CAUTION: MAJOR SPOILERS FOR BOOK SIX

Jinx is at her cauldron, mixing something up...

TAKE: memories of Swamp Thing pages wilting in the summer daze, Jack in four-colored motley gambling with the Unknown

ADD: Tarot cards, backs bowed from too long carrying their burden, the Tower crumbling atop the hastily reshuffled deck

NOT FORGETTING: the razor's edge of light winking, teasing, hiding just around the comer in a maze of darkened ways

SHAKE AND BESTIR

'Round Midnight

... I part the last ward and open the door for the Magician.

He's done me the courtesy of standing in the dying light of the hanged bulb, which dances on its string as the last train hurtles past us into tomorrow. He's hurt.

"Fool," he salutes me, even though he's the one standing there braced against nothing but his pride; as the light settles I can see that he's swaying on his feet. I smell blood.

He looks into my eyes and I let him read my thought plain as a lightningstrike: YES, IT'S REALLY ME, CONSTANTINE, SAME AS EVER AND IN NO MOOD FOR A GAME OF WIZARDS' CHESS.

His mouth tightens at the corners. He whispers, "Nonetheless, that is what we are playing at now." He drops his gaze, sighs like he's translating some other response, then says in words that seem eked out of a nearly-exhausted quill, "You will be pleased to know that I really can't stay... but I wonder if I might have use of your washroom?"

It's warded. Better than most places outside Hogwarts.

"Come in," I tell him, holding back the door.

"Thank you." He strides into the room, a little too deliberately; his movements are jerky, reminiscent of a marionette's funereal march.

As he steps into darkness he's reduced to hands and a face adrift above them, like some teakettle Spiritualist's suggestion of the Dear Departed. He disappears into the washroom.

Parlor trickery: When is a door not a door? When it's ajar.

He needs help.

Marvelous. What a perfect start to the morning. I close and seal the door to the flat. A spider starts rebuilding the web we've disturbed.

Passing by the kitchen table, I palm the box of coffin nails, shake one to the ready, scoop the lighter from my pocket.

He doesn't like cigarettes, always tells me there are terrible things in them.

That's why they taste so good, I tell him. I light up, take that long, first drag of the day, then the second, and third.

In the spare room, I squat to keep my trousers free of the dust and haul the box of potions and herbs out from under the canted bookcase. More spiders flee ruined homes.

In another room I find the key and unlock the strongbox, feeling it hum between my hands as the bespelling changes. When it's quiet again I bring out the smaller box and open the cache.

Bottles wink up at me, chatter amongst themselves agitatedly as I carry the box towards the window. The streetlight spills like white wine over the sill, onto the floor.

I just have to check that there's no glowing green skull hanging over my flat.

Not yet. Just a few stars defying the smog.

I'm checking for his sake, of course.

If he were going to kill me, he'd have done it when I opened the door.

And then he'd really have been in trouble.

I ignore the bottles' chattering as I tote the box to the washroom. I'm not the least bit interested by them; everything I drink from a bottle comes from the liquor store, and I'm pretty sure I'm allergic to Eye of Newt.

Still, it's nice to have a little something special prepared, in case an unexpected guest arrives.

And it's simply because I won't touch these brews that he keeps bringing them to me, fresh every year, so I'll have them on hand for a night like this.

I step onto the white square of hard, cold light from the washroom. Lean against the doorframe, just holding up the walls, watching him.

He's standing in a pool of black wool, ankle-deep, stripping off his bloodstained white shirt and clenching a scream between his teeth as he works the shredded linen loose from shoulders which have been gouged by something big.

I study the damage, glimpse livid shadows on his chest as he meticulously hangs the sodden shirt over a towel rail. "Talons and hoofprints," I note. "Hippogriff?"

He nods, very curtly.

I laugh out smoke. "You do have a way with animals."

He glares at me but says nothing.

Those waxing crescents stamped upon his ribs must really hurt.

As he sees me realizing this, he stands up straight and looks down his nose at me and demands, "Give me the box."

Last time something said that to me, there were chains snaking from the walls and Hell's slip was showing.

I hand him the cache full of potions and poultices.

Of course it's too heavy for him to bear with cracked ribs. And, of course, he clutches it into his chest because he'd never let it drop. He goes bone-white and one hand lashes out to seize the sink rim for support; whatever he hisses under his breath makes the lights flicker.

Too carefully he lays his burden down upon the closed lid of the toilet. Steadies the box making sure it won't slip off. All the while he's clinging to the sink like Ahab clutching the mast and now his eyes are closed, and he's muttering incantations or imprecations or both.

The towels ripple with the force of his spellwork.

I'm impressed. I didn't know the toilet lid still worked. I live alone. And what company drops by isn't fussy.

But he's come from Hogwarts, and now I remember how everyone from Hogwarts always lowers the lid. They have ghosts and monsters in the plumbing there.

I suppose the constant threat of castration could explain why these Wizards take their pissing contests so bloody seriously.

I say to his furrowed shoulders, "I heard you killed Albus Dumbledore."

He freezes, and the temperature in the washroom drops fifteen degrees.

He twists around and glares into my eyes in the clouding mirror and declares, "So I did."

I think about that, as I finish my cigarette.

He turns away, braces himself against the sink and rummages through the cache, considering options, discarding them quickly one after another.

I reach around him and drop the bent coffin-nail into the rusty pool in the sink. He flinches at the hiss of embers dying on contact with water.

Very slowly I blow out my last lungful of smoke and in the chill it looks like spilt milk. I realize how everything here now is all red and white and black... "You're working some pretty deep alchemy," I surmise.

The hazy mirror reflects him at a strange angle, so his closemouthed smile looks like it's just hanging off its hinges.

Somehow the angle of his reflection is not quite right, and no matter how I change my perspective I can't make it come true. Finally I hazard a guess: "Wizard's Chess... played on Many Levels?"

Flash of teeth in his smile: a viper's salute.

I remark, "Doctor Dee fell in with untrustworthy company."

"So he did." For a minute I think he's going to crush the phial in his grip, rather than drink from it. Then he's steady once more, with the heavy grace of a gargoyle which has just alighted, and he uncorks the dose and hurls it down his throat.

You can always tell real Alchemists, they have no gag reflex whatsoever.

Suddenly I smell Brighton Beach: burnt sugar and salty newsprint and fish too long in the sun. We had a lovely holiday there when I was small.

Before more Hell broke loose.

My guest slumps to the floor, curls into himself whining like an overwrought toddler and after awhile I realize he's trying not to scream.

God knows why. This bathroom's heard it all, by now.

Of course, it could just be courtesy and he's keeping his voice low so it won't burst the mirror to shivereens.

After awhile he gets ahold of himself enough so he can seize a tiny bottle made of dark blue glass. Somehow he works it open, drinks its contents whose traces on the bottleneck look like melted pearls before he licks these up.

I think of a bee assiduously tonguing nectar, restless, relentless.

I wonder what on Earth's in those brews, that can induce mild hallucinations in an observer.

I wonder what they're doing to him, how they're changing the flow of the magic in his veins.

He's too quiet, all wrapped up in himself now like every other drug abuser. Whatever he's been up to all these years has eaten him away, down to the bones and tendons. A sudden rush of lymphatic fluid makes him keen through his teeth as it flushes his wounds, makes a bloody finger-painting of his back.

On his arm a BlackWork tattoo remarks upon a bad decision made in youth. He glares at it and the skull glares back hungrily, reminding him, Memento Mori.

As he drags himself back up onto his feet, I tell him, "You're a mess."

His laugh is curdled. "You're another."

"True." What else would one expect, really?

I light another cigarette.

Finish it, watching the gashes on him knit their ragged edges and hide away their loose ends. Soon all that's left behind are white hatchmarks, like a prisoner's count of days or a murderer's tally.

He whispers something and all the blood and mess vanish.

"Neat trick," I approve, enviously.

He ignores me, collects his tattered shirt and shakes out the rents with one firm snap of the wrists.

"Good as new," I note. I saw Penn and Teller do that trick once.

He whisks the shirt onto himself. Closures and cuffs and collar fasten themselves smartly as he mends his waistcoat, jacket, and cloak.

I watch him put on all of these. I think of a Knight Errant donning armor, affixing his Lady's favor so that it may not fall in battle.

I'm sure he does, too. I've heard some of his ravings, in another washroom, in another flat. Dumbledore was with us that time.

In silence he adds layer upon layer.

Without magic he'd trip himself up on that cloak.

Mourning garb is so impractical for everyday life. Which I suppose is the point, really.

When he turns to me I acknowledge him: "Very forbidding."

He looks into the mirror's haze and glares at himself, his eyes glittering like broken glass on a Dead Man's Curve.

Abruptly he leans down and briskly rearranges the bottles and bundles before handing me the cache, saying simply, "Thank you."

"You're welcome." No doubt my flat is one of the few places that's still true.

A hitch of the mouth, as if a fishhook caught him for a moment.

He says, "You've never investigated the contents of that box, in all these years."

I shrug my disinterest. "I do all right, between aspirins and alcohol."

He selects a small, square bottle of rubyglass. Shows it to me, explaining, "One draught of this would satisfy your nicotine cravings for the next half-century."

My turn to smile. "So would a bullet to the head."

He slips the bottle back into place amongst the rest, with a quiet clinking.

Draws himself precisely to order, and offers me a deep bow demonstrating his restored range of motion as he says, "Thank you for your hospitality."

"Anytime," I say, as always.

I follow him to the narrow foyer, set down the cache atop the trunk Zatanna sent me last week which is too bloody heavy to lug elsewhere, so that I can use both hands to open the wards and open the door.

I bid him, "Fare well. Magician."

He answers, "Fare well, Fool." And he's gone, not looking back, inkspilling into the night.

"Keep up the Great Work!" I encourage him, and shut the door firmly. Snap the locks and set the wards.

Carry the cache back into its dusty room, set it down on the spindleshanked desk beside the window. As I lower the box's lid, something gleams golden in the streetlight's spilt honey.

In place of the two bottles he used are two shiny coins: payment for the Ferryman.

I guess I'll find out soon enough whether they're a gratuity, or just replacement supplies.