Canary in a Coal Mine

Before all this Constantine TV and movie malarkey, rewind the clock. Back, further, further… that’s it. Old, pure Hellblazer. Late eighties, post-punk, anti-Thatcherite con jobs and the odd bit of magic. John has yet to get lung cancer and spends his time wandering the acetate and hand-coloured pages looking for trouble. In this story, he found it in bloody Wales, of all places.

Story after the break.

Hellblazer: Canary in a Coal Mine

It was a misty day outside, and John Constantine couldn’t see a damn thing. No rolling hills, no quaint valley towns, no bloody sheep. As the carriage rattled and swayed, carrying him through the grey haze that marked the invisible Welsh countryside, he felt like he was on a train to nowhere. The carriage was half-full of nobodies, doing nothing, going nowhere. The only sign of life was some badly scrawled graffiti on the wall, saying nothing. The conductor had taken his ticket and his fag in disgust, then taken his second fag and threatened to kick him off in the middle of un-fucking-pronounceable, all double Ls and spittle. So he wasn’t in the best of moods already, and he hadn’t even arrived yet.

He kicked his feet back on the seat in front and tried to doze through it, highly aware of the pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket. He couldn’t sleep, but snored loudly anyway to fool the conductor and make everyone else on the carriage hate him. Welcome to my world. He thought. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

He had his first fag in his mouth before the doors had even opened on Cardiff station, and he gave the conductor a cheeky wink before lighting up. His first breath of fine Welsh air was delicious. So was the second. He had to have a couple of smokes before he felt able to continue, and only when fully fumigated did he hail the cab. It was raining, and the city centre was obscured behind the drizzle on the taxi window. Still nowhere.

‘So you visiting family then mate?’

‘Nah, business.’

‘Oh yeah, you’re gunna love Splott. Estate agents call it Splow, of course.’ The cabby did his best impression of a posh accent.

‘Full of Victorian elegance and charm, innit.’

It was a shithole. He didn’t expect anything else. Rows and rows of uniform, terraced houses full of screaming babies and shrill voices screaming back. Bikes and toys littered the street they arrived at, some with and some without children attached. Housewives in floral aprons smoked on the doorsteps, watching him take his suitcase out the boot while occasionally making a minimal effort to mind their wandering, sticky toddlers.

The house before him was like any other in the row, but he would wager that the occupants were unlike anyone else in the world. Before he could raise his hand to knock on the door it swung open, and a young woman gestured him inside with that petulant look only the newly teenaged could produce. She looked no older than fourteen, and another small girl clung to the bottom of her skirts, hand in mouth.

Inside the living room the whole family was gathered around the telly, watching some political broadcast. No-one seemed surprised to see John, nor inclined to greet him. After a few awkward seconds a man came out the kitchen brandishing a spatula and a broad smile. ‘John! Johnny boy, come in. Abbu, dinners ready.’ He threw some food at a grey-haired old man, who mumbled something in thanks while the fourteen-year-old helped him sit up. ‘Don’t bother us now, me and Johnny boy got some work to do.’

They locked out the noise and bustle of the family and sat smoking in the garden. A portable TV propped up on the garden table showed various politicians in various states of distress. ‘Mo, it’s good to see you.’

Mo smiled, scratched his wiry black beard and shrugged.

‘It’s good you came. I wasn’t sure you would, but I could hear you coming all the way from London.’

He winked at John and tugged on one of his ears. They were larger than average, slightly pointy and curved. At the back of the garden were what looked like stacked rabbit hutches, but the mesh was fine gauze and every so often a big, bulbous crimson bug would land on the netting.

‘Disgusting, aren’t they?’

Constantine shrugged. He’d seen worse, as magical creatures go, but there was a special place in hell for insects.

‘Know your enemy, John. There is nothing on this earth that could kill my Noor back there, such a good girl, except the blood of these creatures. They are the last ones left.’

‘So why keep them? Why not just squash them all and be done with it?’

Mo laughed and shook his head. ‘Johnny boy, they did not ask for this, they are innocents. Just another of God’s creatures, and they don’t deserve death for that. Know your enemy, John. In this case, to give in to fear and take innocent life, no matter how small… then who is your enemy?’

‘Well at least you know where they are.’

‘Indeed. They are the last of their kind, just as we were the last of ours.’

‘Were?’

‘Were.’

Mo stubbed out his cigarette and turned to face John fully. ‘We got a problem with Maggie.’

‘Yeah, haven’t we all.’

‘No, not like that.’ He gestured to the TV where the Prime Minister was giving a speech. Video reels of angry miners with placards played.

‘Fucking Thatcher, ranting on and on about the mines closing. Fair pay for all, and fair living, plus freedom from an angry, choking death.’

‘Surely one of the better things she’s done, innit? I mean, give the girl a medal like, because who wants to die down a dirty hole anyway?’

‘Except.’

‘Except?’

‘Except now there’s no-one down there to keep watch. The old magicks need a perceiver, an onlooker, a believer. No-one these days gives a shit about those men down in those holes, but they will once they discover they needed them all along. They were a living wall, a human boundary that never let down its vigil. My God, John, this makes King Arthur Scargill here a bloody saint.’

John furrowed his brows, remembering all the things he’s seen that lived deep beneath the earth. He couldn’t remember many that needed such a strong barrier though, one that needed the pumping blood of living men to keep it effective. Humanity, for all its faults, was in many ways more magical than any of the other supernatural creatures. Especially when used as an ingredient, rather than as the cook. Adding human to a spell was like adding the dash of salt needed to finish a dish, or the roux behind the sauce. That is, if the salt was laced with cocaine and the roux was pure hellfire. Cooking with humans wasn’t easy; it took a special someone to get the right results. These miners had no idea that their main purpose was no different, and no more important, than that of the canaries they once kept on site.

‘So… what is it?’

‘You don’t know?’

Constantine shrugged.

‘That’s okay, you don’t need to know. You just need to seal it up again before it gets out.’ There was a scratching sound from the fence, and a panting.

‘Oi, stop it! Gerroutofityalilbastard!’

A tall, white dog raised its head on the other side of the fence and cocked its reddish ears at this.

‘Fuck off, you litt-’

And it was gone.

‘God damn it, I swear. I think that’s the neighbour’s new dog, gotta have a word with him about it. Won’t leave me alone for a second. Bit like the neighbours, really. Probably taught the dog to go for blacks.’

Constantine didn’t have to think hard to imagine how it must be being the only brown guy with a funny name on the street. It was hard to be black in a community that came home from work in the pit covered head to toe in pitch black coal dust that never quite came off. It was hard having a funny name in Wales, the Holy Roman Empire of funny fucking names. The world just didn’t make sense sometimes, but that was probably for the best. After all, it would be far worse if humanity actually gave a damn. Constantine knew from experience that evil was best served with a slice of moral bigotry.

John sighed and pushed his chair back, rolling up his sleeves.

‘Right, let’s get to it then.’

+

Constantine stood on the hilltop overlooking the mine entrance, his coat flapping in the wind. It was deserted. With a massive march happening in London the mine was closed. He has taken the train again, this time north out of the city and into the valleys.

He sighed and pulled on his ‘I heart Cymru’ baseball cap, hung Mo’s borrowed camera around his neck and began to walk down to meet the security guard.

‘Oh, Hi, er…’

‘Fuck off.’ The man didn’t look up from his paper. ‘Mine’s closed.’

‘Well, you see, I’m from London, jus’ sightseeing like…’

He pointed to his cap and raised his camera to take a photo of the guard’s surly face.

‘Bugger off, I said we’re closed.’ John was sure he heard him mutter something else under his breath, something that was surely a kind and insightful comment about the English. John cocked his head and put on a grin that stretched from ear to ear. If the old cons don’t work, it’s time to pull out the big guns. Before the guard could turn the page John punched him smack dab in the middle of his face.

‘Arg, damn, god…’ This only served to break the guy’s nose and send him into a rage. As it happens, it’s actually quite hard to knock out a man with a punch, especially if you’re the kind of bloke used to slithering out of situations with a glib tongue without ever needing to resort to violence.

‘Well, fuck.’

Constantine ran. He vaulted the short fence into the mine area but caught his trailing coat on the top wire. Shrugging it off and looking behind him, he was already well ahead of the stunned guard, who seemed more likely to phone for backup than actually get up off his chubby arse. A pity then, as thanks to some interference from Mo’s sonic abilities, his radio would never broadcast to anyone else. Despite being miles away in Cardiff, his sense of sound and control of radio waves was so precise, like the accuracy in the wings of a hunting hawk, he could pluck sounds from the air and manipulate them like a true artisan.

‘He did what now?’ John, hiding behind a cheap plywood hut, couldn’t help smiling hearing Mo impersonate a police officer.

‘Yeah some crazy twll tin with a hat had a go at me.’

‘Ah… Yes. We have had reports that an escaped mental patient is in the area that matched your description. Do not approach him, we will send someone over. He’s mostly harmless if you see him again just give him a fag and he’ll be as good as gold.’

This was enough to appease the guard who went back to his paper, but this time locked in his guardhouse, either unwilling to share his smokes with the crazy twll tin or scared of what might happen if he didn’t have any. He was probably just glad that it was now someone else’s problem. John mused on Mo’s choice of words, and a voice whispered in his ear like smoke curling from a candle flame.

‘Remember Johnny boy, I can hear everything. Now don’t mess up again.’ John just shrugged at this, a gesture which was carried by the wind.

The entrance to the mine was easy to find with the map he had in his trouser pocket. He was expecting damp, dark and narrow crevasses but what greeted him instead at the end of the elevator was a high, brightly lit tunnel complete with sign boards, coat hooks and a break room off to the side. This was the main tunnel, which circled the majority of the mine. No doubt the working tunnels were much smaller and less level. But he didn’t need to go that far, this was the boundary right here. He assumed that whatever was being kept here was somewhere in the centre, down another elevator shaft.

He buttoned up his sleeves and took out the razor blade from his wallet. Without a sound, he made a cut into his palm. Walking slowly around the central shaft, holding his bloody arm with his hand, making sure every last drop that landed in the dirt connected with another. In some ways, he supposed he could take it as a compliment. It’s not everyone who has blood equal to an entire workforce of miners. Then again, not everyone had a demon’s taint running through their veins. After a while, the cut ran dry, and he made a new one slightly higher, closer to his wrist. Only a few drops were reaching the ground. It was surprising how little blood you really needed to make a magic circle.

When he reached the end he looked back over his handiwork. It was more of a wavy oval than a true circle, but it’ll do. He hated this next part more than cutting his own hand open.

Duo vermes duo dracones sunt.’

He fumbled with the piece of paper Mo had given him with the correct incantation.

Vermis uhh… Vermis rufus draco tuus est et stagnum figura huius mundi est.’

Fuck his fucking handwriting.

At ille albus draco illius gentis, quae occupavit gentes et regiones plurimas in Brittannia.’

His blood, once a fresh crimson, had turned first a milky pink, and finally white like spilt milk. He touched it with the palm of his hand. The dripping cut mixed colours with the white for a split second, and then it was gone. Not a trace left of white or red. But he could feel it. It was his blood after all. He sighed, and walked back to the exit.

‘Right, time for a pint.’

He got back into the elevator cage, and slammed the scissor gate behind him.

‘Maybe if I act crazy enough I can scab a fag from that security guard too.’

Leaning back onto the metal grate he began to wrap up his hand with a bandage he borrowed from the miner’s first aid box. The shadows and light played over his skin, until the electric lights disappeared down the shaft and instead, the faint light of the dreary day above illuminated his face in the darkness.

+

Mo had probably heard his success from afar, he had heard nothing from him since the mineshaft. The coast looked clear then to find a cheap hotel and get some much-needed rest. His muscles were crying out from walking miles under the earth, and the loss of blood didn’t help either. No, he needed to replenish lost fluids and nutrients. A pint and some chips coming up, then.

He found a local pub which offered decent, edible food and a live rugby match. He settled down in the corner, as far away from the ruckus around the TV screen as he could manage, and shrouded himself in smoke.

There was already a haze around the bar, but through the mist something gleamed. A crimson spark of light unaffected by the fading gloom. A bloody vision appeared among the grey and dreary ghosts. The red light of a burning cigarette, nicotine and musky perfume.

“Is this seat taken?”

Constantine shrugged, and the apparition sat at his table and turned into a woman.

“You look far away, hon.”

Her red lipstick formed these words while she stole a burning hot chip off his plate. She was older than him, into her late forties maybe, but she still had it. It, whatever it was, was something that had only improved with her age, he was sure. But she was hungry. A fire burned behind her eyes, and all he could think of what that she was the only real living creature in this place. Hell, he even questioned his own grasp onto life when staring into those deep, depthless eyes.

Oh, fuck. He thought.

“Yeah well, I am far away.”

“Ooh, a Londoner? My, how exotic.” She blew smoke up into the air in a curling arch.

“My name’s Rhiannon, and your name’s John.”

He smiled.

“Good guess.”

“It’s no guess, hon, I know a John when I see one.”

She reached out and drank from his half-empty pint glass, downing it all. When she finished she took another drag from her cigarette and smile mischievously as smoke curled from her nostrils.

“Did you want to order another?”

“Nah.”

“Well then, let’s go.”

She stood up in a flurry, cutting the hanging smog with her red dress and even redder hair. He took her hand and let her lead him.

+

When he woke up next morning, she was already gone. He had vague memories of a fading dream. He was blowing a large horn, and as he blew the sound ricochet over the hills and stripped the flesh from anyone who could hear it. No, not everyone. Only his friends.

Her room was simple, with barely any decorations or furnishings. The only thing of hers that he could see in the entire apartment was her dress lying over the end of the bed. Even the fridge was empty. With the possibility that this wasn’t even her house hanging over his head, he pulled on his clothes and made his way out. He’d skip breakfast, say goodbye to Mo and head straight for England’s green and pleasant lands.

It wasn’t that simple. Things were never that simple. He had pushed open the slightly ajar front door, he had moved gingerly across the gore-stridden carpet, he had passed the desiccated corpses of Mo’s father and family, and he now stood next to his friend as he lay face-down in the garden. There was a slight hissing sound, and a bloody red bug crawled from his ear. John stamped on it. And stamped again, and again, long after he knew it was dead. Until he couldn’t feel his foot.

Mohammed Shirani Sheikh was Mucuous Membrane’s number one fan, he never came to see a concert and yet he never missed a single one. He and Constantine struck it up after Mo let on that he was a Coraniaid. Being the cock-sure bastard he was back then, he was proud to gather a group of supernatural roadies, with Mo as their leader. Of course, with his better-than-average hearing he knew early on that Constantine dabbled, shall we say, in occult material.

And now he was dead. Of course he was dead, he was a friend of John Constantine. And, disgustingly, he was now melting into a purplish ooze. Not eager to give the Welsh Police more ammunition to stalk immigrant communities (“They’re bloody purple, it’s just not right”) he began to bundle his friend and his family into some bin liners. He was hours into his work before he realised that the little girl – what was her name again? – was not among the dead.

“Alright I know you can hear me, wherever you are.” He whispered. “No need to be scared, it’s just Uncle John.”

A million tiny voices screamed in his ears.

“I’m NOT going back there.”

“Alri-“

“NO.”

The airwaves went dead.

“Just… stay safe, kid. Listen, go to the train station, and I’ll meet you there when I can.”

No answer. Well, at least she was alive.

Someone knew the one way that Mo’s family could be killed, and one day after he did the binding ceremony. Fuck fuck fuck. He should have been more prepared, and this never would have happened. Would it? Maybe. At least now he can sit down and do his homework, and sort out this mess. It wasn’t like the death of yet another friend would send him over the edge into some kind of raging bender now, was it?

+

He struggled to his feet and laughed as the rush went to his head.

“Oi, watchit mate.”

“Oh s-sorry, so sorry, aha…”

He pushed his way through the rugby crowd and slammed himself down onto his corner table, trying to place his fifth pint carefully on the beermat, and failing. Watching it trickle off the table sadly, a familiar voice assaulted his ears.

“You look like you’re having fun, hon.” She was wearing the same dress.

He smiled at her and signalled to the bartender for two more.

“I am now.”

She loved to drink. He had a hunch she might do. This was just what he needed after a day shovelling purple shit into bags. What should he do with it anyway? What do Muslims even do with their dead monsters? He decided the answer would come after another drink. She was giggly, tipsy and all smiles when he ordered then a cab and slipped the driver a twenty.

“Are we heading back to your place this time?”

“Nah, yours again love.”

She just smiled more and lounged like a happy cat against his shoulder, drifting. He could drift too, but now wasn’t the time. She slept for hours before the sudden stop of the taxi and the cold air outside jolted her out of her reverie.

“Hmm, hon, are we-“

“C’mon, there’s a good girl… this way.”

They stumbled out like drunken lovers, and as he passed through the wire gate he flashed the old security guard a smile and a wink. The guard groaned and held his head in his hands, but didn’t say anything.

“Wher… Where are we, hon?”

“Why, your place, my love.”

“No… no silly” She giggles. “This is… is…”

And the penny dropped. Luckily though, she was drunker than she thought. He had tipped the bartender handsomely to lace her beer with some 80 proof brandy.

“YOU… John Constantine… are a naughty man.” She slurred, not keeping it together well. He had hoped for that, but hadn’t anticipated that she wouldn’t be able to keep it ALL together. A slithery, scale-tipped tail wrapped itself around his leg. She giggled again.

“I will… trip you… then rip you, hon…”

“Alright girl that’s enough”

He manoeuvred them into the mineshaft elevator.

“I will fuck you up Con-… Consta-… John.”

He used all his willpower not to fall head first into the alcohol in his system. She knew his name, he knew, because she had been there. The thing he was meant to bind, but on the wrong side of the seal.

When the elevator landed he kicked the dirt on the floor until the red, slithering creature he was escorting could move through the invisible barrier.

What a waste of blood he thought as he performed the ritual again, with drunk dragon tied sleeping to a minecart. He had to hurry, her true form was apparently much larger than a small human body, and new ligaments and muscles were ripping through her tiny red dress. As he looked back, the last of her shredded clothes caught fire, and steam rose from her nostrils. As he turned back, blood flowing from his arm, he heard her roar. I guess enough booze to make a human female blackout isn’t enough to keep an angry dragon sedated. He needn’t have worried, however. He completed the circle and stood on the other side as she howled and thrashed and tore through her bonds. She hurled big gouts of flame at him, but it only curled around the solid barrier. Unable to speak anymore, she just roared and screamed.

After tending to his cut arm as best he could, he watched on with pity. Too many of his old lovers were dead. I guess she will be one of the lucky ones. He lent forward, and lit his cigarette in the flames in front of him.

“Well, you’re still good for something love.”

He moved back to the elevator and punched the buttons to get him the hell out of there. But in a sudden flash of memory for his lost friend, he added.

“I hope you rot, you alcoholic murdering bitch.”

Two dragons, one red and proud and native, and one white, the invader, foreign and cruel. They fought, they drank, and they succumbed to the earth. Only this time, the white dragon walked free and got a taxi back to the station. Out of the window, he blew billowing plumes of smoke.

+

As he waited for his train, a small hand took his. He looked down at the tear-stained face of Mo’s daughter.

“You don’t want to come with me.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Listen, kid, people around me, they…”

“I heard what you did to the dragon. And I’m not a kid, I’m fifteen.”

Constantine shrugged. He could find someone to drop her off with, it’s true that it would be tricky letting her go with social services what with her condition. He heard sobs.

“And my name is Noor.” She wiped her runny nose on the sleeve of her jilbab, but that’s all she was able to say before crying overcame her.

“Noor, eh? Noor Shirani Sheikh… It’s a strong name, I like it.”

The train pulled up to the platform, and two people got on, holding hands tightly.


Trivia:

  • The title comes from a song by The Police, whose leader singer Sting was the physical inspiration for Constantine’s looks.
  • The Coraniaid were one of three plagues upon Wales in the myth of Lludd and Llefelys. Triad 36 of the Welsh Triads also adds that they came from Asia.
  • The dog is a Cŵn Annwn hellhound as described in Welsh lore, with red ears.
  • In the Historia Brittonum, the red dragon is subdued by making it drunk with mead and throwing it into a deep pit.

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