Sarah McConnell lived even further outside of Wattsville than the restaurant where we had met Mary the previous day. The cottage-style home looked to be well maintained with a flagstone walk leading to the front porch that was edged by a bright flower garden. When our knock to the front door didn’t receive an answer, we started around back and were met by an Irish Setter that barked in warning. Sam and I froze, not sure how the dog was going to respond to strangers.
At the sound of the barking, a head wearing a wide-brimmed hat popped up from between rows of tomatoes and squash in the small vegetable garden behind the house. “Here, Bartholomew! Hush up, now!”
The old lady behind the order pushed to her feet and wiped at the dirty knees on her pants as she walked toward us, slowly straightening her back. The dog let out a whimper, torn between continuing to confront us and following the commands of the woman.
“Mrs. McConnell?” Sam called as we stayed where we were seeing as the dog was doing the same.
“Yes?” she responded in questioning affirmation, rubbing behind the dogs ears when she reached us.
“My name’s Sam Winchester, this is my brother, Dean. We’re friends of Mary Lansing.”
“Oh, Mary! How is she? I haven’t seen her in months and months. She went off to school up north somewhere but I heard she was back in town for the summer working for the Webbs.”
“Yes, ma’am, she is,” Sam confirmed, assuming the diner was owned by the Webbs.
“Well, tell her to come by and visit a spell.”
“We’ll be sure to do that,” Sammy promised before asking, “Would you mind if we asked you a few questions? About what happened to her when she lived near here?”
Clear blue eyes drifted to look across the large field behind her house, and I could just make out another house that seemed a little worse for wear on the far side. Realizing what she had done, Sarah shook her head with a tsk. “It’s a shame what’s happened with the Vaughn place over all these years.”
“The Vaughn place?” I asked, figuring that was the house we were really interested in.
“Oh, it’s had so many different owners over the years I can’t keep track, but when I was a child Clara Vaughn and her children lived there. She may not have been the most responsible woman in the world, but she kept up with her house.” I exchanged a quick look with Sam and Sarah shook her head again and started for her own home, waving us along. “But when a house sits empty for so many years, it’s to be expected I suppose. It won’t keep up with itself. Come in, come in, let’s get out of this heat.”
Bartholomew bounded ahead, pouncing happily in anticipation at the door. “Get down,” she told the dog in affectionate irritation so that she could open the back door and lead us into the kitchen of the house. “You’ll have to forgive Bart. We get so few visitors out here he can’t help but get excited when we do.”
Sarah McConnell’s smile suggested she was just as happy as the dog to have guests, and regardless of her comment about the heat, I couldn’t help but envy the way that wrinkled face barely showed a glimmer of sweat when I felt like I was dripping buckets.
“Go on in and make yourselves at home. Can I offer you boys some iced tea? I just made a fresh pitcher this morning.”
“That sounds great,” I told her as we headed into the living room. “Thank you.”
The furnishings and decorations spoke of money. Nothing outlandish but everything high end and well cared for. There were family photos sitting around the room, fresh flowers from her garden, a small bay window with a row of African violets in full bloom, and a dog bed that Bart settled into comfortably. Sammy and I took a seat on the sofa and it wasn’t long before Sarah joined us with a tray and three glasses, offering the drinks to us before she settled into a comfortable looking chair with a basket of quilting materials sitting beside it. Not exactly the evil witch’s coven we were thinking we might uncover and the woman, who was playing hostess, although no doubt spry for her eighty plus years, didn’t exactly come across as the spell-casting, human-sacrificing type.
I took a sip of the tea, drinking a little deeper when I found it presweetened as the beverage tended to be in this part of the country, before Sarah set her own glass on the small table by her chair. “Now, what is it you boys were wanting to know about poor, little Mary.”
“Anything you might be able to tell us about the day her father attacked her,” Sammy prompted.
Her eyes narrowed slightly and she noted, “This has to do with her daddy dying recently, doesn’t it? Mary never did accept that he would do something like that. And, honestly, I can’t really blame her. Samuel was such a sweet man. He used to haul our trash to the dump for us when he took his own. And any time my Warren needed help with the yard work, he was always willing to lend a hand.”
“So why do you think he did it?”
At my question, she sighed. “Only the good Lord knows for sure.” Her gaze drifted to the window and across the field once again and she seemed lost in a memory. “But bad luck and wickedness have seemed to follow that house ever since Sophie Vaughn was killed all those years ago.”
“Do you remember when that happened?”
“Oh, yes,” she answered Sam. “It was big news for a little town like Wattsville. I must have been about twelve or thirteen years old that summer, and I remember my mother keeping us all in the house for weeks after, just in case whoever did it was still lurking around.”
“So they never figured out who that was?” Sam followed up on the research he’d done.
“No, not for sure, anyway. Although everyone had a theory back in those days.” She smiled in memory of a simpler time. “There wasn’t much to do for entertainment back then except gossip about your neighbors.”
“Some people thought Sophie’s brother did it,” I offered and she nodded in agreement.
“If it wasn’t for those other girls that had been killed, I’d say there was no doubt he’d been the one. And I can’t say as I’d blame anyone who came to the conclusion. Jimmy was…” She paused, as if trying to come up with the right word. “Have you ever been around someone who just feels wrong? That’s how Jimmy Vaughn felt to me. I never saw him do a mean, violent thing in his life, but you just knew he was capable of it. Do you understand what I mean?”
When we nodded, she shook her head again with a bit of sadness. “Not that anyone would be surprised given his family. Neither he nor Sophie had a proper father. As my mother would have said, Clara Vaughn didn’t behave in an exactly lady-like fashion. She was away from her home more than she was there, leaving Jimmy to watch over Sophie while she did Lord only knows what.”
My eyes slid toward Sammy, flicking back to the glass of iced tea with its drops of condensation running down the side, when his eyes met mine for a split second. And I knew his mind had run the same course mine had, which led straight to our own childhood spent with a noticeable lack of parental supervision. Maybe not for the same reasons or with the same results, but with a dysfunction all its own on the opposite end of the spectrum.
“She worked at a local gin joint… prohibition didn’t exactly mean much in the backwoods of Tennessee.” Sarah grinned mischievously before continuing more somberly. “Folks didn’t talk about things back then like they do these days. No one knew every little detail of Clark Gable’s life like they do with movie stars these days. And no one would mention a word like rape in relation to a woman back then, especially one with a reputation to drink as much as she served. But that’s what happened to Clara Vaughn, I have no doubt, at least with Jimmy. And the way Clara treated him… there’s no doubt she blamed him as much as the man that had done it to her in the first place.”
“What about Sophie?”
She smiled at Sam’s question. “Sophie was a different story. Her daddy ran off when she was just a baby, but Clara doted on her, leastwise as much as a woman with a temper like hers could dote.”
And that seemed like motive enough to me, but just to confirm I asked, “So, Jimmy was jealous of Sophie?”
“Oh, no, not jealous.” Sam and I both blinked in confusion. “He seemed to be obsessed with her. Disturbingly so. He almost never let her out of his sight.”
I quickly picked up my glass of tea and drank to cover my scowl brought about by the memory of my own near freak-out the previous night when Sammy had gone for dinner. And I pointedly ignored the look Sam was giving me.
“Even when she played with other children, Jimmy would watch her from a distance. Just the memory of him sitting and watching gives me goose pimples.” Sarah shivered where she sat before changing the subject slightly. “The same goose pimples I had when little Mary Lansing ran across that field with her arm dripping blood, bawling about her Daddy cutting her and her Momma. Warren got her in the house, got a towel around her arm, and I went to call the sheriff. The whole time thinking about how Sophie Vaughn had been killed that same way all those years ago.”
“Mary said her father tried to come after her while she was here.”
Sarah nodded at Sam’s comment and pointed to the distance between the two houses. “See those trees that lead around to the far side of my property? The deputy that caught him found him in there. There’s a deer trail that circles around. It’s actually quicker than coming straight across the field what with the tall grass and uneven ground out there. My brothers and sisters and I used to play out in those woods when we were children. Samuel must have found it on one of his walks is all I can figure.”
“Do any of your siblings still live nearby?”
She gave me a quizzical look that I would ask that before shaking her head. “No, those of them still alive moved off years ago.”
“Is there anyone else around here that would have a connection to both the Vaughns and the Lansings?” I didn’t know about Sam, but I’d come to the conclusion that there was no way this sweet old lady had anything to do with this. If there was some sort of compelling spell taking place, it wasn’t coming from her.
“Well,” she considered for a moment in confusion as to why I’d want to know something like that. “There’s a few people still around from back then. Doctor Daily’s in the nursing home but he hasn’t spoke since he had his stroke last winter. Marabelle Slateman, but she was just a baby when Sophie was murdered. Oh, Buddy Ashburn was a year older than me… but then he just moved back here to live with his daughter a few years ago when his wife passed, so he didn’t know Samuel and Darla.” She laughed gently before admitting, “I’m sorry, but when you get as old as I am, there aren’t a lot of people you knew as a child still around, much less up and about.”
“That’s fine, Mrs. McConnell,” Sammy stood and I quickly followed suit. Evidently he’d come to the same conclusion I had. “You’ve been very helpful and we won’t take up any more of your time.”
“Are you sure?” The disappointment on her face that we were leaving made me want to sit right back down again. But what she said next had me looking to Sam imploringly. “I was going to fry up a chicken for supper. You boys are welcome to stay and join me.” With both me and Sarah all but begging for us to stay, Sammy gave a small frown and she coaxed, “You could call Mary and have her come join us?”
“Yeah, Sammy, we could call Mary. We were going to go see the house today anyway. It might be good if she was with us.”
I’m sure Sam had plans to do more research, spend the day digging through dusty old county records or surfing the web. But when the hell had we had our last home cooked meal? Especially one cooked by a kind-hearted old lady that served us sweet tea in her living room? She had doilies for God’s sake.
With a sigh, Sammy relented. “That would be really nice, Mrs. McConnell.”
I beamed happily and Sarah smiled from her seat. “Oh, wonderful! And while I’m cooking, I’m sure y’all wouldn’t mind helping out with a few things in my yard.”
* * * *
“Evil old bit…”
“Dean!” Sam’s disapproving tone had me clamping my mouth shut on my grumble even as I loaded the bundle of branches into the wheelbarrow.
With a wipe of my arm across my forehead in a futile attempt to stop the sweat running into my eyes, I glared back at the house. Through the kitchen window I could see Sarah shuffling between stove and refrigerator. Leaning in conspiratorially, I told him, “She’s behind this, I know it.”
Sam picked up the trimmers and went to work on another section of the boxwood hedge that marked the property line on this side of the house and snorted. “Are you suffering heat stroke or something?”
“In all likelihood, yes. But that’s not why I think so.” Bending to retrieve the limbs that had just fallen to the ground, I chanced a quick glance back at the house to make sure she wasn’t watching us. “How else do you explain how easily she got us to be her personal gardeners?”
“Dude, what did you expect? She offered to fry you a chicken. I’ve seen you knock old ladies out of the way to get to the front of the line at KFC.”
“Now that I’ve seen the ways they can manipulate you, I have no qualms whatsoever about having done it. I’m telling you, Sammy, she’s using some evil old lady mojo on us.”
“You may be on to something, Dean.” Sammy wiped at his own forehead, the sweat darkening the sleeve of his t-shirt from grey to black. “By the look on your face when she mentioned mashed potatoes and gravy, I would have sworn you would have ripped out my heart and given it to her dog as a chew toy if she’d asked you to do it.”
“Oh, don’t even get me started on that dog. It’s probably her familiar or some poor delivery guy that she invited in for lemonade.” When Sam just grinned and took up the hedge trimmers again, I told him, “When we get out of here… if we get out of here… we’re checking for any Fed-Ex drivers that have gone missing in this area.”
“That’s a big if considering I saw a pecan pie on the kitchen table.”
Groaning, I snarled back at the house even as I took up the handles of the wheelbarrow to push it to the pile of lawn trimmings growing near the end of her driveway. “Oh, man, she is evil incarnate.”
Sammy followed along beside me seeing as the next set of shrubs that needed trimming were in the front of the house anyway. “So, seriously, what do you think we’re up against here?”
“Seeing as you’ve ruled out the fact that Sarah’s cellar is filled with a big cauldron and eye of newt…” I sighed. “I’m thinking demon.”
“But why stay in Samuel’s body all that time if it was?”
“Maybe it bound itself like Meg bound herself to you and then couldn’t break the bond.” I shook my head and looked back to the field and where Sophie Vaughn was killed, probably by her brother. “I mean, if anyone knows what it’s like to have to baby sit a younger sibling for long periods of time, it’s me. Sure, I may have locked you in a motel bathroom now and again, and there was that one time I tried to sell you to that couple from Cleveland, but I’d never in a million years try to kill you. Not unless something made me, something took me over.”
He gave a sad snort and studied his feet. “Yeah, I think you’ve gone above and beyond in proving that.” Finally he lifted his eyes to mine. “But even if the situations were similar, you have to admit that Mom and Dad were in a completely different league than Clara Vaughn and the man that raped her.”
I shrugged, still not completely convinced that bad genetics could make up for the loyalty that came with being made responsible for another human being. That sort of ingraining just wasn’t overcome that easily. And the only thing that I knew that could change a person so completely was a demon.
Fortunately, I was saved from that conversation, as well as any more yard work, when Mary’s car started up the drive. She stopped by where we were dumping the trimmings, rolled down her window and smiled in pleasure.
“Awwww, you volunteered to help Sarah with her yard. That is so sweet.” She bounced happily in her seat at the thought and a few key body parts bounced along with her.
Leaning against her door, I smiled modestly. “Well, you know, that’s just the kind of person I am. Always willing to help someone a little less fortunate.”
With another smile showing how touched she was by my actions, she waved before driving the rest of the way up to the house. I watched appreciatively as she exited her car and made her way up the front steps to call in the front door. She hugged Sarah happily before entering the house, and I studied the yard, assessing the best spot for Mary to see me… us… working. Deciding on a location, I hitched my head across the yard.
“Come on; let’s trim the maple tree next.”
Sammy rolled his eyes beside me. “Are you sure Mary’s not the one responsible for the mind control?”
With a scowl, I pushed the wheelbarrow in the direction of the tree. “I just think that’s the one thing Sarah wouldn’t be able to do on her own is all.”
“Yeah, I’m sure the fact that you’ll have a clear view into the living room where Mary is sitting has nothing to do with it.”
“You’re just jealous you didn’t think of it first.”
He tried to frown back but his lips twitched with amusement. “Jerk.”
“Bitch.” And if my own lips twitched, it was just the onset of the delirium as a result of the sunstroke.
* * * *
Abandoned houses. Wooooooooo, creepy. Yeah, not so much.
Truthfully, we’ve stayed in motels that were a hell of a lot scarier than most old houses we’ve been in. And the house where Mary had been attacked was no exception. Sure, it had a few broken windows, peeling wallpaper and warped linoleum. And, yes, there were cobwebs in the corners and water stains on the ceiling from a leaking roof. It had its share of half-burned candles, empty beer cans and the occasional condom wrapper from where local teens had broken in and put it to use. It had a few pieces of furniture that had been left behind… an old sofa and a bookshelf in the living room, a table and two chairs in the kitchen, a dresser and old mattress upstairs in one of the bedrooms. But it didn’t have that aura about it that made your spine tingle or the hairs stand up on your arms. None of them did. I’d spent the majority of my life sneaking around dark houses and evidently I’d become immune to the spooky sensations they gave off.
Mary, however, was a different story. The cheerful mood and bright smile that had been the norm during our meal with Sarah was gone, and she wrapped her arms around herself even though the house was stifling. The sun was setting, deep golden light blending into red flooding through the windows of the house, but it was bright enough that we hadn’t had to turn on the flashlights yet.
We started upstairs, Mary hanging back behind us and pointing down the hall. “That room on the right was mine, the one of the left my parent’s.”
Sammy and I searched them both, looking for anything that would have indicated demons or a spell being cast. But there were no markings carved into the floor, nothing on the ceilings, no sign of sulfur, and nothing on the EMF detector. It was the same on the main floor and Mary wouldn’t even enter the kitchen. Given the few tattered remnants of the tape outlining where her mother’s body had been found, I couldn’t say as I blamed her.
The sun was almost completely set by then, and as I looked out the kitchen window I could just make out Sarah’s place across the hazy void of the grassy field that was broken now and again by the sporadic flicker of lightning bugs. In the kitchen, the last lingering rays of the sun had been swallowed by the growing shadows, so I clicked on my flashlight.
“Mary,” Sam called gently, “is this table sitting in the same place it was when it happened?” Mary had said she’d crawled under the table to get away from her father, so the actual act must have taken place near here.
“No.” Taking a step back, she shook her head. “It was more in the center of the room.”
She shivered in the heat of the stagnant air and Sam bent down to shine his flashlight under the table bottom to look for any markings. The shake of his head told me there was nothing but then his brow furrowed as he tilted his head and shined the light on the floor.
“Is there a basement?” he asked.
Kneeling down beside him, I could see the outline of the trap door in the floor, the string used to pull it up long gone by now.
“A cellar,” Mary corrected. “Just dirt. Daddy stored some of his tools and remodeling equipment down there is all.”
Sam and I quickly moved the table out of the way and Sammy used the knife from his belt to pry the door up enough to get our fingers under it to lift it all the way up. As soon as it opened, I was hit by cooler air and the musty smell of the red soil that had been dug out to form the space. The beams of our flashlights scanned across the dirt floor before mine took in the wooden ladder that led down. Grabbing Sam’s arm for support, I tested the first rung. It seemed sturdy enough, so I sat on the edge and started down while Sammy lit the way.
“You’re going down there?” Mary’s voice actually went up an octave.
“We need to check out everything,” Sam explained as I reached the bottom. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”
“But I don’t want to stay up here by myself.”
I was just about to call up to him to go ahead and stay up there, I’d check it out on my own, when the EMF meter spiked. “Hey, Sammy, we’ve got something!” But I didn’t get an answer. “Sam?”
And then I heard it. Sam’s voice but not his voice. It suddenly had a soft lilt that rounded the r’s and drew out the vowels and made my skin crawl in a way an empty house never could.
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary.”
And then I heard Mary scream.
The EMF detector dropped from my hand as I dashed for the ladder. “Sam!” But once again I was ignored. “Mary, run!”
My head popped up out of the opening and Sam kicked me in the face. No, not Sam, I reminded myself through the stars that exploded in my vision. This was the monster that had killed all those girls over the years. A monster that wanted to use my brother to finish off the job he hadn’t been able to fourteen years before. A demon. I had no doubt in my mind. A fucking demon was in Sammy yet again.
I was really getting tired of this shit.
Holding onto enough of my senses, I grabbed blindly and hooked his ankle. He went down face first and I blinked to clear the fuzz from my head. “Mary,” I yelled again, “run!”
This time she did, and Sam scrambled to his feet to go after her. “Get yourself back here, little girl.”
I pushed myself up to climb the rest of the way out of the cellar noticing Sam had left his flashlight rolling on the floor as he ran out the front door after Mary. That would put him at a disadvantage if she headed across the field to Sarah’s like she had when she was a kid, but it also put me at a disadvantage since I wouldn’t be able to use the beam of light to keep track of him. And when I bolted out the front door after the two of them and didn’t see Mary near the Impala that was parked there, I figured the field was exactly where she’d gone. Unfortunately, Sam wasn’t in sight either.
Shit, shit, shit.
Think, Dean. I swiped absently at the blood running from my busted nose as I wracked my brain for what I should do. I had to stop the demon without hurting Sam in the process… well, seriously hurting him anyway. Oh, fuck, I hated this! I dug the keys from my pocket and opened the trunk, quickly scanning my options for ways to incapacitate my brother’s body without killing it.
I was so caught up in the search that I didn’t hear him until he was already behind me. With a quick, if clumsy, shift of my weight, I was able to dodge the full brunt of the knife he was wielding, taking a blow that sliced me from collarbone to shoulder instead of my throat where he was aiming. I pivoted, slamming my elbow into his stomach before punching him hard in the face, letting out a yelp when I was reminded by the sharp, shooting pain that I had used the arm connected to my injured shoulder to do it.
He sprawled back, hand going to his nose just as mine went to the gash he’d given me. Pulling the hand back to study the blood on it, he laughed. “Damn, Dean, I’m kindly surprised you’d go and do somethin’ like that.”
“Yeah, well, that’s proof positive you’re not really my brother, then.” I leaned against the open trunk, gulping air, keeping an eye on Sam even as my eyes darted and searched for what I was looking for.
He kept the knife out in front of him, crouching slightly, waiting for me to make my next move. “I truly am sorry about that. It’s nothin’ personal that I took his body. But I have unfinished business, y’see. And I need him to do it.”
“You aren’t using my brother for anything except a quick joy ride. One that’s about to end.”
His head shook in mock admiration. “Always the big brother, always lookin’ out for the little ones. That’s some might powerful stuff right there. Being the one that holds their life in the balance. Knowing they live or die just because you decide so. That’s heady business, I know for a fact.”
“You know I won’t let you hurt Mary or Sam, don’t you?”
“I know you’ll try; which is why I suppose I’ve got to take care of you before I go after her.” He looked longingly off into the distance, knowing as much as I did that Mary had headed for the field again and I took the distraction to slip my hand into the trunk. “Mary, Mary. She’s mine, you see. Fair and square.” He turned his attention back to me, eyes narrowing dangerously, and I knew he was about to make his move. “I bought her fair and square with the fourteen years I was trapped in her daddy’s body in that loony bin.”
He lunged and I brought the taser out from behind my back and fired it straight into his chest. Sam’s body started convulsing as soon as the probes hit him, back arching and his grip tightening on the knife until the electrical jolt stopped and he crumpled to the ground.
“Sorry,” I told the unresponsive heap that lay in the gravel of the driveway, “but I bought Sammy for a hell of a lot more than that.”
Stumbling the short distance to where he lay, I kicked the knife clear before checking for a pulse. It was there, as I expected… as I had hoped like fucking hell it would be, then I rolled him over to his stomach and pulled his arms behind his back to secure the handcuffs.
I took a few minutes to slap a bandage on my cut, shove Dad’s journal in the small of my back, and pocket a few other items, before heaving an unconscious Sam over my good shoulder. And for a split second I was in South Dakota instead of Tennessee carrying Sammy’s limp body toward another abandoned house. I steadied myself against the porch railing, willing the memory to just go the fuck away, reminding myself that Sam was alive, that he was breathing, and I had work to do if I planned to keep him that way. But it didn’t stop me from checking yet again as I sat him in the kitchen chair and redid the cuffs so that he was secured to the chair before using duct tape on his ankles.
For what I had in mind, I didn’t need him getting loose and the sign I drew around the chair should make sure that didn’t happen before I exorcised that son of a bitch. But better safe than sorry with these sneaky bastards. By the time I finished up with the drawing, Sam let out a small groan as he was coming around.
“Sammy?” I asked hopefully, knowing my chances were slim that he’d actually be the one that answered.
But the brown eyes that blinked in confusion at me were accompanied by a slightly slurred, unaccented voice. “Dean? What… Where’s Mary?”
“Heading for Sarah’s place,” I told him as I watched him closely.
“We need to get to her. She’s in danger.”
“We will, as soon as I’m sure you’re who you say you are.”
“Who I say I am? Of course I’m who I say I am. Now let me loose so we can catch Mary.”
“Catch her?” I narrowed my eyes as I circled around him. His shoulders stiffened defensively at the accusation and I shook my head. “Nice try, cupcake. But you’re not Sammy.”
He looked back at me over his shoulder and grinned. “I didn’t really think you’d fall for it,” he drawled in his native accent, “I was just joshing ya’. But it was fun to try.”
Setting my jaw, I opened Dad’s journal to the exorcism ritual. “You know what else is going to be fun? Watching you go flying back to Hell.”
I started reading and the demon just laughed. “You’re right, Dean, that is gonna to be fun to see you try that. But I think you’re gonna find that you’re wrong about me leavin’ so soon.”
And a few minutes later, the son of bitch proved himself right about that.