corpses invoking the Light-bringer made a lot more sense than before.
“So it would seem. Playing piano in a club on Hollywood Boulevard.” The matchbox in Desire’s hand bore the name Lux in bold pink letters. He handed it to John, who took it against his better judgment.
“What do you want with him? And why don’t you just go see him yourself?”
“Samael’s sequestered himself from everything, including from desire. And I don’t go where I’m not welcome.” Desire smiled with all their pointed teeth. “As for what I want? I’m hurt that he’s out here in the world and yet not desiring the things of the world. Where I touch, things want and need and love, drawn to their objects of desire like butterflies to a candle flame. I want that for the Morningstar of Creation.”
Desire shrugged graceful shoulders. ”Failing that, like these poor misguided souls you’ve come across, trying to summon him with their little spells, I want the Morningstar to desire his home in Hell once again.”
John couldn’t believe any of this was actually true, but he had to admit he was intrigued anyway. “What’s in it for me?”
“I can grant you a wild night with whomever you desire.” Desire’s eyes gleamed in the darkness, tawny and sharp as yellow wine. “Besides, it might be in your interest to see that the Morningstar finally returns to his Kingdom. If that happens, the First might lose his throne, together with his power to take revenge on your immortal soul.”
Well, Desire certainly knew how to turn on the hard-sell. But John Constantine was no one’s mark: if he was going to beard the Devil in his den, it was going to be on his own terms.
“A man walks into a bar like a rake at the gates of Hell. What could it be that he truly desires?”
John Constantine was used to being referred to in the third person. He leaned across the lacquered surface of the piano and smiled winningly at the tall blond man who was tinkling the ivories.
“Mate, where have I heard that line before?”
The piano player smiled back. It was the most beautiful smile Constantine had ever seen. The man’s eyes glinted under the intimate lights of the bar as if they reflected all the tortures of the damned.
“Let me rephrase that, John Constantine. Why don’t you let the Devil buy you a drink, and tell him why you’re here?”
Trust the Devil to uncover his weakness for a good stout. Lucifer had several pints of top-drawer Guinness brought over, and John found himself putting them away in short order.
The club was filled with the hubbub of shiny good-looking people and house music exhorting sympathy for the Devil, but sitting in the VIP an elbow’s distance from the Light-bringer in his white designer suit, they could have been in their own private bubble of quiet.
Lucifer had heard about John’s recent victory over the First — the Morningstar might have left his kingdom, but clearly he still kept up with what was happening in Hell, and was enjoying the notion of his successor’s suffering, in what seemed to be an even more maladjusted family dynamic than the Constantines’.
“The First was always too obsessed with being first in everything,” Lucifer said, with a dismissive wave of the hand. “I’m not at all surprised that you’ve managed to stay one step ahead of him.”
John finished his drink, and Lucifer summoned another. “Maybe, maybe not. Anyway, I came out here to go off the grid a bit, maybe say hello to a few old friends… but I kept running across dead kids who looked like they might’ve offed themselves in a spell gone wrong.”
“And you’ve been investigating.” Lucifer looked at him with some interest. “It sounds rather interesting. Perhaps I could do that too!”
“Mate, that’s a job for the LAPD, not the former King of Hell. Except…” John frowned into his glass. “Those kids looked like they offed themselves as an offering. To you.”
Lucifer leaned forward. “Pentagrams? Invocations of my name? ‘The Devil made me do it’?”
“Yeah, all present and accounted for.” John thought about not saying it, and then figured Lucifer would figure it out sooner or later. “Someone’s trying to get you to return to Hell.”
Lucifer smiled again, with all his teeth. “That what you’re trying to do, too? So I’d take down my sibling for your sake?”
“It’s what Desire of the Endless is trying to do. Or at least they asked me to arrange an audience with you.”
“Why would Desire use you as their go-between?”
John shrugged. “We just happened to be at the same crime scene?”
“You don’t believe that for a moment,” Lucifer drawled. He drew a pattern on the table’s surface with one elegant finger. For some reason, it made John’s mouth go dry. “Which begs the question: what does Desire really want with me? What do you think Desire could offer someone who already has all he desires?”
John cleared his throat and met Lucifer’s amused gaze. “If you really had all you desired, mate, you wouldn’t be lying low here playing piano in this anonymous party town.”
“Perhaps.” Lucifer leaned in and slid a cool hand up Constantine’s thigh. His mouth quirked, wry and luscious. “Perhaps what I really desire is to fuck the man who fucked over the First of the Fallen.”
John had to swallow. “You don’t need Desire to offer you that,” he said; he’d been reaching for casual, but knew he’d totally missed the mark when Lucifer licked his lips.
“And I thought for a while there I might be losing my touch.” The hand slid further up, caressing the long muscle in John’s flank, and John felt himself getting painfully hard. “You’d offer this freely? Something you’d never offer my brother?”
The Devil cupped John Constantine through his trousers. His eyes seemed to suck all the oxygen out of the room. John could feel the heat of Lucifer’s taut body through the sharp white suit; he couldn’t remember when he’d ever been this turned on.
He made a last-ditch effort to salvage some of his dignity: “Nothing I’d offer would ever be free, love.”
“Fair enough. Now come here,” and the former King of Hell took hold of John Constantine’s chin and captured his mouth in a soul-consuming kiss.
Never let it be said that Lucifer Morningstar wasn’t a right devil in the sack, or that he didn’t give as good as he was given.
He’d let John rip off his clothes, and make fists in the feathered stumps on his back where someone had cut his wings off, and fuck him urgently against his bedroom wall. When he’d gotten his breath back, he’d summoned ancient manacles that looked like they’d been forged in the Crusades, and chained John spread-eagled to the rails of his king-sized bed.
The third time around was as much pain as it was pleasure. John Constantine wasn’t usually one to beg, but in the Devil’s arms he found himself pleading for mercy until his voice cracked and Lucifer finally let him come.
What surprised him was Lucifer cleaning them both up, after, and falling abruptly asleep.
John wondered if he ought to take the opportunity to peruse the rare artefacts and magical relics on display in the cases beside the bed. He supposed there’d be time enough for that later, when he recovered his ability to walk...
…He woke in a blaze of sunlight, stark naked in the Devil’s bed.
In the daylight, Lucifer looked almost serene, the lines of his face and body as flawless as a marble Joseph Geefs statue’s. “Looks like Morpheus treated you kindly last night.”
“Huh. Maybe the King of Dreams knows something I don’t.”
“Perhaps the Dream King knows what his sister-brother is really after.” Lucifer propped himself up on his elbows and fixed John with a surprisingly shrewd stare. “So what does Desire want? Think about it, John Constantine: it’s not me. It’s not you, either, gratifying as this interlude has been.”
John had figured that out for himself last night, somewhere in between the delight of the second round and the despair of their third. Which begged the question: what was the immortal personification of mankind’s longing really up to, and what could be bigger game than the eternal Morningstar?
“You could ask him yourself?”
“Fine, I’ll bite. It’s always better to deal with the Devil you know.” Lucifer snapped his fingers, and a slender figure stepped out of the dawn light, smelling of peaches and wearing two long shadows at their feet.
“Looks like you boys had a hell of a time,” Desire said, archly, sliding onto the wreck of the Devil’s bedsheets.
“Always room for one more, my dear Epithumia.”
“Morningstar, I like you best when you’re insatiable.” Desire’s tawny eyes flicked to John; they ran a lazy finger against his bare throat, tracing a silver chain into being. “As for you, John Constantine, you do good work; we’re in your debt.”
“Nice doing business with you.” With some effort, John slid out of bed and started to get into his clothes; he tried not to watch in the mirror overhead when Desire began to take off theirs, piece by slow piece.
Lucifer seemed fascinated, though, his attention focused on the show in his bed. No doubt he’d assumed the mortal he’d so thoroughly worked over would be too sex-drunk satiated to nick anything, but then he didn't know John Constantine.
“I always keep my promises,” Desire called after him.
John Constantine smiled, grimly: he was rather counting on it. The weight of Desire’s pendant hung around his neck like a portent, and there were a couple of interesting trinkets in the pocket of his trenchcoat — ripe for some future use.
* * *
She wore Sex Pistols black. Her skin was the colour of lilies-of-the-Valley of the Shadow of you-know-Goddamn-what. In her eyes was endless night.
“I need you for something, John Constantine,” she said.
He thought about the last few times the Endless wanted something from him. It was dead embarrassing, but his heart was hammering like a schoolboy’s. At least that was better than his heart not beating at all, and in the presence of this woman, not-beating was a key part of the job description. “Funny thing, love, I get that quite a bit.”
“I’m aware. Your kind draws people in, like moths to a flame, and you’ve never been above using that when it suits you. ” She smiled with surprising compassion. “I’m just surprised your body count isn’t even higher — both in bed, and in my domain.”
Damned if he wasn’t going to be slut-shamed, even if it was by Lady Death herself.
“Like you said, abstinence isn’t really me bag. Don’t mind me asking, but where’re we going with this?”
Smirking, she held up a banana and a condom, and he realised what this was about; thank fucking God, this was totally up his alley.
“Ever thought about doing a comic on sex education?”
* * *
Some days John feels like he’s slowly sinking in dark grey bile; falling and floundering in a place where there’s no daylight.
These are the days when he doesn’t want to look in the mirror because he’ll see his dad’s face staring back at him, gaunt with middle age and desperation.
Sometimes he makes himself look, and behind his haunted eyes he’ll see a multitude of tiny windows, hanging in the void, each window looking out into a different part of the outside world. Sometimes he’ll look into a mirror and feel the eyes of Despair upon him, and feel her hook catch and snag in his heart.
And then there are other days where he basks in the California sunshine and thinks, Yeah, that’s finished now. It gives him an enormous sense of relief that he’s finally through with all the bullshit, that he’s put the long cons and London and the crapshoot of hedge magic behind him, and finally grown the fuck up.
This is what grown-up looks like: a Gothic-style greystone mansion nestled amid rolling acres of landscaped real estate in luxurious, sun-drenched Pasadena. A husband who has more money than God, whose business empire is pretty much legit these days. A kid they had with a carefully chosen surrogate — since they used John’s sperm, Stanley got naming rights, and he’s called their son Damien.
Maybe, in another life, John could have patched things up with Kit, or gone to Scotland after Zed, or settled down in Liverpool with Angie. But this was the life he chose when he went back to Stanley and forgave the obsessive git for framing him for murder, when he burned his books and told Stanley he’d stay.
Stanley’s much less messed up these days, thanks to the kid and their life together. Sure, he’s done some dark things, but hasn’t everyone? And John Constantine, the unrepentant bastard who’s been the death of nearly all who’d loved him, certainly isn’t going to judge.
So things are good; at any rate they’re better than he’s ever deserved.
John makes himself smile at his reflection. He shaves close because Stanley likes him to go down smooth.
He finds his family in the grand dining room. Summer roses fill the vases on the sideboard, portraits of Stanley’s dead parents look down from the walls in regal splendour. Stanley’s sitting at the head of the table, his nose in the New York Times, wrapped in a silk brocade dressing gown. Damien’s in his high chair, kicking his tiny legs and giving his nurse what-for. Their ubiquitous butler, Fredo, is serving a Pasadena-style brunch of eggs and Iberico ham.
John presses a kiss to the top of Stan’s shower-damp head. “Done with your morning exercises, then?”
Stanley flashes his wry, slightly unhinged, grin. “Managed the circuit in forty-two minutes again today. You should come running with me, John, get in better shape.”
“Funny, I didn’t hear you complaining about me shape last night,” John points out. He puts an arm around his husband. The body under the silk brocade is every bit as muscular as it had been ten years ago, when S.W. Manor had offered it up in the best S&M clubs in L.A., looking for a punishment that only John Constantine could satisfy.
Stanley hooks his thumb in the drawstring of John’s pyjama pants. “You know I have no complaints. There’s no one like you, John, in bed or out of it.” He grins, shark-like. “And to think I almost gave you up.”
“Ever have second thoughts about that?” John knows all too well what Stanley gave up to be with him: the bondage, the gun-running, the little boys. These days Stanley doesn’t ask to be whipped, and he makes sedate love to John on monogrammed silk sheets that were a wedding present, and the streets of South Arroyo are safer — but still, sometimes it feels like the manor is filled with ghosts of orphans.
What the hell, John has ghosts of his own — dead friends and ex-lovers, and the kids which he would now never have: Kit’s pre-schooler, Zed’s troubled college-aged son, Angie’s fierce teenage daughter. It’s not for him to condemn the darkness of others when he himself was once a member of the tribe.
Stanley’s smile gets impossibly wider, and for a moment he looks like someone else: something with too many teeth. He’s wearing a rose in his lapel that John could have sworn wasn’t there a moment ago.
“Not for a second. You’ll always be mine, John.”
He cups John’s cheek, and John submits to the possessive kiss.
He’s in love, isn’t he? He has a family, has everything he could ever want. There’s no reason to feel this empty.
A clock strikes eleven: the day’s not even half-way through. There’s nothing much more to do and John doesn’t try. A trap is a trap; he knows he can figure out who’s got him if he has enough time, but why bother? After all, Despair is used to saying little, and being patient.
* * *
When he finally got his life back, he headed out into the city because that was what John Constantine would do.
London was burning again, its dreamers being consumed by nightmares given flesh. This time, John was afraid he knew exactly why. The demon Rosacarnis had lived long enough to see her long con come to fruition — she’d taken the forms of John’s old lovers, impersonating in turn Zed and Kit, Angie and Stan, so she could have four demon children with the Constantine lineage, who’d help her take over the world like four horsemen to her Apocalypse.
As expected, the First of the Fallen hadn’t taken too kindly to this plan. He’d not just put an end to Rosacarnis, but also to two of the demon children; he’d left Angie’s girl and Stanley’s boy alive, so they could help him track John down.
The First was saving the best for last. After years of being outsmarted, he wanted to finally savour John’s soul.
London was burning because of Rosacarnis and the children, and John had gone to ground in plain sight, on a corner of Denmark Street where the Damnation Army’s church had burned to the ground. For too long he’d lain in a puddle of someone else’s piss, drifting in and out of dreams about Maria and little Damien, and of the faceless ancestors who had borne the Constantine name.
In between he dreamed snatches of things he didn’t understand — a severed head in the arms of the blonde woman he now knew to be Lady Johanna Constantine, a green-haired Amazon with a sword bringing destruction to the Dreaming, the Dream King leaving his kingdom and abandoning his throne, like Lucifer did years ago — and underneath it all, in the background, the three crones knitting, always knitting.
What could have brought Dream to this, and how were the Constantines involved? Was this happening now or in the future? He’d be buggered if he knew.
Finally, reluctantly, John roused himself and got to his feet. Unsteady like a sailor once again on dry land, he staggered out into the burning city.
He was bone-tired, but he’d already lost enough time in dreamland. He needed to figure out what defences he had against the kids and the First.
A quick inventory turned up very little by way of either weapons or allies. For a start, the demon kids had taken out most of John’s friends. And in terms of the former, he’d lost most of the artefacts he’d accumulated in his career when the Cockfosters lock-up had been looted again, some time during his most recent stint in jail. All he had were the two coins that he’d nicked from Lucifer’s bedroom years ago, relics so clearly inconsequential that the former King of Hell had never once sought to recover them.
Come to think of it, he also had Desire’s necklace, but he didn’t think it would be of any use against the First — the First had nothing he desired more than eating John’s heart.
Then again, the necklace might be useful in another way.
John frowned, feeling the old survival instinct begin to bubble under the base of his skull. He didn’t have to understand what the old synchronicity highway was trying to tell him in order to go along with the ride. Also, he might be tired, but clearly not so tired he was ready for the knackerers to take him behind the sheds.
He spent a couple of useful hours at the Colony pulling down a mark for some easy dosh — trust gamblers to stay at their posts in the face of impending doom — which he invested in a hotel room, a change of clothes, a bath, and a quick kip.
It was midnight when he woke. He went for a walk in St. James Park, and at the oldest point on Constitution Hill, he drew a blood circle and closed his eyes, and let the Green take him.
Constantine, Tefé Holland said, eventually. I would’ve said it was a pleasure, but I promised Daddy I’d give up lying for the equinox.
“In another life you’d call me Daddy, love,” John murmured; he knew it made him sound like an old perv, but he didn’t think his biological daughter would mind. Much, anyway.
Sperm donor, more like. She cut to the chase, razor-sharp like Alec had never been. Who did you piss off this time? What d’you need?
He told her, and she snorted. You know, other sperm donor dads have the common decency to stay out of their kids’ lives for good.
“If your real dad had any common decency, he wouldn’t have gotten me this arse tattoo,” John said, and grinned when she made a horrified gagging sound. “Are you gonna help your old man or not?”
Oh my God! All right, I’ll help. But after this, John Constantine, you’re never calling me again, you hear?
It took a long time, but eventually Tefé found the place where Lady Johanna’s bones had become part of the Green. John went back to the hotel and booked a budget flight from Heathrow to Athens.
From humid Athens, crumbling under the weight of its people and its history, he rode the ferry to the island of Naxos. The thunder of the First’s pursuit followed him in circling storm clouds that marred the Grecian sky.
John wasn’t in the best of shape: too little cardio, too many goddamned cigarettes. It took him hours to find the right place — the twisty narrow goat-trails untrodden by tourists and locals alike, hidden to all but the talented. The almost-inaccessible cliff that led to an ancient domed temple. Its white walls glowed redly under the setting sun, as if it too belonged in Hell.
John stopped at the top of the cliff to catch his breath, and then he saw the cherry tree in full bloom, and the headstone.
LADY JOHANNA CONSTANTINE
Born 1760 Died 1859
“Be to her Virtues very Kind,
Be to her faults a little Blind.”
There was a fresh sprig of cherry blossom on the stone, as if a human hand had placed it there this morning.
Then he heard the singing. It was coming from the temple — the most beautiful, inhuman sound John had ever heard.
Inside the temple was a severed head.
Its skin was as pale as the deathless. Its eyes were shut, and its mouth was open in song.
John gasped like it was amateur night. Orpheus’s eyes opened, and the song stopped.
“You look like her,” Orpheus commented, after a while, when John still couldn’t speak. “She wasn’t a particularly kind person, but she was kind to me.”
Finally, John found his voice. “So this is what the King of Dreams asked her to do, eh?”
“It’s not what you think, John. Lady Johanna rescued me from the French Revolution. It was the Furies who did this to me after I lost my wife in Hell, long ago, and my father has since then refused to let me die.”
John shook his head when he realised who the poor bastard’s father was. All the pieces were falling into place.
He took a step back, and closed his hand around his necklace.
“Desire, you old git, I hold your sigil in my hand. You owe me one, and I’ve come to collect.”
The sun was disappearing below the horizon. Its last red rays outlined a familiar figure as it stepped out of the shadows to greet them.
“Fancy meeting you here, Constantine, and in the company of our missing nephew,” Desire said, archly. “Not sure what you’re up to now, but it looks as if your days are numbered.”
A feral grin. “Still, if you ask nicely, maybe we could make the First desire to eat you out before he consumes your soul? At least that way you’ll die happy.”
John matched the smile, feeling the old Devil-may-care boil up in his blood, despite the hounds of Hell snapping at his heels.
“Nothing so prosaic, mate. I’ve a taste for unfinished business before I die, and the business I desire is with the Dream King.”
There was a high, ecstatic, keening note from Orpheus, and Desire took a staggering step back.
“What did you say?”
“Your brother, the King of Dreams? The Lord Shaper? Morpheus, Oneiros, the father of Orpheus. I want to see him one last time before the First eats me from the inside.”
Desire was always poised, always graceful, but here in the temple of Orpheus they seemed to be unable to find their footing. They stammered, “What the Devil are you playing at, Constantine?”
John grinned fiercely. “Ten years ago your brother held me in his arms and didn’t get me off. Maybe I want to see him finish what he started.”
Desire bared their teeth, and John laughed in their face. “What’s the matter? Can’t stand the thought of your brother desiring someone else?”
From the shadows came a rustling, like a rush of wind in the darkness, and then there was Dream himself, as tall and pale as John remembered, his eyes like twin flames in pools of night.
“This is one way to get my attention, John Constantine.”
“Seems I’ve been looking for you in my dreams, mate.” Which was a terrible line, even if it happened to be the truth.
Desire made a scoffing sound, and when John turned around he saw they’d cleared off, melting back into the night as silently as they’d arrived.
“Hello, Father,” Orpheus said softly. It sounded like no family member had stopped by in centuries; no wonder the poor kid was half crazy, even without the Furies destroying his body and leaving his head alive.
“Son,” said the Dream King. His bearing was as stiff as ever, but John thought he detected some feeling in that otherwise chilly voice.
Orpheus murmured, “If you won’t give me what I want, then why don’t you help this poor man? Johanna would have wanted you to.”
“Would she indeed.” At least Dream didn’t say why should I care, which was a start.
John remembered how he’d shouted, as if you’d understand, to the Dream King; remembered how Morpheus had said, I understand enough. Now it seemed John finally understood, too.
He took a deep breath and made his final play. “Mate, I could give your boy what he wants, if you won’t do it yourself.”
“And how could you possibly do that?”
“I have Lucifer’s coins to pay the ferryman of Hades,” John said, and took a knife to his left wrist.
Demon blood was the bollocks in this holy place, and irresistible. The thunder rolled, the clouds obscured the sky, and the First of the Fallen arrived, arrayed in all his power and a killer cloak the colour of fresh meat.
“John Constantine, you can’t hide from me forever!”
“Yeah, this is totally me not-hiding,” John pointed out, trying to keep his footing as the wind howled and the floor of the temple seemed to pitch like a ship in a storm.
He flung out a hand to steady himself, and blow him but if there wasn’t the Dream King, reaching out to hold him up.
The First said, “Stay out of this, Morpheus. It doesn’t concern you.”
“Oh, but it does. For I would not surrender John Constantine to the likes of you.”
“And what power do you think you have to stand against me, King Dream?” snarled the present King of Hell.
Dream drew himself up to his full height.
“I said this to your predecessor in the very place of his power, and I will say it to you, here, in the place of mine. What power would Hell have if those imprisoned there would not be able to dream of Heaven?”
Dream’s eyes shone like an eternity of stars, and he seemed to grow infinitely large around them, his robe spanning nebulae and constellations in their multitudes…
…The First made a scoffing sound. Clearly his cloak was no match for the Dream King’s, and neither was his power, not in this place.
“Very well, Dream, there’s no accounting for taste. Constantine, our business is not finished. One day soon, your protector will be no more, and on that day your soul will be mine.”
When the First was gone, John turned to the Dream King.
“About that being-no-more thing? Seems like, in future, you’re going to leave your kingdom and be destroyed, because of your son. But maybe that won’t happen if you let a Constantine do the dirty work, like you relied on one before.”
“Perhaps,” Dream said. “But only because you have the coins to pay for my son’s passage to the other side.”
John wasn’t sure that the coins he’d nicked actually did that — it could be that they were just some loose change Lucifer happened to have lying around that day. But of course he wasn’t going to admit this now.
“If you wanted me to develop a desire for living, you could visit more? Both of you,” said Orpheus, and he had a smile for John, if not for his father.
The Dream King surprised him by saying, softly, “I only ever wanted what was best for you.”
“You’ve never said that before,” Orpheus said, quietly. “I should have listened to you, Father.”
Amid this touching family moment, John wondered where his own demon children had gotten to, now the First seemed to have backed off for the time being. Maybe Maria and Damien figured they had better things to do with their lives than try to destroy their old man. He hoped so, anyway. Flee, little monsters. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.
After they said their farewells, and took their leave of the temple, John prodded Dream in the arm. The Dream King’s robes were soft; the skin beneath felt even softer.
“Thanks for coming to the rescue, mate.”
Dream said, “It was a thing well played, Constantine. And I usually do not appreciate being played. But in this one instance…”
He leaned in, and clasped hold of John’s collar, and John drank down the pale, cool draught of the Dream King’s kiss. It made his toes curl and his hair stand; he didn’t want it to end, and knew that it would, like all things must.
“Not just yet, though,” he murmured, and put his arms around the King of Dreams.
John woke on a grimy pallet in a dodgy youth hostel, alone and naked in the pale dawn, with not a bedfellow to see hide or hair of. Every nerve of him was throbbing — aching from too much climbing and too much sex and from the sheer gladness of being alive.
Around him, all across Europe, dreamers were waking from a deep sleep.
John’s clothes were in the corner where he’d flung them last night, except for his tie, which the Dream King had taken off for him, and was undoubtedly now somewhere in the Dreaming. He rummaged around for his cigarettes, and took stock.
Desire’s necklace was gone, Lucifer’s coins were burning holes in the pocket of his trenchcoat, and there was the indelible sensation of the Dream King’s mouth on his bare skin.
Love, adventure, death and glory: it was all the same in the end. The bastards would try to put him in the ground, but he’d always find a way to come out on top. Across the park, in the dark, he was nobody’s mark, not even for the King of Dreams and his dysfunctional family.
John Constantine lit up, and watched the sun rise on a new day.