Winter Wonderland by Josh Whitener
They ran about a quarter of a mile. John was huffing and coughing his way through the bitter end until they reached the end of Southampton Road. Peter was still clinging to his pad when they ditched themselves into a small diner near the end of the road. John closed the door behind him, checking to see if anyone was behind them, but also for another matter. He’d made careful attempts to cut his hand when they reached the first alley. Peter had noticed when John scraped his hand against the brick wall, but didn’t react. He was probably too worried for the both of them, but John wasn’t taking any chances with what he saw just minutes ago.
Pressing his hand against the door he smeared a small amount of blood on hinge, leaving a small cover barely recognizable. He was way over his head. Guiding Peter to a table, he went to the bar casually, his breath still shallow and almost completely non-existent as he fumbled for a cigarette. He snagged a napkin and then ordered some water. Peter sat at the table waiting patiently, but kept flipping through his pad, catching several eyes from the patrons at both of the boy’s entrance. John, looking from the bar, sighed and moved to help the youngster.
Just a quarter mile down the road Clarice waited patiently leaning against the boot of the automobile. Her wrinkled lips pulled at the end of her cigarette holder while the form of Albert moved from his place inside the car, his ghostly body simply passing through the metal and gears to stand behind her.
“You’re quite restless for a ghost, aren’t you Albert dear?” she said quietly
“He’s been gone too long. It shouldn’t take this long.” he said warily
Clarice exhaled a thin cloud of smoke and calmly looked down the street. There was no sign of Malix, the Castigo’s lead operator.
“Come now, Albert, there is no reason that we should be worried at this point. At least do us a favor and tell the driver to keep the engine ready should we need to make a fast exit, eh?” she said with a small bit of irritation
Albert frowned. Clarice continued to stare towards Levi’s mansion. The sounds of vague shouts, madness, and chaos combining with the confusion were gone. The feeling was still in the air when she looked back to the road, now seeing the form of the shrouded man moving towards her car. Clarice tipped her cigarette to the ground, letting small bits of ash fall to the street. She waited patiently for him to reach earshot before she cleared her throat, intending to speak first with hopeful anticipation. It was, in fact, he that spoke first.
“He’s gone.” said without much reaction as he moved for the car
“What? What do you mean he’s gone?” she said confused
“His aura is gone. He’s not here.” he said again
Both Clarice and Albert gave each other a strong look.
“This is Constantine’s fault and you know it.” Albert said softly.
Clarice didn’t respond. She was too busy thinking. The air around them was thinning, the cold wind blowing against their shoulders. Clarice moved her arms up to her shoulders, rubbing her skin momentarily to avert it as she tipped her cigarette again to dispose of the unnecessary ash.
“He wouldn’t have gotten far. He’s on foot.” Malix said opening the door to the car
“You obviously do not know John.” Clarice said with a small smirk. “He’ll have gotten as far as he can before he decides on his next move. What his concern is in this is beyond me.”
“We’ve got to stop wondering and find him. He’s totally ignorant to this situation and it could wind us all up in a bloody mess.” Albert said urging.
From inside the car came a mechanized beeping. The phone near the center of the console was ringing, alerting the attention of all three of them. Clarice looked inside before pulling the door handle to reach for the phone. She picked it up and simply listened. She didn’t need to say anything. Under the silence of the early night there really wasn’t a lot of echo. Just a few short mumbled words then the “click” of the receiver’s end and then she hung it up, a sour expression pinching her lips together but also a sigh of some relief.
Malix stared at her as she moved back out of the car. Placing her hand on the door she sighed.
“That was Charles. There is a wagon on their way. Someone called alerted the authorities to the shots.” She said with a small sigh “…we better go now. There’s still more time.”
The sound of sirens could already be heard off in the distance. Malix and Clarice had locked into a stare. His eyes weren’t that convinced, but Clarice could hold her own even if Malix thought otherwise.
Albert’s voice broke the nonverbal sparing match as he looked towards the road. “We better go.”
Malix looked over to Albert, then back to Clarice. It wasn’t his expression itself; it was more behind his eyes than anything - a sinister glare that seemed to tell it all. His hand moved for the door and he opened it, sliding into the back seat as Clarice moved past him with a look of relief. She inhaled on her cigarette before plucking it from it’s holder and tossing it to the road. Clarice moved into the driver’s seat. The cigarette’s cherry ember grew as the wind carried it across the road as the car blew past it, rolling it over the concrete.
Inside Albert was busying himself by the window, just watching the outside with a concerned air to him. His life was already over, but somehow he was still worried. The whole underground was alerted to the presence of this child. Something that was so innocent, yet capable of a much greater purpose which was yet to be decided and the worst of it was he was in the possession of someone who has no right making such decisions. After what happened to the club’s internal alliance in the past months Albert wasn’t one to argue. Henrich Roland was a capable man. He’d demonstrated this after Constantine dismantled, almost accidentally, a small cult collection ring inside London. Albert continued to watch outside. Clarice had made herself scarce, perhaps to take her mind off the events while the others rallied together again to formulate some chaotic militia to find John Constantine.
Malix opened the door drawing in some light to Albert’s room. Albert, loosing his thought, turned to see Malix enter. He frowned slightly and returned to the window.
“I would have expected this to be more professional.” Malix said shutting the door behind him.
“With John Constantine involved, there’s no chance of things going the way you would like them to, Malix my son.” He said turning to face him.
“How is it that I’ve never had the pleasure? Only when I agreed to this…crusade…did I find him such a bother” Malix replied.
Albert didn’t respond to the question. He actually didn’t think of it as one.
“Tell me about him then. He does have what we are looking for.” Malix said calmly.
Inside the pub John sat near the bar. Peter wasn’t near him. In fact no one really was. He had taken the table in the back. Already there were too empty glasses of Guinness on it and his ashtray overflowing with nasty butts and ash. A woman approached from the entrance. Her dress hovered just above the floor. She wore a long overcoat, sheltering her from the cold outside. She, like John, was enjoying a cigarette when she stepped up the two stairs and walked to John’s table. He was slouching, hand resting his head as he watched her approach. Inhaling he rubbed his hand through his hair, plastering it off his forehead before he spoke.
“Evening Claire, been awhile.” He said with a grin.
Clarice glared at Constantine. She wasn’t stupid. She knew what he was doing and she would have none of it. She pursed her lips. Her wrinkled cheeks tightened into a sneer and she took a seat adjacent from him. She saw the bruise on his temple and at least that made her smile somewhat.
“I’d start by telling you your playing with fire, Johnny. But I know you too well, don’t I?” She replied.
“Not well enough I’d say, but I wouldn’t admit to knowing you either.” He said inhaling then snuffing the cigarette out slowly.
“You didn’t think I’d show?” She asked curiously.
“Oh, I knew you’d show. I just don’t know why you think you need to hide the fact that I do know.”
Clarice dabbed her cigarette into the ashtray. She didn’t mean to show it, but her insecurity was shinning for John to see clearly. He didn’t have to do in-depth to read her emotions.
“What do you want me to say, John? You don’t know what’s going on. We haven’t seen you in months and with your incident with Valentine and the rest of those bloody fools you’ve been nothing but a mere phantom.”
“I know more than you think. I may have been outa the mother country, luv, but this game of tag has stretched farther than that. I’d say you lot were the ones with your heads in the ground.” He said crossing his arms. “Didn’t expect you’re the type to murder a child, Clarice.”
“The rules change with the world, John. We shouldn’t keep emotional ties in this. You know that.” She replied coldly
“Bollocks!” John said pointing his finger. “You know as well as I that this isn’t right.”
“Where’s is he?” She asked.
“Safe. I’ve made last minute arrangements with someone I probably shouldn’t, but I’m running out of options here. Luckily they were already aware of what was going on – maybe more than I am. So tell me a story, luv. I’ve seen what the kid has to offer. What’s it got to do with us?”
Clarice chuckled, moving to catch the arm of a waiter. She ordered a glass of scotch and turned to John who was lighting a cigarette in the pause.
“You really think you’re trying to save humanity, don’t you dear? Always planning and scheming…one step ahead. Well my dear boy I think it’s time you did know about what your fighting for.” She said inhaling. A puff of smoke hovered between them as she continued. “We give these things names. Children and their innocence, but we don’t determine their future. Mothers can nurture and our fathers can abandon us but it never really changes who we are not really. We may have these insecurities, these burdens to follow us in everyday life but these things never guide us to our futures. Powers we can’t even understand are the ones leading us down the paths to righteousness or to Hell. This, boy, we know what will happen to him. There are hints, clues, and warnings to things like this. Each side plays its part. While one side does nothing to stop it – letting the tides turn for them, the other tries to turn it around for the better, or worse depending on the situation.”
“So which side is turning things and what does he have to do with it. It’s not like he’ll be king.” John said.
“King of what? England? I wish it were that simple. Even the king of some new world yet to be established. No, this is something darker; the secret lives we all lead are going to be determined by a child. Everyone’s lives will be at stake here, not just ours. This child will bring about the end of the world.” Clarice said, her last remark falling softly as if she was bored of thinking about it. She inhaled again and then removed the cigarette.
John looked at Clarice with a small grin, sniffing, he tried to stop an incoming laugh, but it didn’t happen. He chuckled and flicked his cigarette, allowing the ash to fall to the floor.
“This gives you a reason to kill him? There are scare tactics. It’s been done before.” He replied.
“It’s different. Henrich understands what has to be done and everyone seems to be agreeing. All but your friend Mr. Levi. Tell me, John, how does it feel to mark another notch to the wall of the dead?” She said harshly.
John glared, but he didn’t think Levi would have lived through that. He almost got his head blown off getting out of there. That seemed like hours ago. The thought suddenly made him check his watch.
“Under new management, then?” John asked bluntly.
“We’ve had worse.”
John gave a smug smile. His cigarette hung from his index and middle finger like a dead tree branch, and he momentarily lifted his glass as Clarice interrupted the silence.
“John I know what you intend to do, just as I knew that if you did find out what was going on – you’d likely stop us. I honestly did believe you died in that riot, and I wish you really did.”
“You’re not getting this one, Clarice. You may think you can get the better of me, maybe even get helpful wankers to run me in so you don’t have to take the fall, but you’re not getting him back…”
John stood from his chair, placing his arms on the table to lean in. His cigarette clenched tightly as he spoke in a short whisper.
“…and you’re just too blind to get any of it.”
Clarice paused a moment, letting John get his last words in. She cradled something in her left hand while she listened. All the while she positioned herself for the right time at the right moment.
“I just want to go home, mister.” Peter sobbed while holding his ice-cream cone. The zoo just didn’t seem worthwhile anymore. He even had his notebook taken away from him when John left. He remembered his name; it wasn’t that easy to forget. He had a friend named John when he was in school. He missed going to school, but he missed his mum. He hadn’t seen her in a day. Sometimes she had to work a lot but he was really starting to worry.
“I promise you will, child.” The man sitting next to him said. Peter thought he was funny looking, which was why he was keeping most of his cries inside. Even though he thought the man looked funny he still didn’t understand why everyone was being so nice to him.
The eyes of Peter’s new guardian were hidden and maybe this helped when he promised him his real mother. His consciousness was focused on the child. There wasn’t a soul around that would create a hostile threat, but he was never sure of anything. The only thought he kept in his head was that John Constantine, in no real surprise, was making a mistake. This would either go exactly like it should, or it would blow up in everyone’s face. Secondly, he made sure he kept the knowledge vividly attentive to his four senses that he was dealing with a ticking time bomb. With enough emotion in this boy about to avalanche, there wouldn’t be a thing in the world to stop him from ripping the astral plane apart.
“You always did like to get the better of us, John.” Clarice said quietly as John leaned in and finished his remarks. Her hand moved from under the table just before John could see it. In a moment that felt like none she moved her hand over to his and then back as she sighed. She slowly reached for John’s Zippo to light her cigarette.
There was a small tingle before he could look at his hand. He saw what exactly it was, but he was confused, distorted, and not clear all together. A small clear tube, no bigger than the top portion of his pinky finger, stuck out of the left side of his wrist and remained there for several seconds before he made a sloppy move to pull it out. He grunted, falling back almost gracefully into his chair as he looked at Clarice.
“I was saving that for something special, but we’ve run out of time. It’s angel blood, a seraph to be specific. Not a lot of people would have a reaction to such a small dosage, but then again we all aren’t as tainted as you. You’ll start to feel a little drunk and sick, but that won’t last long. By the next few minutes you’ll be in a coma.” Clarice replied softly.
John could see her making several movements, but it was starting to blur. His thoughts were wrapping together along with his senses. He could feel something sliding down his lips as his mouth hung open. Clarice rose from her seat, and moved to his chair. In a desperate move he tried to move away, but it was all too fast for him and as she approached his chair from behind, he swatted at nothing. His breathing was heavy and raspy switching from mouth to nostrils.
Leaning in close to his ear Clarice whispered. “You have to learn that something’s you just know you can’t win.”
With that she moved, gracefully from the table, and headed towards the door. John could see jagged lines of her as the rest of the room began to fade. Then all that was left was black.
Outside Clarice rounded the corner and headed to the first alley from the pub. She made her way into it and shortly caught sight of Albert, Mathew and Malix. Mathew was another member of the Tate Club that was brought in with Henrich. They were all there, the new, the old, and the up and coming.
“Well?” Mathew asked.
“His body isn’t a worry, but the blood won’t keep him in it long. He’ll be in the astral plane now.” Clarice began.
“We’re not fucking worried about him. Where’s the kid. The one we need to find?” Mathew interrupted.
“I didn’t get much. It was only a few seconds, but I did see someone.” She said.
“Who?” Malix asked.
“I couldn’t believe me when I did. At first I thought it was a trick, but it was too clear to be.” She said.
“Jesus girl, who!” Mathew shouted.
Clarice snapped up, giving him a stare. “He goes by the name of Erik now, but it wasn’t too long ago it was Mr. E. He’s a very unstable person. Why would John hand him over to a person like that?” She was in a state of disbelief, but for a moment she thought the deal was done. Mr. E, as he had been known to be called, was someone who cut his emotions from his beliefs. He lived by a different code of ethics that Constantine. She remembered the magical prodigy Tim Hunter was almost assassinated by E’s eccentric and unpredictable behavior.
“He didn’t come this far just to put the blame on someone else.” Albert said reassuringly.
“Look, let’s not just stand around sweating. You know where he is, right? Then let’s get to it. There’s not much else we have to worry about.” Mathew said as he pulled a gun from his coat and began tightening the silencer.
Clarice eyed the gun, and then looked to Malix who was already moving towards the end of the alley. The rest of them followed one after another. Time was running out. It was almost dusk and what had once become a carefully formulated plan was dripping into four crusaders fighting for magical supremacy.
There were anomalous feelings and short stings of pain. That’s all John could feel when he left his body. He’s traveled into the astral plane and most of them were voluntary. He was always unprepared when it came to the surprise visits, though. There’s no real way to prepare yourself once you know you’re gone. It always hurts, but it’s that deep, psychological pain that can put you in the nut house if you don’t come out of it right. He could see the things happening now. The edges were bending, giving him small glimpses as he pulled himself in. It started as a hole, but it got larger with the moments. He never understood time on this plane. Once your out it could be months inside, but minutes on the other. Time flies quicker here, and so does the soul. John was hurled sixty feet in a matter of milliseconds. The sound of a woman screaming was enough for him to vomit, but he couldn’t now, not for a long while yet. The demon blood mixed with the seraph’s created a feeding ground for his body. His soul was already tainted, and combining shut down his body temporarily. Clarice was right about the coma, he could have felt it a mile away. She gave him enough time to leave but he didn’t count on being out of action for this. He just hoped he made the right decision, and that E would put it all away before they got there.
Fucking hell this hurts.
Peter had walked with Erik for a long while. He’d never been allowed to talk to strangers but his mother wasn’t around much anymore and the men in long coats seemed to treat him better than the others. Erik didn’t talk to him that much. He only said the important things, like his name and where they were going. Peter liked his specs, they were pretty cool looking but when he asked if he could wear them Erik frowned and told him not to ask anymore questions. Just as the sun was about to hide itself he told Peter to sit down with him on a bench. Erik had told him that he wished he could show him the sun setting. It was one of the many things he didn’t like about this time. Peter tugged at his sweater when he noticed Erik begin to close up his cane.
“Can you see me?” He said forgetting he was asking yet another question.
Erik smiled. “I can see more than you would think, child. Would you like to see your mother now?”
Peter smiled for perhaps the first time. “Yes. Absolutely, Mr. Erik.”
He nodded, his eyes still staring straight ahead as he rose from the bench. Peter got up too and wiggled his fingers nervously. He saw an older man across the street who he didn’t notice before. He wore a suit, out of date from the looks of it. He gave him the creeps, but by the time he turned to look at Erik, he caught sight of another man. This one was scarier than the last, someone he thought he’d seen before. He wore a thin layer of cloth over his mouth. That much was noticeable even though he was still standing a considerable distance from them. Erik looked to Peter and took his hand before he heard something from behind. Rounding the sidewalk, Mathew approached from behind sticking the gun, which was barely visible from his coat, to Erik’s back bringing him very close to the man.
“Now, now, govn’ar. Let’s not get ahead of your thoughts.” Mathew said warningly in his ear as he pulled him quickly back to empty lot behind them.
Peter tried to run but was caught by Mathew as he moved them both into the alley. Albert came from behind Mathew to lead them in. The small few who walked the streets as the daylight drew to a close were scattered, leaving an open opportunity for the four. Malix was the last to regroup. Clarice had kept her distance across the street in an old apartment. The drapes were open slightly, giving her a small view of the goings on. With Albert as an exception there were only the two of them carrying out the act. Peter was their primary concern. Whatever E was doing in this had yet to be determined.
Mathew didn’t waste much time after he cornered the two. He pulled his gun quickly and aimed it at Peter. Peter could feel the warm sensation of his own urine staining the inner legs of his pants. There wasn’t even a chance for him to blink with what happened next. Erik has positioned himself on the wall, but as soon as the gun was drawn he straightened up. In the tussle his glasses had broken when he hit the unseen wall. He stood up, and for that instant, that powerful and unexpected instant – everything stopped.
Clarice couldn’t see it but that didn’t matter. It was for them alone. The bitter cold air ran through the alley and emitted the sound of crisp flapping paper. Mathew stared into the eyes of a man who was called E. One would suspect the milky white hue of a blind man, or even none at all, but blackness was never something that was usual in this case. Erik’s eyes paralyzed his own, his gun was all but forgotten and soon the rest of his body followed. Malix watched for only a mere couple of seconds before he tried to bypass Erik to get to peter. Erik’s hand jetted out to stop Malix, but this one was prepared. Malix brought his left hand around to Erik’s heart, his palm facing the chest. Erik grabbed Peter and pulled him behind him, shielding his body but more importantly his eyes.
“Indigui supo…” Malix began.
The unfortunate name of the up and comer was not what Malix would have wanted to hear. Erik could smell all of his stolen power. The Castigo had borrowed magic, channeled from an outside source. They were the vessels. As his hand hit his chest Erik felt a strong tidal rip form in his mind. His can was extended a small bit as his eyes now turned from Mathew, who fell to the floor lifelessly immediately thereafter, and looked to London’s winter gray sky. Erik inhaled as if it was either his first or last breath – like rising from a flood and gasping for a new chance at life. Malix brought the conflicting action. His breath was short and pointless as he stood frozen by Erik’s drawing aura. The whole ordeal lasted a few minutes. Albert had backed away slowly after he saw Mathew’s body fall and his face turn to him. Mathew’s eyes were staring aimlessly at the floor and his mouth, which hung open wide and gaping let saliva fall to the concrete as his muscles twitched and fidgeted for the last time.
Clarice could see Albert vaguely from the old flat just short of the alley. She failed to notice Mathew’s hand resting near the wall, but her interest was focused only on the one she could see. Malix’s body was hardly recognizable after he was finished with it and as Erik moved the man's decrepit hand from his body he regained his breathing pattern. Perspiration dripped from his neck and his short black hair was matted to his scalp. With a small turn he looked to Albert, a sinister smile on his face. Albert looked away for the first time terrified of his own safety. Erik opened his mouth and breathed. It was the sound of something so horrendous mixed with that of a common vacuum. The dead can scream and when they do it’s not the kind of thing people would ever want to hear. Clarice watched from the window as Albert’s spirit blew like a dandelion across the lot. She could still hear him screaming when he was gone. She drew the curtain closed and stepped from the window in darkness. The sounds of her heels tapping the wooden floorboards echoed as she withdrew from the flat.
Erik slowly turned to Malix’s body and grabbed the cloth from his face. The sight of him was gruesome, and he used his foot to kick the useless pile of decomposing flesh and bone to its side as Peter moved from behind his coat. Erik wrapped the cloth around his eyes neatly and then turned to where Peter stood. For once the child was not shaking, but the sent of urine was high even for Erik’s own heightened sense of smell.
“Let me take you, now child.” Erik said softly.
Peter hesitated, looking around for a moment, and then reached for Erik’s hand. Erik took it and with a small sigh they both looked to the gray sky again. Peter’s clothes fell in a small pile to the floor. Both he and Erik vanished from the lot, leaving two bodies behind them.
Temperature change is the worst. It was cold in London when I left. Now, where ever I am, it’s too bleeding hot. Tropics are the worst. Humid and arid. Might as well be the last time when I ended up on the big green lad’s bird. Actually… Wait. Something broke my thoughts. It’s always risky being open like this in another dimension of time and space. Just about anyone can get to you with the right planning and directions. Yea, something’s defiantly breaking in. I can just feel it. Something big – fucking hell it’s almost inside me. What the fuc…
...Constantine. ConSTanTINE. Constantine.
“Constantine.” The sound came from a large man, a bartender by the name of Geoff.
John awoke slowly. Geoff was tapping and shaking his shoulder.
“Oi! Constantine. Closing up, mate. Get you’re ass up.” Geoff said loudly.
“Come one, ya bloody drunk.” He replied helping him to his feet.
John felt a strong sense of nausea when he was brought to his feet and within second he was vomiting all over Geoff.
Outside John staggered from the door as Geoff tossed him out on the street. He coughed sporadically as he reached for his cigarettes. With his feet mobile and his blood pumping he was in better shape. His thoughts were like shadows, trying to chase an exact one was tricky. Luckily it didn’t take him far before one found him. Just outside the pub a voice broke just as John lit his last Silk Cut.
“John Constantine.” It said.
John turned to see Erik, the former Mr. E, standing just short of him. The look on John’s face was one that resembled a man who had spent two weeks in a hospital for overdosing on heroin. He sagged and swaggered like a drunk, but Erik knew better.
“I’m just letting you know it’s done. The boy is safe in a temporal dimension. There were forces at work here that knew what had to be done. They just needed a stepping stone. Our business is finished, Constantine. I can’t keep this up anymore.” Erik said.
It took John several moments to catch on, and by the time he was done he was still looking at a space that Erik no long inhabited.
Yeah that’s what we all say, mate. Cheers.
It was better that he didn’t say anything at all. Peter was gone, stuck in a dimension that resembled his own life. It was a prison more or less but he was clueless that he was a prisoner. His mum was still alive in that world, and when things got too complicated the forces at work would through their hands in to fix it. God’s divine plan simplified for containing a force unstable maybe even for him. It was risky enough trying to gamble and deal with a crazy tosser like E, but he’d seen what he could do given the right circumstances and he didn’t think it would have helped any with the Stranger. He could have grabbed the first axe and asked where to cut. John walked the cold streets of London. It was bitter and it wasn’t just the outside anymore. Clarice had betrayed him which from the looks of it wouldn’t be the last time.
Saving one life could have possibly meant millions of others but I lost more friends this time. Some of them would come back around, but Clarice was someone different. Map was right about stepping back into a war. This meant that nothing would be the same as it was before. New sects were forming themselves up and old ones were dividing. I don’t even know where I stand anymore.
John walked as calmly as he could down the street. His breath emitted a large cloud of smoke that ran behind him like a serpent as the wind joined him on his trek.
Christmas is coming then, eh? I guess I made it as merry as it can get.