Pretty Maids All in a Row
This wasn’t the first time I’d performed an exorcism, that was for damn sure. It wasn’t the first time I’d drawn the Sign of Solomon, the markings of the Devil’s Trap, opened Dad’s journal and started reading the Latin that had been inscribed there in black ink. It was written the same way Dad spoke the words– bold and clear and with a ‘you are so up shit creek’ attitude that had the demons quaking in their possessed bodies at the first line even as they fought to escape.
“…..exorcism, exorcism, Latin, blah blah blah.”
I swear, I barely needed the journal anymore; I could probably do this in my sleep these days. You open the gates of Hell, a few things besides the spirits of the damned are going to get out. And we’d spent the past couple of months tracking them down and sending as many back as we could… kind of like immigration officers for illegal demons. This one, though, wasn’t one we’d let loose. He’d been around for a while. And there was something about this bastard that was different. The fact that he’d inhabited Sammy’s body wasn’t the only reason I thought so.
He shouldn’t have been able to possess Sam in the first place. Sam still had his charm Bobby had given us after Meg had taken his body on a murderous rampage, the charm that should have kept this from happening at all. And as far as I could tell, there weren’t any binding marks on his body other than the lingering scar on his forearm that Bobby had broke with a glowing red fire iron during that same previous possession. But somehow this son of a bitch had sure as shit found a way around the protection that we carried… these bastards were all about the loopholes… and once again I found myself trying to evict a demon that had taken up residence in my brother’s body.
Sam looked up at me from where he sat handcuffed to the chair. No, not Sam─ that murderous piece of shit who had taken him over looked up at me and grinned. But it was my brother’s lips that curled up on one side in such a familiar way that I had to blink and turn my attention back to the page.
“You know, when I kill’t Sophie, there weren’t nothin’ but trees where that other house sits over yonder on the far side of the clearing.”
Sammy’s voice, but not his. Now it had the rise and fall of the southern accents that were everywhere in this Podunk town that practically straddled the Tennessee and Georgia state lines. Funny, I never knew demons actually had accents. I always figured they took the accents of those they possessed, not the other way around. Well, live and learn.
“…..blah, blah, more Latin.”
He looked out the window of the old farmhouse and gave an almost regretful sigh. “Trees and honeysuckle and briars so thick you’d need a machete to cut through ‘em. Of course, that day I didn’t have a blade anywhere near as big as that.” Glancing back at me, he smirked again, slow and knowing. “Then again, I had no intentions to cut through the brambles.”
Oh, I was so going to enjoy sending this fucker back to Hell. “…..Latin, Latin, exorcism, exorcism, Latin, blah, blah, blah”
The demon didn’t even so much as flinch as I resumed the incantation. “She’d gone out there to pick berries. Mama was on fire about that.” He chuckled even as he shook his head in disbelief. “Still wearing her church-going dress with the white smock and lacey socks and out there picking berries. My ma weren’t a cool-headed woman by no means. So she sent me to fetch her on home.”
“You know, I’m a little busy here.” I indicated the journal in my hands by lifting it slightly, fighting the wince the action caused in my bandaged shoulder. The blood still flowed… I could feel it soaking into the fabric of my t-shirt… but it had slowed thanks to the quick job I’d done to patch myself up and get to work on Sammy. “On top of that, I’m really not interested in your family history.”
The smile just spread, less reminiscent and more taunting. “That’s a downright shame, because yours is mighty fascinating. Sammy here…”
“Sam,” I corrected stiffly. No one called my brother Sammy but family, and now that meant nobody called him Sammy but me.
“He thinks of himself as Sammy, leastwise around you he does. Like he’s still the baby brother you’ve always watched over. Just like I watched over Sophie.”
“From everything I’ve seen, you didn’t exactly do such a bang up job of that. In fact, it sounds like you did just the opposite.”
“From what Sammy’s let me see, it don’t seem like you did much better by him. Dead is dead, Dean. Don’t matter much how you come to it.”
“You sick, disgusting son of a bitch.” Before I knew it, I found my free hand fisted in the front of Sam’s t-shirt, the chair he was sitting in tipping back precariously.
He simply looked down at my hand shaking bloodless against his chest. “Now, now, Dean. Wouldn’t want to wrinkle my new dress shirt. I’m just so proud to have it.”
I realized he wasn’t talking about the clothes Sammy was wearing, but the body he was wearing, and how hurting it would only end up hurting my brother and doing nothing to the demon. Forcing myself to release my hold, I brought the chair back to all four legs, stepped back, and took up the exorcism again.
“…. blah blah blah blah, Latin, Latin.”
“Now Sophie, she weren’t my full-blood sister. That’s why I was so much older than her– nearly twelve years between us. We had the same ma but different daddies. Sammy’s afeard that might be the same for the two of you.”
I did my best to cover the way I stumbled over the words at his goad. He was lying. He was a fucking demon for Christ’s sake. A fucking, lying demon. He was just making up this shit to throw me off. But out of the corner of my eye I could see his gloating smile at my reaction.
“Mine was a rapist; probably a good sight more. He didn’t hang around long enough to give Momma a full history. But even with that, it sounds like Sammy’s was a far cry worse.”
“Shut up! Just shut the fuck up!”
“Or what? You’ll exorcise me?”
He seemed genuinely amused by the idea, so I leaned in close and smiled around my own snarl, “Yeah. I’m going to send you back to Hell and when I get down there myself next year, I’m going to hunt you down and kick your ass all over again just for shits and giggles.”
“I hate to disappoint you, but I think you’re wrong about that. But that wouldn’t be the first time, now would it, Dean?”
He wasn’t the least bit impressed by the threat, so I decided to show him I meant business and started up on the Latin once again as the demon turned his attention back to the window.
“Her dress had smears of juice on it by the time I reached her; the silly thing was using her pinafore to hold the berries. Then again, seven-year-old girls ain’t exactly known for their smarts. But you couldn’t hardly see the stains at all for all the red by the time I finished up.” Ignoring him, I spoke a little louder, thankfully coming into the homestretch. “Still, she couldn’t hide what she’d been up to even after all that; her sweet little fingers were stained purple and they tasted just like blackberries.”
The expression on his face was wistful, like he was savoring the flavor all over again. And that was the last damn thing I expected to see as I came to the end of the ritual. He should have been writhing in pain, screaming, and black demonic concentrate should have been shooting from his mouth and eyes like he was a busted sewer pipe and that shit should have been out of my brother.
Instead, he turned falsely apologetic brown eyes, Sammy’s eyes, up to look at me through the long bangs that fell across his forehead. “Wrong again, big brother.”
Oh, fuck. He wasn’t a goddamn demon at all.
So, what the hell was he?
* * * *
“How can the humidity actually be higher than the damn temperature when it isn’t even raining?”
Climbing out of the Impala, I had the instantaneous feel of sweat pooling between my shoulder blades and I winced up into the beating Georgia sun… Tennessee sun. Hell, I honestly wasn’t sure which side of the border Wattsville actually sat on. Although the address was officially in Tennessee, we had actually passed a Georgia state line sign a few miles back, but the way the roads wound endlessly through the foothills in this area, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’d circled back on ourselves and were in Tennessee again.
Sammy tugged at his shirt that seemed to immediately cling to his skin. “Do you want an actual explanation or do you just want to bitch?”
“Bitch,” I told him before he could go into another one of his Stanford-inspired lectures.
“Good, after the whole expansion and contraction conversation about the tire pressure, I really wasn’t up for another physics lesson.”
“Hey, if you’d just started with the whole shrinkage comparison, we would have been finished in about thirty seconds.” We started across the parking lot with its two other cars… and parking lot was a generous description. In reality, it wasn’t much more than a small tire-track scored dirt patch with the occasional dried muddy rut and clump of tall grass. I eyed the small diner uneasily. “You’re sure this is the place?”
“It meets the description Ellen gave us with the directions,” he justified over the drone of cicadas. They evidently filled the trees and weeds across the gravel road we had traveled down since turning off the highway nearly twenty minutes before. That and chiggers and mosquitoes and no telling what other sort of biting, stinging bugs and snakes this hunt was leading us to.
“Well, let’s hope this Mary Lansing person is in better shape than this place.”
The woman we were meeting was somehow a long lost relative to Ellen and Jo… her mother was Ellen’s cousin twice removed or some shit like that. Family was a luxury for most people that had taken up hunting. And I had no doubt that when Ellen had married into it, most of her family had disappeared into the woodwork and she was only mentioned at family gatherings in terms of ‘I wonder what happened to Ellen and her crazy husband?’
I guess I should consider myself lucky that Sammy came back to it after leaving for the four years that he did. Although the thought of using luck in association with Dean Winchester would probably send most people that knew me, knew the Winchesters in general and our more recent family escapades, into a fit of laughter. But the fact that Sammy was walking, talking, hell, breathing beside me, given the alternatives, lucky was pretty damn accurate as far as I was concerned.
While most of Ellen’s family had written her off, Mary had evidently been paying attention at those family picnics, so that when something odd happened, she decided to look up her long lost cousin and see if there was any truth to the rumors surrounding the family’s black sheep. When Ellen had heard her story, she gave it enough merit that she contacted me and Sammy and asked us to investigate the unusual circumstances around Mary’s father’s death… a death that had taken place in a state mental hospital a few weeks before. It wasn’t exactly a lot to go on, and I wondered if Ellen was doing it more out of the fact that this was family reaching out than anything else, but we’d gone on hunts in the past based on a hell of a lot less.
“Not everyone in this part of the country is a toothless hillbilly with a confederate flag tattooed on their arm, Dean.”
“Okay,” I allowed, unconvinced, “but if you hear banjo music, run for the car and don’t look back.”
Sam snorted with a small grin. “Well, as long as they have air conditioning, I won’t complain.”
“Oh, sure, you would say that. Everyone knows I have the prettier mouth.” My smile of demonstration was met with rolled eyes. “By the way, you need to buy some better deodorant, yours works for shit.” With a frown, he sniffed himself hesitantly and my smile just broadened. “I meant for me.”
The scowl changed to an expression on disgust. “Dude, use your own damn deodorant.”
“I was out,” I shrugged as I pushed the dusty glass door open. “Besides, we use the same soap and shampoo.”
“That is so not the same thing.”
Now it was my turn to roll my eyes. “It’s not like I was using your toothbrush,” I reasoned. God, he could be such a priss sometimes.
“You haven’t, have you? Used my toothbrush? Because, if you have, we’re going to skip science and go straight to the personal hygiene lecture.”
“No, I’ve never brushed my teeth with your toothbrush, Sammy.” Although I couldn’t help but grin at the memory of washing it out in the toilet that one time he pissed me off when he locked me out of the hotel room in Pocatello… in winter…at night… for an hour.
His forehead creased in worry over my silent humor but he didn’t have a chance to demand why I was smiling because a hot little number in a pink tank top and cut-off jean shorts waved to us as she walked behind the lunch counter. “Are you Dean and Sam?”
Her accent wasn’t nearly as strong as some of the others we’d heard since crossing into Lynyrd Skynyrd territory, but it was there nonetheless. And that was fine by me. Giving her my best smile… and by best I mean the one that says yes, I am the love god you have been waiting for all your life… I pushed past Sam and leaned on the counter. “I’m Dean… Sam,” I mumbled and waved a dismissive hand back at my brother in way of introduction. “You must be Mary Lansing.” Oh, please be Mary Lansing.
Tucking a strand of long, dark hair behind her ear, she smiled and nodded in confirmation. “Can I get y’all a coke?”
“That would be great.”
At the sound of my voice, a large man with a rebel flag tattoo on his bicep and a stained apron over his wife-beater looked out from the kitchen and I nodded my head pleasantly, arching my eyebrow meaningfully at Sam to indicate the marking on his arm. Sammy frowned, either in disappointment that he was wrong in his assessment of the locals or worry at the way the man eyed us warily. Evidently convinced we weren’t an issue, the cook turned back to whatever prep work he was doing.
Mary, however, bent over a cooler on the floor. “The dispenser’s on the fritz so we just have cans for now.”
Given the view I was getting, all I could think was I hoped that damn dispenser never got repaired. She was one hell of a Georgia Peach, or maybe a Tennessee Tomato. Whichever. All I knew was that she was firm, sweet, juicy, and ripe for the picking.
“Good God almighty.” And it took me a second to realize I had actually mumbled that last out loud. But at that point, I really couldn’t help it. I was suddenly having flashbacks to the Daisy Duke fantasies of my teen years. Thank God for Barbara Bach, syndication, and free cable in even the cheapest motels.
“Mary, that’s a nice name,” Sam told her even as he sat on one of the stools and took the offered can of soda. “It was our mom’s.”
Asshole. Pulling his sensitive, puppy dog bit with her. I would have thought of dunking his toothbrush again if I hadn’t known there was no way someone built like that would fall for that sort of bleeding heart crap.
“That’s funny; Samuel was actually my dad’s name.”
Oh, Christ. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes in frustration. I was so going to take a piss before I scrubbed the bowl until it sparkled with his Reach Ultimate Clean when we checked into the motel tonight.
As if to rub it in further, he showed off his pearly whites with a sympathetic nod of his head. “We’re sorry to hear about your loss. Ellen said you thought there was something suspicious about his death?”
“Not his death… he died of cancer… but his life. At least the last fourteen years of it.” When Sam frowned in confusion, she continued. “Maybe I should backup and start at the beginning. When I was eight years old my father tried to kill me with a kitchen knife.”
Hey, I cheered, this could be my big break. How could anyone be attracted to someone with the same name as a parent that tried to murder her? I sat myself, even as she held out her arm to show us a long scar.
“I had to have eighteen stitches. I crawled under the kitchen table to get away from him and my mother came in when I screamed and he turned on her. She told me to run and I did, as fast as I could across the field behind our house to an old couple that lived in the house there. They called the police when I told them what happened. When they arrived, they found my mother dead and my father on his way to finish the job he started on me.”
“Holy crap,” I observed at the story.
“He was sent to prison but he kept trying to kill himself so they put him in a mental institution and that’s where he’s been ever since. But the man in that hospital wasn’t my father.”
“What do you mean, he wasn’t your father?” Sam asked.
“We had moved down here from Massachusetts two years before because my father had accepted a position with the Helping Hands Helping Homes organization to oversee their rural program in this region.”
“I’ve heard of them,” Sam noted. “They buy dilapidated homes and refurbish them for low income families, the elderly, build playgrounds for rural or inner city schools… lots of volunteers and charitable donations to keep the prices low enough for people who couldn’t normally afford a home to buy one.”
Mary nodded in pleased agreement. “Exactly.”
Well, thank you Mr. PSA. When I gave my brother a disgruntled look that he would know so much about the organization, he shrugged. “I helped out once with a community park they built in a rundown section of Oakland.” Damn, he was doing everything he could to win this girl over.
“My father dedicated his life to helping others,” Mary told us. “Everyone who ever knew him said he was the most giving, caring person they had ever met. I just can’t believe that Samuel Lansing would want to kill his family, that he would try to kill his own daughter and actually kill his own wife.”
“I don’t want to be harsh here,” I started, “but people snap all the time. Maybe the stress of the job or something in your parent’s marriage pushed him over the edge… something like that, maybe?”
“It’s not just that.” She shook her head vehemently. “My father was born and raised in Boston. People used to tease him about his accent and he’d just laugh it off. But the day he attacked me, he had a southern accent and whenever I saw him from there on out he did again… until the minute he died.”
Her voice cracked slightly and Sam handed her a napkin from the dispenser on the table. She took it and dabbed at her eyes. “That day in our kitchen, and every time I saw him after that, he always said the same thing when he saw me– ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary’. When I was with him when he was on his deathbed, he said it again and he called me ‘the one that got away, the one that made sure I couldn’t.’ Then he smiled and said, ‘But that’s all gonna change today.’ The very last thing he did before he died, he opened his eyes and reached for my hand, like he was surprised to see me. But then again, I think he thought I was my mother. He called me Darla and said he was sorry… in that thick Boston accent. And then he died.”
“So what do you think happened with him?” Sam asked before I could. If she’d come looking for hunters, she must have had some idea of what we were up against, at least suspected that it wasn’t natural.
But she just shook her head again. “Honestly, I don’t know. It’s like something stole his body.” I frowned at Sam when she bent over to dig below the counter… that could be any number of things, shapeshifter being the first that popped into my head. Straightening, she slid a manila folder across the table. “But he wasn’t the fist man to want to kill a little girl in this area.”
* * * *
As I drove back down the gravel road, Sam had his nose buried in the papers Mary had given us. I swerved around a washed out area, growling under my breath about how I was going to have to detail the Impala given all the dust and grime from the road, then glanced at my brother.
“So, is she on to something here or did her dad just go ‘all work and no play makes Jack take up an ax’ on her?”
“Well, from the background information she’s gathered, there’s been at least three other young girls killed by close friends or family members in the area over the past fifty years. All of them stabbed.”
“Shapeshifter?” I asked, but it didn’t make any sense, and my tone said as much.
Sammy voiced what I was thinking. “Why stay locked up in an insane asylum in Mary’s dad’s body all those years if that was the case? He could have just slipped his skin any time. And why try to kill himself?”
“Plus, if she was right, how did her dad come back right when he was dying?” I thought for a few seconds. “Demon possession?” Before he could contradict me, I did it myself. “But, again, why not just leave the body?”
“I guess it could have become trapped in the body somehow.”
“Trap a demon for fourteen years?” I accelerated when we finally hit hard pavement again, leaving a cloud of dust in our wake. “That’s some serious binding you’re talking about there.”
“Maybe not a demon then but some kind of spell,” Sam suggested. “Maybe someone was compelling Samuel to do it. But that doesn’t explain how it’s been going on for eighty years unless there’s some hundred-year-old witch running around here somewhere.”
“Well, these mountain folk can be long lived. Maybe Granny Clampett got tired of all the youngins hanging out in her cement pond.” My grin was met with an exasperated shake of his head as he continued to scan the papers. Finally, I shrugged. “Maybe it’s just a coincidence. I mean, let’s face it; there is a bit of truth to the whole limited gene pool, crazy inbred Appalachian shtick. If they hadn’t moved to California, there’s no telling when Uncle Jed would have taken a skinning knife to Ellie May.” He made an unconvinced noise and I frowned that he didn’t find my joke funny. “Hell, the bugs and humidity alone make me feel like killing someone.”
“So, what’s your excuse when we’re not in the South?” he mumbled in dry distraction as he turned another page.
That comment earned me a patented Sam Winchester ‘you are such a smartass’ glare. But I’d take it. I’d take the sarcasm, the rolled eyes, hell, I’d take being ignored as long as Sammy was sitting in that passenger seat… alive. Because a matter of weeks ago, that hadn’t been the case. And the less thought about that, the better.
I still woke in a cold sweat in the middle of the night with my heart pounding and lungs panting, absolutely convinced that neither was even a possibility for Sam. The first couple of times it happened, he tried to do the let’s open up and talk about it bullshit. When I made it perfectly clear that I would have to pack my ice skates to use on the frozen rink that would appear when I paid my pending debt before that conversation ever took place, he changed his tactics. He settled for rolling over on his bed, mumbling as he faked sleep, stumbling into the bathroom before crawling silently back under his covers without even acknowledging I was in the same room, anything to just let me know he was alive. It helped. It sure as shit helped. And in return, I tried to cut down on the number of jokes I made about selling my soul.
Yeah, we made one hell of a pair paddling our way down that river in Egypt. But as much as I tried to deny that he’d ever died and Sammy tried to deny that there was no way for him to save my soul, there was no denying that we were in this together. The Winchester boys, side-by-side, through thick and thin, facing the future shoulder to shoulder, watching each others back until the very end…
“I think we should split up.”
Furrowing my brow at Sam’s comment, I demanded, “What?”
“The mental hospital where Samuel died is in Chattanooga. You should go check it out, see if anyone else noticed anything odd. You can drop me off at the library there; I want to do a little more research and follow up on a few things Mary found.”
* * * *
“A grief counselor, huh?”
I hate suits. And when it’s ninety-three degrees outside and the humidity is just as ridiculously high, I really hate suits. This went a long way in explaining why I was tugging at the top button of the dress shirt I was wearing and probably why the orderly I was walking beside down the antiseptic hallways of the state mental hospital didn’t seem terribly convinced.
“Yes,” I assured, forcing my hand down and locking it behind my back with the other. “Mary has had a rough time of it, as I’m sure you can appreciate. Lots of…” I struggled for a phrase that sounded counselory enough. “… conflicted emotions associated with her father’s death.”
“Right,” the short, wiry man with Ronnie on his nametag, patronized as he stopped in front of one of the doors. “Well, here we are. Samuel Lansing’s room for the past five years.”
I waited for him to open the door, but he didn’t. “Can I go inside? I find that it helps to relate to my patients if I can get a feel for what the deceased went through prior to his death.”
Evidently Ronnie just wasn’t buying my bullshit no matter how earnestly I smiled at him. “Right,” he drawled again before shaking his head. “But I don’t think going in there would be such a good idea.”
“Why’s that?” I asked, peeking curiously into the window in the door.
A wild-haired and newly-bearded face appeared, barking and snarling, and I jumped back with a mumbled curse. Ronnie just gave me a slow grin.
“This here’s Mark.” Mark continued to bark and growl, even though I’d backed a good two feet away from the door. “He fancies himself to be a Rottweiler. Been going around eating the cats in his neighborhood. Finally picked him up when he went and took a piss on the fire hydrant outside the bank where he worked and chased his boss’s car three blocks trying to bite the tires. He evidently didn’t get the promotion he was expecting.” When I shot Ronnie a ‘no shit?’ expression, he leaned in closer. “I’d say he’s had a rough time of it, too, and needs to relate to the room more than you do.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, eyebrows shooting up higher when Mark pressed his nose to the glass, “I’d say you’re right. Well, seeing as I can’t go in the room…” and look for any clues, I thought silently in frustration, “maybe you can help me out. Did you ever deal with Mr. Lansing?” I jumped when Mark started barking even louder.
“I’ve worked this floor for over ten years.” Ronnie banged his hand on the window. “Quiet down in there or no rawhide bones this afternoon.” The man locked in the room whimpered but fell silent. “I dealt with Samuel almost every day that he was in this room.”
“So, anything you can tell me about him? Anything about the way he acted when his daughter didn’t come to visit?”
Ronnie snorted. “He was almost an entirely different man when Mary wasn’t here.”
“Well, for one, his second personality came out a lot more.”
“Second personality?” Mary had neglected to let us know he’d been diagnosed with multiple personalities, although if he was possessed or somehow being controlled, that wouldn’t be that far fetched a determination for the head shrinkers to come up with.
“Yeah. I called him Cliff, after that mailman on that show Cheers. Sounded just like him, just not as smart.” With a chuckle, Ronnie confessed, “I swear them boys have the funniest accents up north.”
“Uh, yeah… they do.” I did my best to keep from rolling my eyes at the irony of that observation being delivered by someone who sounded like a NASCAR driver. “So, tell me, Ronnie. Did he act different, too?”
“Nah, not really. A little more zoned out maybe when Cliff was around, but he tended to come out more right after his drugs. And for a while he was Cliff almost all the time. I think he was trying to convince the docs that he was cured. When they didn’t fall for it, Cliff became scarce again. But when Mary was here Cliff disappeared all together and he was really alert. Intense. Scary intense, you know what I mean?” When I nodded, he continued. “Mary, Mary quite contrary. First thing he’d say to her when he saw her.” Ronnie shivered. “Creepiest ass thing you’ve ever heard.”
“I can imagine,” I told him honestly. “Did anyone else ever come to visit him? Anyone here take a special interest in him?” When I received a no to both questions, I asked one final one. “Is there anything else about him you can think of that might be helpful to know?”
Ronnie thought for a few seconds before shaking his head. “Nope, that about covers it.”
Just as I thought, a dead end. “Well, thanks for all your help.”
After a quick handshake, I started down the hall only to have Ronnie catch up with me and ask, “Hey, did Mary have a sister?”
Why would he ask something like that? “No, not that I know of.”
“Huh? I wonder who Sophie was then.”
“Yeah, he mumbled about her more than he did Mary. Silly Sophie, sweet little Sophie. I figured she must have been another little girl in his life. Oh, well, guess I’ll never know.”
He started down a different hallway then and I watched him go. Ronnie might not ever know who Sophie was, but I was pretty sure I knew someone who could figure it out.
Sam picked up his cell phone on the second ring and I had the goddamn tie off from around my neck before I even dialed. “Hey, did you find anything in the room?”
“Yeah, a banker in need of a flea collar.”
“What?” he asked in confusion.
“New tenant so I didn’t get to go in.” I could picture the disappointed downturn of his mouth as I passed out of the cool air-conditioned building and into the sweltering heat again. “But I did get to talk to the orderly that knew Samuel for the past five years.”
“And?” he coaxed.
“Have you run across any references to a Sophie in your search?”
“Sophie? No, not yet. But I did find an interesting connection. All the girls or their killers lived in the same house… the same house Mary and her family had moved into two months before she was attacked.”
Tossing the tie and jacket in the back seat of the Impala, I decided to finish up the call before climbing in myself. “Is the house still there?”
“I’m pulling up the tax records on it now. See what else I can find out about it and the others in the neighborhood. If it is someone compelling the killers they would probably be nearby.”
“Alright, I’m on my way now. I should be there in about half an hour.”
By the time I arrived, he was waiting on the front steps of the library, a stack of papers in his hands and his laptop bag slung across his chest. There was no denying his way of tracking down leads was a hell of a lot easier than huffing it on foot. But, God, my brother was such a geek. The triumphantly goofy smile he wore when he slid in the passenger seat just confirmed my conclusion.
“I found Sophie,” he almost sang.
“Really?” I reached for the paper he was waggling under my nose and saw a printout of an old newspaper article.
“1938. Sophie Vaughn, age seven, stabbed multiple times by an unknown assailant.”
“So the deaths go back further than Mary thought?”
Sam nodded and continued on with Sophie’s story. “Her mother evidently found her body in the field behind their house. She’d sent Sophie’s nineteen year old brother, James, out to bring her in for Sunday dinner and when neither one of them came back, she went to look for them. Found Sophie’s body but no James. As far as I can tell, no one ever saw James again.”
“So, Jimbo was the killer and he took off after the deed?” I asked, looking at a black and white photograph below the headline of a young girl with big eyes, kewpie-doll lips and a large bow in her dark, chin-length hair.
“That was the speculation. Although there were two other girls almost the same age that were killed in some neighboring towns a few months earlier.”
“They were stabbed, too?”
“No, one was strangled, the other had her skull crushed by a rock, so some people thought there might have been a transient moving around and maybe he’d done something with James the same time he killed Sophie.”
I bobbled my head in consideration and he stuck another page in front of me. “Six years later, Clara Vaughn died and the house went up for auction. It was bought by Peter Barrett, who was killed in the Pacific during World War II. His widow remarried and her new husband committed suicide after allegations he’d attacked his niece with his straight razor when they went to visit his sister in Atlanta. The house changed hands again in 1952 and that’s when Annie Norris was killed by her grandfather that lived with the family in the house.”
“Let me guess; he stabbed her,” I interrupted.
“With a filleting knife while they were fishing at the river.”
“And what happened to grandpa?”
“Drowned in the river that same day.”
“Isn’t that convenient?”
My observation had Sammy nodding in agreement. “Same with Jenna Willis in 1967… her first grade teacher’s husband, who lived in the house, was accused of her murder and shot himself when they came to arrest him. The teacher lived in the house, alone, for the next fifteen years. Then in 1982, in an apparent drunken rampage, David Vickers broke into the house and attacked the Johnson family two weeks after they moved in. Vickers had been remodeling the house before the family moved in and he killed six-year-old Kelly Johnson. Her father shot him before he could attack her nine-year-old sister. The family couldn’t stand to stay after the murder and the house wouldn’t sell. It sat empty and in disrepair for over ten years until it was bought and renovated by…”
“Helping Hands Helping Homes,” I finished for him.
He smiled broadly that I had caught on. “For their regional director’s residence.”
“So it is the house.”
“Or someone or something around the house. The lots are pretty large in this area, so it’s not like a suburb where the neighbors are right next door. And the surrounding homes have changed hands quiet a few times over the years. All except for the parcel of land to the south; that one’s been owned by the same family for over a century… the Calverts. It sat undeveloped for years. They finally built on it when Sarah Calvert, the youngest daughter of the Calvert who had inherited it at the time, married back in 1946. Forty-seven years later, Sarah McConnell was the one who called the sheriff to report that Sam Lansing had tried to kill his daughter.”
“The Calvert family is the only constant then from the time of the first murder.”
“As far as I can tell.”
“What do we know about them?”
“Only that they were a fairly wealthy family. Grew tobacco, kept some cattle, made it through the Great Depression a little better off than they went in.”
“Pretty lucky, then.”
“Maybe a little too lucky?”
Sam evidently had a theory. He usually did when he leaned back against his seat with a smug quirk to his lips.
“What? You think they struck a deal of some sort?”
“Suppose these aren’t random murders. Suppose they’re some sort of sacrifice. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen that.”
Yeah, I’d been tied to a damn tree to wait for a psychotic demigod masquerading as a scarecrow to come along and gut me with a scythe. I don’t care how good the apple pie is, it’s not worth that. And let me tell you, unlike Dorothy, I sure as shit didn’t miss him most of all. In fact, I was pretty damn happy to torch his tree. But this?
I shook my head and Sammy’s smugness disappeared. “I don’t know,” I countered, “that doesn’t explain the change in personality, the accent, and why it stayed after Samuel was locked up.”
“Well, he was the only one that ever was locked up,” Sam pointed out. “All the others died pretty soon after the crimes.”
“I guess it couldn’t hurt to check it out,” I conceded and put the car in gear. “Any of these Calverts still around?”
“Yeah, Sarah herself still lives in the house.”
“Dude, seriously?” Because that would make her… 1946… if she was maybe twenty years old when she got married… carry the one… oh, fuck it. She was just really, really old.
“She’s eighty-two, Dean,” Sam snorted, obviously noting my attempt at the mental calculations.
“I knew that, Rainman.”
“Don’t worry about it, Jethro. At least I have the book learning to help us through these complicated computations.” Slumping down in his seat he nodded out the front window. “Now then, let’s go visit Granny.”
* * * *
Ends up Granny was going to have to wait until morning. By the time we made it back to Wattsville, it was past dark, and calling on elderly women in the middle of the night tended to end up with dogs growling or the cops showing up, neither of which I wanted to deal with that night. I’d been behind the wheel of the Impala for a good ten hours that day, and while that might be one of my favorite places to be, even I needed to get away from my baby now and again.
Our lodging choices were up to their normal standard, which meant that failed members of AA might have made use of the facilities to sleep off a three day drunk but AAA had never stepped foot on the premises. The Traveler’s Friend Motorlodge at least had a working air conditioner mounted to the wall and a roach trap behind the toilet, both of which rattled unnervingly. But the fact that there were no visible stains on the walls or bedspreads was actually a step up from the last place we’d stayed.
I dumped my bag at the foot of the bed nearest the door and landed on the mattress in much the same manner, tucking both pillows behind my head. Glancing at the nightstand between the two beds, I noticed the remote for the television, which was good since that meant I wouldn’t have to move from that spot for the rest of the night if I didn’t want to, and the lack of a Magic Fingers machine, which was a bummer since I could have really used a little fix right then. But that just meant there was plenty of room for my Baretta to sit within easy reach.
Sam carefully placed his laptop and the papers on the small table before sitting his own duffle on the second bed and surveying the room with a resigned look. “So, are you hungry?”
“Nah,” I answered absently, clicking on the television and barely even registering what was on. My eyelids drooped when I had watched the headlines scroll by unread for a minute on CNN.
Sammy had taken the time to make use of the bathroom, and when he returned, he took up the room key. “Okay, then, I’m going to run down to the diner on the corner and grab something.”
Rubbing at my eyes, I sat up and swung my legs off the bed. “Sure, let’s go get some food.”
“Dude, you look beat. I’ll bring you something back if you want.”
As tempting as that was, I quickly dismissed the idea. “Nah, I’ll go,” I responded as lightly as possible.
My brother, however, didn’t fall for it. “Dean, you don’t have to do this. I can get food by myself.”
He was looking at me with that same damned expression he’d had on his face when he’d told me it was his turn to save my ass this time… sympathetic, understanding, determined to prove himself right. God, I hated that look, especially since he knew why I wanted to go with him.
“Yeah, I know. I just got hungry is all, feel like stretching my legs. You have a problem with that?”
“I have a problem with the fact that you think I’m going to disappear off the face of the Earth again if I go for a burger by myself.”
My snort did a poor job of covering the truth. “It’s not you I’m worried about, it’s my food. It gets cold, I stay hungry, and you…” didn’t come back, I finished silently. He didn’t come back and then he didn’t get up after that son of bitch ran his knife… Christ. I was tired, that’s what it was. I was just fucking tired. Rubbing at my eyes again with the heel of my hand I demanded, “Are we going or not?”
But he just sat next to me on the bed and reminded quietly, “He’s dead, Dean. You killed him.”
Yeah, the Yellow-Eyed Demon was dead. I’d squeezed the trigger on the Colt and it had felt fucking amazing to watch that monster fall. It had taken a couple of decades, but we’d managed to do it. The Winchester boys, all three of us working together, we’d taken down that bastard.
But not before he’d killed ever member of my family first.
“I’m not going to pull a David Copperfield and vanish into thin air again.” He bumped his shoulder against mine.
No, the Yellow-Eyed Demon wasn’t a risk any more, but that didn’t mean there weren’t other things that could take him just as easily, including whatever it was that we were hunting here.
“You better fucking not. I seriously doubt they’re running a two-for-one special on my soul, especially seeing as I’ve already made the down payment.”
The reassurance in his face changed to another expression I was becoming familiar with… a combination of guilt, worry, resolve and exasperation. “Dean…” he started in frustration.
Sure, there were other things out there, but in less than a year he’d be facing them on his own. And as much as I wanted to say he’d have plenty of time to run solo then, I knew I wasn’t doing him any favors hovering. So, I waved an impatient hand. “Go; bring me back something that doesn’t look like it was trying to cross the road earlier today.”
He blinked in surprise, looked as if he was about to ask if I was sure, then thought better of it. “I’ll be right back,” he promised solemnly from the door.
Settling back on the bed, I closed my eyes even as I flicked my hand again for him to leave. “Do you have your cell phone?”
“Don’t I always?” he scoffed before asking in dread, “You’re not going to make me stay on the phone with you the whole time I’m gone, are you?”
I cracked my eyes to regard him. Damn, I hadn’t thought of that. And unfortunately, now it would sound like I was just doing it because he mentioned it. “No, I want you to call me and let me know what kind of pie they have.”
“I can do that,” he grinned.
I scowled at him with a warning. “And I better damn well get it this time.”
When he nodded, I yawned and shut my eyes again, heard the door close, then immediately opened them to stare at the popcorn-textured ceiling as I held my cell phone and waited for it to ring. Ten minutes should be more than enough time for him to walk down the street and order some food. And if he didn’t call in ten minutes, I could run the distance in less than two. So all I had to do was lay there and wait ten minutes. Of course, that would mean twelve minutes had passed before I got there and a hell of a lot could happen in twelve minutes. Maybe eight minutes would be enough time to walk down there and order… and I could probably shave half a minute off the run. And it must have been at least five since he left.
Checking the clock on my phone I saw it had only been two minutes. No fucking way. But the clock radio on the nightstand just confirmed what my phone had shown. Flipping the phone open I started to select his name to dial, stopping myself at the last second before closing it again and gripping it so tightly that eventually I couldn’t feel it eating into my palm any more. This was good for me. This was therapeutic. This was cleansing. I flipped the phone open again. Three minutes. This was such a fucking bad idea. What the hell had I been thinking?
Standing, I moved to the window and looked out into the nearly empty parking lot. Of course I couldn’t see around the corner to where the diner was located, but there was nothing suspicious out there where I could see. No reason to think anything could be wrong. No reason at all. No reason to think that anything had happened even though it must be getting close to eight minutes by now. I checked the clock once more. Four minutes. Oh, come on!
But once bitten, twice shy. Twice bitten, you sat with your thumb on the speed dial button gritting your teeth and wanting to throw the goddamn phone across the room to keep from dialing it. Except if you did that, you wouldn’t be able to answer it when your pain in the ass baby brother called to confirm that he had not once again been taken by a demon while he went on a fucking burger run. Because he hadn’t. He had not. We were protected, and I fingered the charm Bobby had given us as a reminder. We were protected. He was protected. And at this point he had surely been gone eight minutes. But the clock showed it had only been six. Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me. I was so not cut out for this emotional codependency shit.
“Apple,” he told me without preamble when he finally did call… and who the hell would think seven minutes could take so damn long? Or that seeing his number appear on my caller I.D. would make me sink back on the bed in goddamn relief? “Buttermilk, chocolate, and blackberry cobbler.”
Pushing away my previous concerns to the part of my brain that could fund an entire fleet of Porsches for the psychotherapist who tried to take it on, I brightened at my choices and asked hopefully, “Cobbler? Real cobbler?”
“Well, it doesn’t look like it’s made out of plastic.”
“With a crumbly topping or one that looks like cake?”
“What, am I suddenly Martha Stewart?”
“Just answer the question, Sam. This could be the most important decision I make all day.”
With an aggrieved sigh, he informed me, “It looks kind of like a biscuit.”
“Do they have homemade whipped cream?”
“Dude, just make up your mind.”
The irritation on the other end of the line had me grinning. “Cobbler if they have the whipped cream; chocolate if they don’t…. oh, unless they have ice cream, and then I want apple.”
“Anything else?” he demanded in annoyance.
“I want the pie hot, so have them warm it up.”
“Christ, screw your mental health; it would’ve been easier if you’d just come with me,” he grumbled.
“I want that pie hot, Sammy. Do you hear me? Hot!”
I could picture his eyes rolling at my order and I just smiled wider. Nothing like yanking Sammy’s chain to confirm he was alive and well. “I’ll see you in a few minutes,” he groused before disconnecting the phone. And true to his word, he did… with warm cobbler and whipped cream in tow.Part 2