They got dinner around sunset in one of the small farm towns north of Bakersfield. Sam slid behind the wheel while Dean sweet-talked the girl in the taqueria into extra guacamole. When Dean came back to the car, swinging the grease-stained paper bag, he was silhouetted against the sunset, a broad-shouldered shadow against the purple and orange sky.
"How much longer?" Dean asked around a mouthful of carnitas, as Sam pulled back onto the road. Dean uncapped one of the Mexican Cokes and propped it on the seat for Sam, wedged between the seat back and Dad's journal so it wouldn't tip over.
Sam shrugged, glancing at his watch. From here on, the traffic would be a lot uglier, as they skirted around LA before swinging east on I-10. "Five, six hours," he guessed, if the holiday traffic wasn't too bad. If they were lucky, they'd have a moon, but he wasn't counting on it. They were staying off the highways where they could, trying to lay low; just one interested cop calling in their description would be enough to fuck them up for days. Maybe forever, though Dean's definition of forever was down to five months and change. On this plane of existence, anyway.
"Fantastic," said Dean, his expression unreadable against the sunset. "Well, watch the traffic, 'kay? My baby doesn't love LA. You get a scratch on her--"
"I know, I know. Blah blah blah, never find my body. I'll be careful."
Dean grunted, stuffed the tinfoil wrapper from his burrito into the paper sack, and slumped in his seat, head tilting back and eyes drifting closed. He was always able to sleep just about anywhere.
They pulled into the Park around ten o'clock; the traffic around LA had been as bad as Sam had expected. When the ranger on duty at the gate asked how long they were staying, Sam shrugged and said he didn't know, maybe three days. The ranger nodded, gave him the tag for the window, and circled Jumbo Rocks on a map before passing it through the window on top of a handful of pamphlets. "Enjoy your stay!" he said with a smile. Every federal employee should be so helpful.
From the west gate, the road climbed up and up, winding through dark hills. Sam passed several turns, always heading south and deeper into the park. Strange lumpy shapes were outlined against the stars, but Sam couldn't see them clearly until the Impala came out on the top of the plateau.
He took a breath and slowed the car down; he'd turned the tape deck off to talk to the ranger and never turned it back on. As they coasted down the dark two-lane road, he turned the headlights off, too. Now the only sources of light were the stars and the nearly-full moon above.
Dean, who'd been motionless for the last hour, kicked, grumbled something, and sat up suddenly. "Sam!"
"Yeah," said Sam, keeping his voice low, as if to preserve the silence and the darkness.
He heard Dean breathing harshly, and then more quietly, as the Impala swung around a curve. Something pale whisked across the road in front of them, gone before Sam could identify it in the darkness. "You see that?" He craned his head as they passed, but whatever it was, it was gone.
"Sam?" Dean's voice was soft as well. "You mind telling me why we're driving on the fucking moon?"
It really did look like the moon, after all: open plains and hillsides, barren but for scrub brush and the startling forms of the Joshua trees. They were freaky, with their serrated trunks and spiky leaves; looking, more than anything, like extraterrestrials come to steal something nobody on Earth ever valued. In the moonlight, they might have just moved a moment ago, caught in place while they lurched around the desert. The other oddity of Joshua Tree National Park was the way the way the landscape was dotted with enormous boulders. The rock was piled on top of itself, stacked like bowling balls, left lying in the middle of an empty plain as if placed there intentionally. Worn, cracked, shattered--but always something apart from the ground. Out of place, like the ruins of a civilization only the earth remembered.
Early this morning Sam and Dean had been in the Willamette Valley, all green and soft shapes, wheat fields and sheepyards below the snow-capped peaks of the Cascades. Now the land around them was sere and stark and inhuman, a place that Sam couldn't imagine people ever living. And--he touched the window --damned cold.
"We're there, I think," he said, and turned the headlights back on. Blinked at two green eyes on the shoulder, which disappeared before the Impala passed. "I think Jumbo Rocks, where Anatole is staying, is the next turnoff."
"Christ, Sam," said Dean, leaning forward to look up through the windshield at the empty sky. "This better be our sort of job. You know how I feel about camping."
"Anatole was sure it was something we'd want to check out. And I'd rather camp than stay in another moldy motel room. At least we're out of Oregon." No need to mention the near-miss with the local sheriff, and how close she'd come to arresting them for interfering with her investigation.
"Hey, the motel was fine--the mold was from your shoes! I wasn't the one who stepped on the giant slug!"
"No, but you were the one who left his wet shorts on the floor of the bathroom for three days. I can't believe--" Sam stopped. I can't believe Dad let you get away with that shit. "I can't believe how gross that bathroom was. Next time I pick the motel." He wasn't going to start a fight; they only had five months and three days left. Of course, he'd been telling himself that for six months and twenty-seven days so far, and the frequency of inter-Winchester warfare hadn't decreased noticeably.
The sign ahead said, "Jumbo Rocks Campground," and Sam pulled off, slowing down to a crawl as the road looped its way past campsite after campsite, all occupied. It was late enough that most people were asleep, but there was still light coming from several tents, glowing through the green or yellow nylon. Most of the cars, Sam noticed, were pickups or SUVs; in the darkness he couldn't read the numbers on the plates, but a lot of them looked like they were from out of state. They passed a small gathering around a fire, and two spots down was Site 43, where Anatole had said he was waiting for them.
A rattletrap old Toyota pickup was already parked there; Sam squeezed the Impala in next to it, ignoring Dean's warning hiss at any threat to his paint job. The headlights illuminated a small tent, a picnic table, and a lot of rock; Sam had to tilt his head back to see the stars above the top of the huge boulder at the rear of the campsite.
"So, this is pretty great, Sammy," drawled Dean, as he got out of the car and went around to the trunk. "We gonna hunt some Boy Scouts? Litterbugs? Smoky the Bear, maybe?"
Turning off the headlights, Sam got out as well, and blinked at the instant chill. "Shit, it's cold!"
"Desert, Sammy," noted Dean, digging in the trunk, whose capacious depths hid at least one sleeping bag, Sam knew, since he'd stashed it there four months ago. "Hah!" Dean said in triumph, and pulled out a pair of fingerless gloves that looked a revolting green in the light from the open trunk.
"Sam?" Another voice interrupted Sam's opportunity to wonder at how his brother could simultaneously be so dangerous and so dorky. "Could that possibly be the infinitely tall and increasingly broad, the one, the only, the legendary Sam Winchester?"
"Legendary?" muttered Dean, as Sam turned with a smile to greet Anatole, who swung him up in a hug.
"Dude, gimme a break! You're gonna pull something!" But it was good to see Anatole anyway, even if only dimly. The last time Sam had seen Anatole was... wow, nearly three years ago, the summer before Jess died. Six of them had gone to Lake Tahoe for a week at Marcus' uncle's place. On the way back Anatole had taken them climbing in Truckee; they'd gotten hammered on margaritas afterwards, and Sam had had to use his last emergency card to get them a motel room. He didn't think Dean realized that his care packages almost never got used: of what value was Tinkerman's Guide to the Folklore of the Mid-Atlantic or a silver-chased knife to a philosophy student at Stanford?
Anatole let him down, pulled away to examine Sam's face, dark eyes sharp and searching. He gripped Sam's shoulder hard, fingers pressing painfully against the bone. "I heard about Jessica, Sam. I am so very sorry."
Jess. The grief wasn't ever going away, but it was dulling now, not raw or loaded with regrets the way Dad's death was. Sam managed a smile around the sudden lump in his throat. "Thanks, Anatole." At Dean's impatient cough, Sam continued, "Oh, Anatole, this is my brother Dean."
"Dean!" crowed Anatole, shaking Dean's hand eagerly in both his hands. Dean nodded, on his face a patently false smile, and extracted his hand as quickly as he could. Sam controlled a smile of his own; this was going to be fun.
Frank--Dean thought it was Frank--passed the cup of Jack Daniels to Dean again, before continuing his argument with Anatole. "But man, you don't know. Two bad placements are all it takes. I saw Monty hit the deck at Lover's Leap last summer, and that line just zipped--"
"No." Anatole's mobile face twisted with determination, and he waved his own mug dangerously close to Sam, who leaned away. "I tell you--" under the influence, Anatole's accent--Eastern European, Serbian or some shit like that--was stronger, and he tended to drop words. "I tell you, Lori is strong, safe climber. We climb together at Tahquitz, at the Valley, at Red Rocks. She knows, she is safe. This--what happened, it should not have happened."
Okay, this had been going on for at least five minutes, and Dean was getting seriously annoyed. "So tell us already, what did happen?" All he knew was that Anatole had called Sam about this chick Lori's death, and the longer they were here, the more Dean thought Sam was just yanking his chain. Fucking rock-climbers, man--of course they were going to fall off cliffs and die. There didn't have to be anything supernatural about it. When Sam glared at him, he smirked and took another drink of the Jack. It might be fucking freezing, even huddled around the fire, but at least they had decent alcohol.
"Lori was guiding," said Anatole, speaking into the fire more than anything else. "Blue Moon is easy route, good for novices. Solid placements, and Lori is conservative, she protects more than me. Also richer, hah. She finishes the pitch--a rope-length," he explained to Dean, "and she sets anchor, and her client, he begins to follow her up. And then she falls? Then her anchor fails, and the top three placements? No, it makes no sense. I cannot make it make sense."
So much for an explanation. Dean turned his head and glared at Sam, who shrugged. "I think he means that she was safe, she was tied down, and then she fell, for no reason. Right, Anatole?"
"Yes, no reason!" Anatole practically bounced with agreement. "And that is not all! This is why I wanted you here tonight, before these losers go back to lives--" he waved a hand at the three other men clustered around the fire. Frank, Jose, and Dustin, although Dean couldn't say which was which--in the firelit darkness, they all looked alike, with their caps and their dark fleece jackets, hands bundled in their pockets and a week's growth of beard. Almost like hunters, if you didn't know better. "Tell them," Anatole said to Dustin (Dean thought), "tell them what you saw!"
Dustin shifted his weight on the camp chair he was perched on. "I dunno. I mean, it's weird, but I don't see what it matters."
Christ already. "Just tell us anyway," said Dean. Sam raised his eyebrows and gave that I'm so interested look he usually put on for grieving widows, not smelly college students blowing Dad's cash on camping trips to the desert.
"Okay, fine." Dustin shrugged but kept talking. "There's a whole thing about Indian art around here, you can't mess with it. It's protected by the Park and they don't let you climb there. So I was up over on Lost Horse the other day with Denise, a five-pitch five-ten, and on the second pitch, I get to the anchor ledge, and there's a fucking petroglyph on it, right on top of the anchor bolts. Huge."
Sam pulled his hat down a little further. His hair stuck out underneath it. "And that's a problem because?"
Dustin pursed his lips and shook his head. "Look, man, I led that route three times this fall, and I know damn well there's no art on it."
"Could be some kids messing around, right?" Dean suggested.
"It's carved images, not paintings. Take forever to do it. And it's a solid five-ten, with an ugly traverse at the crux. You'd have to be a climber to do it, and why bother?" Dustin hesitated; Dean cocked his head and waved a hand to continue. "And I didn't see any debris, nothing. There was even some lichen grown over it. Like it had been there for years."
"What was the symbol?" asked Sam.
Dustin shrugged. "Some animal. I don't know much about that stuff."
"So, one death and a mystery rock carving." Dean took another swallow of the Jack. "Anything else freaky going on?"
"You mean, aside from the coyotes?" That was one of the other guys--Jose, maybe.
"What about the coyotes?" asked Sam. He looked freaking silly in that cap, but Dean suspected he was warmer than Dean was.
"Oh, c'mon, dude, you're just making shit up now!"
"I am not! You didn't see it! It was--weird. Fucking freaky!"
"They're just coyotes!"
"And they were staring at me!"
Dean smothered a sigh and glanced at Sam, who shrugged in return. "Hey, Anatole," Sam said, under the ongoing argument about whether coyotes were ordinary-freaky or freaky-freaky, and Jose's issues with same. "We had a long day, we really need to crash. You got a spare tent or something?"
What? "Sam, I am not sleeping on the damn ground--" For one thing, it was cold as hell. For another, the ground was hard. If Dean was gonna die in five months, he wasn't gonna suffer along the way.
"You're the one who bought burritos for dinner, Dean. And you might fit into the back seat of the Impala, but I sure don't."
Boy had a point there. Dean scowled, but slapped Frank--or Jose--on the back and followed Sam and Anatole back toward their own campsite. He hated when Sam was right, although he was getting used to it once in a while. Still, he didn't have to like it.
The smell of coffee--and not just diner coffee, but the good stuff, flown in from South America or Jamaica or Hawaii and carefully roasted that morning--swept over Sam as he came through the coffee-house door. He would have paused to appreciate it, but Dean shoved him from behind, and he stumbled forward, nearly knocking over a backpack balanced against one of the couches in the large seating area.
"Hey, do you mind?" said the woman on the couch, hands curled protectively around a large blue mug.
"Sorry, sorry," said Sam, elbowed Dean out of the way, and beat him to the counter. "Coffee, large, milk," he said, to the kid at the register, all black rubber bracelets and piercings. When Dean made a sound behind him that might have been a whimper, Sam caved and added, "Two."
Tent or Impala, it had been damned cold in the Park last night. Sam suspected that his sleeping bag--a relic he'd picked up at a yard sale in Nebraska, and which had cheerful ducks printed on the red flannel lining--might not be up to the demands of the occasion. He shuddered, shoulders hunched in his jacket, and cursed the fluke of mid-60s wiring that meant the best Dean could ever tease out of the Impala's heater was tepid air. When their order came, he threw six dollars down on the counter--California coffee required California prices--and snatched up his cup in both hands.
When he turned around, doing his best to ignore the pornographic sounds Dean was making with his mug, he realized Anatole had only gotten as far as the first couch. He glanced up at Sam and with a big smile, waved Sam over. Sam wove his way through the cafe, dodging the chess game, two laptops running what looked like P2P software, and a battered guitar on a stand, ready for anyone to pick it up and play. Sam made a note to keep Dean away from that. Brotherly love only went so far.
Anatole slapped his hands down on his knees as Sam approached the table, as if about to leap up and race out the door. "Terry, this is my friend Sam I told you about! Sam, this is Terry Kim, one of my climbing partners."
"Uh-huh," said the tiny woman sitting next to Anatole, her face a study in skepticism. She raised an eyebrow at Anatole, then put out a hand, smiling only civilly. "Nice to meet you, Sam. You're not quite as tall as Anatole described you."
Sam shuffled his coffee-mug from one hand to the next so he could put his laptop case down on the floor, before shaking her hand. "Ah, right, well, Anatole's, you know. Been known to exaggerate."
She just nodded in return, her thoughtful gaze shifting from Sam to something over his shoulder. Sitting down, she looked like she was possibly half Sam's size--if she was over five feet tall, he'd be surprised. Dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, a dark complexion that looked less like a tan and more like ancestry, but the shape of her face and something in her voice said Asia, not Latin America to Sam. Like Anatole, she wore a fleece jacket over sturdy trousers and light hiking boots, as if at any moment she would be commanded into the wilderness, although the silver earrings ascending the curve of her left ear didn't quite fit the mountaineering image. Looking from Terry to Anatole, quiet mistrust to exuberant confidence, Sam couldn't imagine a less likely partnership.
Without warning, Sam's balance shifted as Dean flopped onto the couch. "Hi, I'm Dean," he said, smiling that cocky grin that had charmed waitresses, barmaids, and nurses from Florida to Vancouver. "You must be Terry."
Terry stared at Dean for a moment, her eyes flickering over his weather-defying leather jacket, jeans, and t-shirt, before looking back at Anatole. "You're kidding, right?" Her voice was flat with skepticism.
Great. Sam was beginning to suspect Anatole had pulled one of his usual tricks. "Ah, Anatole, what did you--"
"No," said Anatole, shaking his head at Terry and completely ignoring Sam. "This is--these are good men, they will help us."
Terry was not reassured. "These guys? Jesus, Anatole, I thought you said you weren't smoking anymore! Lori deserved better than this."
"Hey, hey, hey!" protested Dean. "I guarantee, we know what we're doing--"
Terry folded her arms. "Do you know the first thing about the Park? About climbing? Have you ever been on the rock before? Used a belay device? Anything?" When neither Dean nor Sam could summon up more than a mumble, she turned back to Anatole. "I thought you said you were hiring professionals!"
Sam's "We are professionals!" overlapped with Anatole's "I couldn't afford them!", drawing enough attention that three other conversations paused while people turned to stare at the four of them.
"Terry, I swear," Sam said, dropping his voice and leaning forward, "we're not private investigators, but we can help. This is what we do, we investigate strange deaths and stop them. We've been doing it all our lives, and we're good at it."
"Right," Terry dubiously, with another glance at Dean. Sam really hated this: it was much easier when nobody knew who the Winchesters were, what they knew. It was so hard to convince people, especially people who weren't willing to have their view of the world overturned.
"Come on," said Dean, leaning forward across the table. "It's not like you're paying us. Give us a chance; we might be able to help."
Terry stared at Dean for a few long seconds, then shifted her gaze to Sam, her face a study in skepticism. Sam cupped his hands around his cooling coffee and tried to project earnest trustworthiness. Eventually she shifted back in her seat, the furrow between her brows smoothing out, and sighed audibly. "Fine." But she didn't smile.
Anatole clapped her shoulder, a grin creasing his sunburned face. Terry reached up comfortably and tugged at his disheveled ponytail in response. "Crazyman," she said, "I should have known you'd pull this kind of shit. Okay," she went on, meeting first Sam's eyes, then Dean's. "Let's do this, but you gotta promise me one thing."
"What?" said Dean, his hands deep in his jacket pockets, his face as blandly skeptical as Terry's had been a minute before. This was one reason not to tell people the truth about them, Sam thought--it put Dean on the defensive, put him on the outside. Weakened his position, when they knew more than he did, even if he wouldn't admit it.
"You follow our lead," Terry said, indicating Anatole and herself. "When we're on the rock, you do what we say, no questions. This is what we do, and we can keep you safe, but you have to trust us. Got it?"
Crap. Sam glanced at Dean, whose face had entirely shut down: lips in a distrustful line, brows lowered. But after a moment, Dean shrugged minutely, and Sam could almost hear him say it: What the hell, little brother, we're here. Might as well give it a shot. "All right," Sam said. "You got a deal."
"Excellent!" cried Anatole, leaping out of his chair, to the detriment of Sam's coffee. "Now we get you guys geared up, and we go see what you need to see!" Terry stood as well, swinging her pack to her back, and giving Dean another suspicious glance before following Anatole to the door.
"I don't think she likes you much," pointed out Sam, as he shrugged back into his jacket.
"No, really?" said Dean, scowling, and led the way to the door. "But what did he mean about gearing us up?"
Sam grinned all the way to the car.
"You're sure you're okay with this." Terry didn't look up at Dean, keeping her eyes on the blue-and-purple rope that she was carefully coiling on the ground in front of her. She'd taken her jacket off as the sun warmed the canyon at the foot of the Blue Moon route, the "easy climb" on which Lori Masterson had died. The brown skin on her forearms flexed as she worked, hands moving smoothly, instinctively. "It's a long way up, and a long way down. You don't have to--"
"I'm going!" snapped Dean. It wasn't like he had a choice: Sammy was already up there, long legs kicking as he followed Anatole over a clump of rock sticking out from the face. An overhand, right. "I've belayed before." Though to be fair, it was kind of an emergency thing, when Dad had gone down the cliff after that woman in New Hampshire. Dean hadn't had a harness then--he picked uncomfortably at the tight loops of nylon webbing he now wore over his jeans--or a belay device. He fiddled with the thing, just a short steel tube on a metal loop hooked to his harness. Terry and Anatole had given them a quick run-down on how to use the gear, but Dean couldn't say he was exactly comfortable with it all.
"Recently?" Terry just wasn't letting this go.
Dean grimaced; but then he looked up the wall. If that were him in front, he'd want to make sure, too. "Not very."
"Okay, let's go over it again." Terry's quick fingers, scabbed and scarred, the wrists wrapped in white athletic tape, pulled a loop of rope through the belay device. "Left hand on the end that goes to me, like this, right? The bight goes through the carabiner--" she snapped it shut and locked it in one motion, "--and then the right hand is the brake hand. If I fall, all you have to do is bring the brake hand down, like this--" She pulled his hand down and back, leaning across the front of his body. Her fingers were hard, her hands calloused, and if Dean sniffed just a little bit, he could smell dust and sweat and coffee on her. Not that he was interested in a short bitchy woman who was determined to make him look stupid. "You got it?"
"Yeah. Left hand to you, right hand brake hand."
Terry frowned, still uncertain. "One more thing--"
"Well, I didn't expect to see anyone on this route for a while."
Dean jerked his head up; one of the rangers was watching them, a tall woman whose eyes were hidden behind mirrored sunglasses and a dorky hat. Shit, more feds. He wished he'd followed Sam's lead and worn a hat. Did the FBI send out notices and photographs of fugitives to national parks, or just to real cops?
"Hey, Mel," said Terry, looking up only briefly. "Got a job, and it's a good route. Dean, this is Mel Frye."
Oh, right; Dean was a client. So he went for puzzled. "Why? Shouldn't we be here, Ranger?" It wasn't too hard to play tourist: the great outdoors wasn't really his element, not when he was unarmed and about to be hanging from the edge of a cliff.
Frye tilted her head back to look up the cliff. "No, it's fine, it's just there was an accident here a week or so back, so the route was closed for the investigation." She cocked her head. "That Anatole up there? Who's following?"
Investigation, Dean thought, and imagined the way a body would fall from that high, bouncing off the cliff face, gear flying. Once when he was a kid, they had passed a wrecked motorcycle, an ambulance and police cars clustered around it. Dean didn't really think much of it until, as the Impala crept along, his dad pointed silently out the window at a smear on the asphalt, and Dean realized he was looking at the inside of someone's head. He didn't wake up Sammy to see it, and didn't eat much for dinner afterwards, even though it was pizza.
"His brother," said Terry, nodding at Dean, and then sliding her hands inside his harness to check the fit. He grunted a little as she tugged upwards once, hard. "They came out for a couple of days climbing. And it's not like the route is haunted, right?"
"So, what caused the accident?" Dean asked Frye, stepping back from Terry and re-adjusting his harness loops. Christ, this was uncomfortable over jeans: no wonder Sam put on those stupid stretchy pants.
The ranger pulled her sunglasses off, the movement transforming her immediately from a faceless figure of authority to a tired-looking woman about ten years older than Dean, laugh-lines etched around her eyes. She hesitated openly, turning her glasses over in her hands. "We're not sure," she finally said. "It looked as though the anchor had never been placed, but even if that were true, there was no reason for, for the climber to fall."
Frye knew the climber who had died, Dean realized; probably very well, if she couldn't even bring herself to mention Lori Masterson's name. "What, like, she jumped?"
Terry scowled and Frye just looked baffled. "No! No, it's--well, nobody could have pushed her because there's no way anyone else could have been up there. We think maybe there was a bee or something, something that startled her and she didn't realize how close she was to the edge of the ledge."
Dean smiled grimly. "You're really making me feel secure about this whole climbing thing, Ranger."
Frye's bafflement shifted immediately into reassurance. "Don't worry, sir. Terry's one of the best guides in the park. Just do what she says, and you'll be fine." She checked her watch. "You'd better get up there if you want to come down in the daylight, though. Good luck on your climb, folks." With an archaic tap on the rim of her hat, like someone in a western, she moved on down the trail, dust puffing under her boots.
"Huh," said Dean. He watched Terry sort through equipment in her backpack, clipping metal wedges on wire springs onto her harness. She handed him a loop of nylon webbing and he slung it across his chest, bandolier-style. "But even if it was a bee, she shouldn't have fallen, right? Because of the anchors?"
Terry stayed where she was, crouched over her pack. The tendons in her hand suddenly stood out in sharp relief as she closed her hand on another length of multi-colored nylon rope. "Yeah."
"That's just... that's just great," Dean said, and leaned back to look up the cliff face, at where Anatole and Sam were hidden behind tons of stone, a hundred feet above.
"Holy shit!" Sam gasped as he struggled over the last move, forcing his hands to close on just one more hold, his legs to push him the last few feet to safety. When he made it onto the ledge, he rolled over, still gasping, and didn't even move when Anatole put a water bottle in his hand. He could barely close his fingers around it.
There was some clinking of gear--carabiner gates opening and closing--and a tug at his waist. "Huh? Anatole--"
"It is nothing, Sam, I am just anchoring you better."
Sam opened his eyes to see that in addition to the rope attaching him to Anatole, now there was a length of purple nylon webbing running from his harness to a tangle of rope and nylon extending from the cracks at the rear of the narrow ledge. He put his hand on the webbing and tugged gently; no movement. They were solidly anchored to at least four points; they weren't going anywhere.
"Gear?" Anatole tugged at Sam's belt, and Sam sat up, shakily. He had to use both hands to uncap the water bottle, but once he'd had a few sips, he was able to begin unclipping from his harness the equipment he'd removed from the cliff as he followed Anatole up.
The few times Sam had gone climbing before, with Jess and some of her friends--including Anatole's sister Ileana, which is how they'd met--they had climbed routes which were already bolted, so the climbers only had to attach the rope to the wall with carabiners. This more traditional kind of climbing was harder, slower, and scarier: the leader had to wedge nuts or spring-loaded devices into cracks in the rock, and then attach those to the rope. Without that protection, if someone fell, both leader and follower could die. But the protection could fail, too--if there was something wrong with the equipment, or if the leader miscalculated the strength of the rock, the direction of forces, the size of the crack.
Anatole had led the way up two pitches, pausing only briefly at a small ledge at the end of the first pitch, moving slowly but solidly, so far as Sam could tell, taking no chances. When Anatole reached the top of each pitch, he had anchored himself to the wall and then yelled down to Sam that he was on belay and could climb. Sam then followed Anatole, removing the protection from the rock and clipping it to his own harness. It was slow, unsettling work, bracing himself against the cliff and fumbling one-handed with the gear. Once he had nearly dropped a "Friend", and only stopped it from falling all the way down to Dean and Terry by trapping it against the wall with his knee. It was one of the big ones, and from what Sam had learned was worth close to a hundred dollars: money Anatole couldn't afford to lose.
Sam managed to unclip all the gear from his harness without Anatole's help, and then shifted around so he could shake out and coil the rope while Anatole prepared protection for the next pitch. "Where are those guys? They started yet?"
Anatole hooked a hand in the tangle of the anchor and leaned precariously outwards. "No, I cannot--oh! Yes, there. They are on the first pitch, Dean is about halfway. Terry is always slower than me. But safe! Your brother will be fine."
Sam grinned at the thought of Dean following tiny prickly Terry, cleaning up after her. "I'm sure."
This ledge was large, roomy enough to spread out in, and Sam sprawled a bit, leaning back against the rock and staring out over the park. They were about three hundred feet up, facing southwest in the mid-afternoon light. From here Sam could see for dozens of miles, across thousands of acres of desert and then more desert, until the horizon blurred in the brown haze of Riverside County and then LA. It was warm, tucked into their little alcove out of the wind, and Sam took another drink of water, munching cheerfully on the Oreos Anatole had brought for them. Somehow it always seemed more acceptable to eat junk food when you were outside, as if the fresh air and exercise made it healthier.
"So this is what you do now, Sam? You just ... drive around?" Anatole was finished sorting gear; he dangled his legs over the ledge, apparently unconscious of the deadly drop before him. He'd taken his tiny purple climbing shoes off and swung his bare feet in the sunshine.
Sam shrugged. He couldn't tell Anatole the truth about Jess and Mom and Dad, for Anatole's sake as well as his own. But he could tell him a bit; Sam knew Anatole wasn't going to freak. Anatole was already as freaky as he could get, after all, Sam thought, looking at the iridescent black polish on Anatole's toenails. "Pretty much, yeah. It's kind of a thing we do, like some people drive to all the baseball parks in the country or spend all their time hanging off cliffs. We go looking for strange phenomena." And try to weasel our way out of a demon contract, while not getting picked up by the FBI.
It was good to be out of the car, Sam thought. See something like this view, the twisted Joshua trees and alien rock formations, talk with people he wasn't trying to con. He wasn't an insurance investigator, a reporter, a cop or a fugitive right now--just Sam Winchester, hanging out with an old friend.
"And do you find it? Your strange phenomena?"
"Yeah, you'd be--" began Sam.
The shove between his shoulder blades cut him off, the words lost as he flew suddenly towards the lip of the ledge. Sand and rock scuffed under his feet as he tried to brace himself, the straps of webbing flopping loose where they had been taut a moment before. He saw the gulf approaching, the empty space he'd climbed through so comfortably half an hour before, and flung out a hand desperately, trying to stop himself from going over the edge.
Dean was learning that "overhand" was not, in fact, the same word as "overhang", and that he hated fucking overhangs, when he heard the bark. Just a short volley of sound, a dog mouthing off, but a small one--the sharp edges of sound cut through his ears and he winced, shrinking against the rock. But that screwed up his balance, and his foot slipped. His weight came down on his right hand and he clutched, precariously close to falling altogether.
The barking became a howl, spiraling up into a thin piercing wail, before cutting off sharply, while Dean scrambled for his footing. Dean shuddered, shaking his head--some stupid hiker's gonna lose his dog in the rocks--then managed to get his foot back in place before reaching for the next hold. He clung for a moment, breathing hard, not looking away from the rock.
This wasn't as hard as he'd feared, if he kept his head and watched his feet, but he couldn't look behind him, couldn't look past his feet either. Too much open space out there, too far to the ground. He was pretty sure Sammy was faster at this, and it wasn't just because of the longer arms.
Once over the overhang, Dean clipped the protection to his harness as Terry had instructed, and paused to massage his forearms, which felt weirdly swollen and strained. There was blood on his knuckles, and on the palm of his right hand: he must have cut himself somehow. He shrugged, smearing his hand on his jeans. It wasn't until he started climbing again that he heard Terry's voice, carrying down thinly from above. The wind had picked up and he kept missing syllables, but what he thought he heard was, "Dean... Sam... hurt--". That was enough to freak him out, but he couldn't go any faster, not and still climb safely.
Nothing had fallen past them, not even a stone. It wasn't like Lori Masterson--not yet, anyway. He clung to that thought as tight as he clung to the warm sun-heated rock, until he realized he was burning himself out clutching that hard. Use your feet, Terry had warned him before starting up. Your legs are much stronger than your arms; think about pushing up instead of pulling yourself.
Handhold, handhold, bring the feet up, stand up, do it again. The freakiness of shoving his hand sideways into a crack and resting his weight on it stopped bothering him; there was somewhere he needed to be. Free the camming device, clip it to the sling across his chest, keep moving. Move, move, move--the open air below him was less terrifying than the chant Sammysammysammy that whispered in the back of his brain.
When he finally arrived at the first belay stance, he found Terry swinging in midair, suspended in her harness from three anchors, rope coiled neatly across her knees. She was facing the cliff, her feet propped comfortably against the rock, as if she were in a backyard hammock. Dean swallowed: if the anchors failed, she would fall all the way down, over a hundred feet to the scrub and sand and jumbled rock on the valley floor.
"What happened?" he demanded, as she clipped him neatly into her anchor system. He propped himself against the cliff, trying to mirror her stance without thinking about the gulf below.
"I'm not sure," she said with a look up the cliff. "Sam says they're both okay, but Anatole's hurt and we need to get them off the wall."
Anatole, not Sam. Dean didn't feel at all ashamed at the rush of relief. Still. "How are we gonna get 'em down?" He really didn't want to climb back down this, then realized that was stupid--they would rappel, like the climbers he had seen on the hike in.
"Depends," Terry said. "Let's just get up there, okay?" She put out a demanding hand; when Dean just stared at her, she grabbed the sling across his chest and shook it. "Gear, please!"
"All right, all right!" The slings were tangled and he knocked himself in the head twice with spring-loaded cams--including the Number 3 Friend, which felt like it weighed about three pounds, damn it--before swapping the loaded sling for the rope across Terry's lap.
Terry sorted gear efficiently and methodically, checking what she had against what she could see of the route above them, while Dean coiled the rope ready for climbing, stacking it in his lap because there was no ledge, and drank some water. He tried to yell up to Sam and Anatole, but the wind had picked up enough he heard nothing but unintelligible shouts.
"So how long you been doing this?" he asked Terry finally, bored with the wait.
She looked up at him, brows curled down above her nose, then back at the gear. "Four years, since I got out of school. I'm on staff with North Gate Climbers, down the road. They cover insurance, booking, all that. I get gear cheap and make enough to cover coffee and gas."
"But not rent?" Dean ventured.
"In your dreams," she said with a snort. "I do some technical editing the rest of the time. I get by."
Dean looked around them, brushed a little gravel off a finger-wide ledge, listened to it cascade down the wall. The sun was dropping westward and a bird was calling in the trees at the bottom of the cliff. "Could be worse, I guess." Like scamming credit cards for motel rooms, silver for bullets, and bulk medical supplies. Terry and Anatole got paid to do their incredibly dangerous hobby, and didn't have to worry about being possessed or cutting deals with demons. On the other hand, they weren't saving lives, either; but some days that didn't mean as much as it was supposed to. I'm tired, Sammy.
Terry shrugged and pulled herself up onto the tiny ledge, standing right over Dean. "Yeah, that's for sure. Okay, on belay."
"Right," he said. Terry shot a look at him. "Um, belay on," he corrected, rolling his eyes, then gave her slack in the rope so she could move.
"Climbing," and she was off, moving faster than before, but still easily. On the first pitch, Dean had been too intent on doing the belaying right--extra rope when she was moving, pulling it in when she stopped, giving her rope fast when she clipped into the protection--to watch Terry actually climb. Now he was able to appreciate her flexibility, the smooth way she moved. It was almost like dancing, the attention she brought to her every move, no motion wasted. No fumbling, no kicking the wall like Dean had been doing, no changing her mind. He could almost see her mind calculating as she moved, paused, surged upwards quickly, clung in stillness to place a piece of protection, and then moved again.
Of course, it didn't hurt that she had a great ass, even if it was kind of hidden by the gear on her harness. He wasn't blind, after all.
The second pitch went faster than the first one, and it was only about forty minutes later that Dean scrambled over the lip of the ledge where the other three were waiting for him, crowded with the gear into a space the size of a dinner table. He looked first to Sam, who looked mostly fine, although he had his right hand curled protectively over his left wrist. Terry was crouched next to Anatole, holding a water bottle for him.
"So what happened?" Dean said, as he clipped himself into the anchor. It was hard to figure out where to clip in, there was such a tangle of webbing and rope and carabiners on the ledge. "Sammy, you okay?"
"I'm fine, Dean," but Sam's voice was strained, nervous. "It's Anatole that's hurt."
"How bad?" Dean craned his head, but he couldn't see Anatole past Terry, not without moving around a lot more than he was comfortable doing in this tiny space.
Terry answered without turning around. "Dislocated shoulder, maybe a broken wrist. We gotta get him down."
"It gets better, Dean," said Sam, over a groan as Terry helped Anatole sit upright. "We--it--I don't know what it was, but it wasn't an accident. Something tried to throw me off the cliff, and if it weren't for Anatole--" He shrugged, like it was no big deal, but Dean swallowed thickly. Could have been Sam, falling. He was supposed to get more than seven months: he was supposed to get a whole life, that was the deal.
Terry's ponytail whipped back and forth as she shook her head without turning away from Anatole. "Oh, c'mon, don't pull that. You must have unclipped--"
"I didn't," said Sam firmly. Anatole said something as well, but Dean couldn't hear it. Terry shook her head again; great, another skeptic.
No point in arguing it now. "So how do we get out of here?" Dean asked. If there was something up here throwing people off the cliff, Dean wanted down now.
"Not easily," Terry admitted, sitting back on her heels. She gave a tug on her ponytail that looked like a nervous habit. "But we can do it; there's a sticky traverse that way--" she pointed off to her left, where the ledge narrowed and disappeared around a corner of the rock, "--and after that, it's just scrambling down the back side of the wall. Long, maybe, but it's basically class four, we should be okay."
"Terry, no, that is too long," protested Anatole, trying to lift a hand. "I can abseil, you will see--"
Dean was surprised Anatole could even pretend he was functional: he'd stopped over two hundred pounds of Winchester from falling three hundred feet to his death. He was lucky to get away with just a dislocated shoulder and bum wrist.
But Terry was having none of it. "No. You can't even hold a fucking water bottle, you think you can handle a hundred-meter rappel? We're walking out."
"Right, then," said Dean, checking with Sam in a glance. "What do you need us to do?"
The hike out was about as ugly as Sam expected. First there was the relocation of Anatole's arm, although that went surprisingly well. Turned out there'd been some developments in medical practice since he'd first watched Dean wrench Dad's arm back into place--he must have been around eight at the time. The new way was easier, and Terry didn't even need Dean to hold Anatole down.
But after that there was binding the arm in place (yet another of the thousand-and-one uses for duct tape), wrapping Anatole's wrist, and distributing his gear. Sam got most of it, since Dean was packing the ropes, and ended up struggling along behind Anatole, while Terry led the way with Dean.
To call it a hike was a misnomer, anyway: Terry hadn't lied when she'd said it was a scramble. There wasn't actually a trail, just a general direction of down, over, under, and through fallen boulders, tumbled one on another. Sometimes they'd edge their way down a tiny notch in the rocks, but inevitably they'd find themselves dropping four or six feet down from one ledge to another, feeling their way in the afternoon shadows. It was ugly and long and nobody got hurt, and it was with great relief that Sam stumbled after Anatole out onto the trail they'd followed that morning, only half a mile from the base of Blue Moon.
"Dude," said a girl's voice, "what happened to you?"
There was still light in the sky, but the sun had dropped behind the western ridge, draping shadows across the canyon. Anatole and Terry had stopped to talk to a girl at the junction of another trail.
"Paula, light of my life," Anatole replied, with a brilliant if weary smile, "I have saved a life and will rest forever in paradise."
"No shit?" The girl's face lighted up, but she glanced at Terry for confirmation.
"No shit," Sam said from the back of the group. "I would have died." At his side, Dean rolled his shoulders and kicked a stone off the path into the brush. Christ, he can't be jealous.
Anatole made a gesture that might have been a wave cut short by pain. "Oh, my manners! Paula Martinez, this is Sam, who did not fall, and his brother Dean. Today was their first day climbing, and I am not at all sure that they'll be willing to go again."
Paula was dark: dark hair and complexion, but tall and lean where Terry was petite. Younger, too: Sam doubted she was twenty yet. Her smile was wide, and even braided, her hair reached the middle of her back. Her t-shirt, stretched and stained, had a picture of four Indian warriors, and the text: Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492. Huh.
"Why wouldn't you climb again?" Paula looked honestly puzzled. There was chalk on the knees of her patched cotton pants, tape on her fingers, and the shoes dangling from a clip on her pack were so worn there was a hole in the toe. Yet another member of the climbing fraternity.
Dean snorted. "Cause we nearly died?"
"Yeah, but you didn't! I mean, that's the point, isn't it?" She was bouncing now, rocking back and forth on her heels, hands waving. "You go up, and something goes wrong, shit happens, and you deal with it--or your partner does--" and she flashed a brilliant smile at Anatole, "--and then you finish it, and it's like, everything just tastes better. It's awesome."
Sam swallowed a smile, and didn't look at Dean. Terry, though, Terry was laughing and clapping Paula on the back before turning to guide Anatole down the path. "No, we're good, Paula, we can get him to the clinic. We'll see you around."
The hike out to the cars was easy by comparison: just a quarter mile along the flat path, which meant that Sam only tripped twice over exposed roots or rocks, and only had to threaten Dean three times with various undefinable but terrible retribution if he didn't back the fuck off already. Jesus, Dean was the one with an expiration date, and he still insisted on the protective routine.
They'd stopped fighting openly about the crossroads deal, more because neither of them would back down than because they'd come to any agreement. Sam called Bobby when he had a free moment, and took advantage of Dean's "recreational time" to do his own research; on the other hand, Sam suspected Dean was spying on Sam's computer work whenever he got the chance. At least once Dean had deleted a folder full of research--but he didn't know about Sam's online backups (Sam wasn't completely stupid). Sam had changed his user password three times, but either Dean was way better with computers than Sam thought, or Sam himself was an open book to his brother, because Dean cracked each of them within days. Twice Sam had snuck off by himself and tried some spell-casting; when he came back the second time, Dean had nearly broken his jaw.
It was a quiet little war, on a deadline, and the battles were fought between exorcisms and all-night drives to find yet another possession. It was almost a relief to get a job that, so far as they knew, involved just the ordinary supernatural, nothing to do with demons or the Devil's Gate. Just like old times, before their entire world had begun to smell of sulfur.
"You guys don't need to come with us," said Terry when they had loaded Anatole into the passenger seat of his pickup; but she looked worried and weary, and Sam didn't even have to look at Dean before insisting. They had to follow her, which was no trial given the caution with which she drove, a far cry from the standard Winchester mad stampede to the emergency room. Granted, when Winchesters were going to the hospital, things were usually so dire every minute actually did count.
This time Dean was even forced to stop at yellow lights (bitching the whole time), and then got so distracted he almost missed the turnoff into the medical clinic. "Dean! Right!" Sam barked, and Dean whipped his head back around and swung the Impala into the parking lot, nearly clipping the hedge as he did so.
"You see that?" he asked Sam, half his attention still across the street even while parking the car.
Sam twisted in the seat and peered through the rear window; despite the dust from the three weeks they'd gone without washing the car, there was no question which of the neon signs on the main drag had attracted Dean's attention. "Oh, no," he groaned.
Dean hopped out of the car and stuck his head back in to grin at Sam. "Oh, yes." Because no way on earth was Dean missing the opportunity to drag Sam to a casino.
To Sam's surprise, Anatole had health insurance, and moreover had been a patient at this particular clinic before, so the paperwork was handled relatively easily. Sam and Dean hung out in the waiting room while he was examined, Sam uncomfortably reading a copy of something called Accidents in North American Mountaineering, which made him wince more than once. After reading about the two guys who were stuck for three days on a mountainside with broken legs before getting rescued, he put it down. Maybe getting stabbed in the back by a superpowered demon-child wasn't the worst way to go, after all. Then he looked sideways at Dean, who was drumming his fingers on his thigh, restless with energy: it wasn't the way Dean was going that was the problem, but the where.
When Terry finally came out, Dean jumped up to meet her. "How's Anatole?"
She looked a lot less worried than she had before, mostly tired now instead. "They think he's going to be okay, but the doctor wants to keep him here for a while and let the swelling go down before they x-ray him."
"They're keeping him?" Sam asked; kept for observation wasn't usually a good sign in his experience.
"Yeah, it's fine, it's just for the x-rays. They've got cold packs on him right now and he's bitching about it. In Croatian, Turkish, and French." She grinned, the smile brightening her face in a way Sam hadn't witnessed yet. It was a striking change, Terry viewed from another angle, or like a semi-transparent overlay from fourth-grade geometry class. Sam didn't even need to look to see the way Dean perked up in response, but Terry went on, the smile dropping away. "You guys don't need to stay, really. Why don't you go get dinner and we'll meet you back at camp?"
Sam frowned, unwilling to abandon her out of boredom but reluctant to stay if they were honestly not needed. "You're sure? We can't get you something?"
She shook her head. "No, I'm good, really. Um, there's a decent pizza place around the corner--"
Dean broke in, hands in his jacket pockets. "What about that casino over there? What's the deal?"
Her face twisted in distaste. "It's the new tribal casino, just opened a few weeks ago. I suppose they might have a restaurant. Paula would know if it's any good, I suppose."
"Paula?" Dean asked. "How come?"
"Oh, she's Indian, her uncle is one of the elders. She's been bitching because she isn't old enough to work there. I don't know," Terry went on, her face softening in thought. "I hate gambling, it's such a waste of people's money, but the tribe, man. When I first started coming to the Monument they were so damned poor. So, yeah." She shrugged uncertainly. "I just wish it wasn't right there, you know?" She jerked her head at the window, where the brilliant orange of the casino sign shimmered enticingly. Tacky but attractive--just the sort of thing that caught Dean's magpie attention.
Sam wasn't going to argue with Terry. He remembered the season they spent on the Pine Ridge Reservation when he was ten, their father hunting with Bobby on the weekends, sitting on his pride at the feet of the old women during the week. Kids in class watched him and Dean warily, schooled to mistrust by a hundred years of neglect. On the basketball court, Dean was trounced by Lakota boys who were bigger, taller, and sometimes even meaner than Dean. They rarely saw their closest neighbor--a veteran of both the Army Rangers and the American Indian Movement--sober; the school had few pencils and fewer books; and there were wrecks on the highway to match the wrecks in the yards. It was remote and poor and proud, an America most of the country had forgotten. But the sky, Sam remembered: the sky went on forever.
Sam was willing to bet that things weren't much different here; the sky at least seemed the same.
Dean loved casinos. Not just the opportunity to score some cash, which was nice--although not to be relied on--or the pretty girls waiting tables in tight t-shirts and heels that made their legs go up to there, but the energy of a casino was like an instant buzz. Lights and sound and people and alcohol and potential. It was bottled chaos, possibility made flesh and blood and electricity.
The Cabrolla Band of Mission Indians' new casino wasn't like the places Dean had seen in Oklahoma, tin-roofed shacks with a dozen wheezing slot machines and a dollar-ante poker game in the back. This was like a Vegas in miniature, plush carpeting and polished smiling staff, a bar whose surface shined from across the room, and over it all the lingering smell of fresh paint. "Grand Opening", said the banner strung above the main doors, with the logo of a howling coyote silhouetted against a full moon.
"Not bad," Dean said, turning in a slow circle.
"Dean," said Sam, getting that crinkle above his forehead. He was going to be a problem, so Dean ignored him and headed straight for the bar.
"Beer," he said, settling onto one of the comfortably-padded stools. The bartender, bleached-blond above an olive complexion with a silver stud in his eyebrow, pointed to the row of taps. Dean rolled his eyes. "Whatever you have that's closest to Bud," he said, and grinned when the bartender sneered. So much for that tip. "Two," he added when Sam sat down next to him. He was pretty sure that Sam didn't like lagers, but Sam was going to bitch for the whole time they were here, so the beer was punishment in advance. Besides, it wasn't like Dean had to worry about his liver.
Sam grabbed one of the bar menus and made nice with the bartender, ordering a salad--in a casino, he ordered a salad--and, thankfully, a platter of nachos with beef and extra jalapenos. Dean decided not to disown him.
"So what happened up there?" The beer was half gone, and the tension was settling out of his shoulders, when Dean finally asked the question that had been caught behind his teeth since they were three hundred feet up a cliff. This was a conversation he wasn't comfortable having in front of Anatole and Terry: they were clients, and Dean didn't like exposing how much of what he and Sam did was intuition and guesswork.
Sam's eyes went a little unfocused as he stared out the doorway of the bar into the central area of the casino, where the slot machines were arrayed like mechanical soldiers. "Someone pushed me off the ledge."
"Someone pushed you." Just to confirm.
The bartender brought their salad and nachos; Dean skipped the salad altogether and used two chips to lever a pile of ground beef and guacamole to his mouth. God, he'd been starving. Sam dug into the salad, but loaded a third of the nachos on his plate rather than duel with Dean for the rest of them. Safer that way: Dean still had a scar on his thumb from a fight over the last piece of chocolate cake when he was twelve.
Sam swallowed what looked like an entire plant, all green and vegetable-ey, and picked up the story again. "It wasn't Anatole, he was three feet away. And I was leaning against the cliff, Dean--nobody could have been behind me. But I felt it, felt something pushing me, and it was so strong, there wasn't anything I could do. If it wasn't for Anatole--"
Dean cut that off. "What about the ropes, the anchors?" Terry and Anatole were so sure of their anchors, the little bits of metal and nylon that kept them in the air.
His brow furrowed, Sam just shook his head. "It was like we never were anchored at all. They were completely loose."
"Nasty." What if, one day, the shotgun just didn't work? Dean swallowed the rest of his beer in a gulp and motioned to the bartender for a refill. He picked at a bit of congealed cheese on his plate. "So, poltergeist?"
"Why would a poltergeist draw art on a cliff face?" Sam countered. "Besides, this feels, I dunno, smart, somehow." By which he meant, Dean gathered, not the random rage of a poltergeist, which drew no distinctions between its victims.
Vengeful spirit, Indian curse, earth elemental--they ran through the possibilities over another beer each, but nothing seemed to fit. The bar filled slowly, the noise level growing, but never as loud as the clanging jangling electronica of the casino floor. "Fuck this," said Dean finally in frustration, and pushed back from the bar. "We don't know enough yet. We'll have to go back out there tomorrow, maybe see that art that Frank told us about."
"But?" said Sam, standing up with a suspicious look on his face.
"But first I'm gonna earn enough to pay for our dinners." Over Sam's groan, Dean threw a twenty on the bar and set off for the main attraction.
He didn't want to be too obvious, so he started with the slot machines, just your standard nickel- and quarter-slots; the poker and blackjack tables were at the back, in the higher-rent sections. So he changed a ten and settled in at one of the quarter slots near the rear, feeding the machine but paying more attention to what was going on around him than his own results. Sam went off somewhere else, Dean wasn't sure sure where, but it was a casino, not a cliff, so he wasn't worried.
Drop the coin, pull the handle, let the screen spin to a stop. He let the energy of the room soak into him, eavesdropping on the elderly woman from Tarzana as she told the whole story of her husband's prostate surgery to her cousin on the next stool, listening for the ring of a jackpot, eying the activity around the blackjack tables. The dealers were snappy dressers, black vests over white collared shirts, the women with heavy eyeliner and dark lipstick. Professional but attractive; and most of them, he realized, probably Indian.
Now that he noticed, it was apparent that most of the staff were Indian, or maybe Mexican, while the clientele was white or Asian, mostly middle-aged or older. Dean stood out: scruffy leather jacket, thirty years younger than the women on either side of him. Maybe it was different on a weekend. Nobody seemed to be paying too much attention to him, but he tucked that awareness into his pocket, just in case. Dad had always emphasized fitting in, flying under the radar. Don't get in trouble: people will be able to identify you. Except not getting into trouble wasn't enough anymore: they had to be damned-near invisible. He wondered briefly if the casino head of security had printouts of FBI Wanted posters pinned up in his office.
Didn't matter: job had to be done. And there was something going on here, some weirdness. Dean hadn't spent a lot of time in casinos--pool halls were his preferred ATM--but sometimes you went with what worked (and split town fast afterwards). Something here was missing, was wrong. He put another quarter in the machine while he thought about it, still listening hard. Agnes over there had moved on to her daughter-in-law's darling poodle puppy, when there was a chime and the light on top of his machine began flashing. The machine grumbled, chittered, and spat out a slip of paper. He'd won a hundred dollars. Cool.
"Congratulations, son!" squawked Agnes, or Mildred.
"Yeah, thanks," said Dean, and tucked the receipt into his pocket before moving away. Agnes or Mildred settled down onto his stool immediately.
He moved around, thinking about the blackjack tables, but those were in the open, stakes were higher, and he would attract too much attention. He drifted back into the slots, dollar-chips this time, and cashed out some of his winnings in exchange for twenty one-dollar tokens. More of the same over here, although he traded Agnes' stories of poodles for Fred's tales of golf. "Birdies" and "mulligans" were golf, right?
His phone rang just as the screens in front of him flickered and resolved into three aces. Scored again: this time it was for seven hundred dollars. Huh. "Yeah, Sam?"
"Where are you?" It was hard to hear Sam over the noise in the casino; Dean put a hand on his other ear and leaned against the machine.
"I'm in the casino, what'd you think? Listen, Sam, I think--"
"I'm out front. You ready to go?"
Fred was staring at him. Dean flipped the phone shut and headed for the cashiers' windows. He didn't let his eyes flicker as he passed the security cameras.
The casino parking lot was huge; Sam could see the floodlights stretching off for what seemed like acres, behind the screening hedges of some blooming plant he couldn't name. It was something he recognized, a flower he'd seen everywhere in Palo Alto, planted along fence lines and trailed over trellises; but like so much else from that time, the name of it was lost.
Dean came out the front doors of the casino just then, turning around slowly until he saw Sam's wave. Sam and Paula were sitting on the curb, just to the right of the porte-cochere, out of the way of the buses that were beginning to pull up and take on passengers for their trips back to Orange County and the San Fernando Valley.
"So what's up?" said Dean, dropping to the curb on the other side of Paula. "Hey," he said to Paula, who was smoking an unfiltered Camel and leaning back against her climbing pack as if she were on the side of a trail in the park and not on a sidewalk in the center of town.
"Hey," she said back.
Dean tapped his front pocket. "Gotta love a casino," he said to Sam. He must have won; good. At least for a while they wouldn't have to worry about feeding the Impala. Or themselves. Well, assuming he didn't cheat, but he seemed too relaxed for that; when Dean cheated, he made no bones about getting out of town fast.
Paula frowned, stubbing her cigarette out on the curb. "You won?"
"Don't sound so surprised," Dean shot back.
Paula shook her head. "No, you don't get it--nobody wins!"
"Are you sure?" Sam asked. "You can't run a casino where nobody wins, it's against the law."
"I know," said Paula, and pulled another cigarette from a pack in her pocket. She offered the pack wordlessly to Dean, but he shook his head. "But nobody is. I know," Paula went on, "cause my cousin Martin's the manager, and he says there's a problem with the computers."
"What kind of problem?" asked Dean from Paula's other side, little more than a dark shape against the neon above the casino doors.
"Not enough people winning. There's a thing, a percentage you have to give away. And they've programmed the computers the right way, but--"
"But nobody's winning," finished Sam. Paula nodded in affirmation.
"Except me," Dean pointed out, and pulled a wad of bills from his pocket. "Seven hundred bucks, in about twenty minutes."
"So, okay," said Sam. "But I don't see any connection." With Lori Masterson's death, he meant, but didn't say so. As far as Paula was concerned, he and Dean were just clients of Terry and Anatole.
Dean sat for a minute, tapping the money against the palm of his left hand, and then he looked up suddenly at Paula. "This place is new, right? When did it open? How long ago?"
Sam's eyebrows went up. Every once in a while Dean had one of these flashes of brilliant intuition, putting something together that Sam never would have, and Sam felt guilty about it for days, for falling into the easy assumption that going to college meant he was "the smart one", that Dean was the muscle and Sam was the brains. He wasn't and they weren't, but Dean put on such a good show most of the time it was easier just to coast along that way. Until--inevitably--Dean did something like this, and Sam flushed in the darkness, replacing the shame with the pride he felt instead. They were good at this, and better together.
Five months had to be enough time to come up with a solution. Had to.
"Maybe two weeks ago?" Paula wasn't sure. "There was a big party."
Before or after Lori Masterson died? Sam wanted to ask, but didn't. You didn't tip your hand to the witnesses; he'd learned that when he was fourteen. He could find out the grand opening date easy enough.
Sam's ass was getting cold; it was nearly nine and the temperature had dropped sharply since sunset. He glanced at Dean, who was staring at the casino sign, frowning, and shrugged. Time to get back to the park; that was really where the mystery was, where people were dying. The casino problems might overlap, but they weren't the main issue. "Paula, you need a ride home?"
Dean turned to look at Sam, and shook his head, but it didn't matter, because Paula just shrugged. "Nah, I'm okay, Joey's giving me a ride."
"Joey?" Dean asked.
"My brother," she said, shaking out another Camel. "He works in the bar." Which explained why she was here, hanging around outside a building she couldn't legally enter. Sam pondered the bleached-blond bartender growing up with this gritty athlete, and bit back a smile. He'd seen weirder things, after all; every family had its changeling children.
Speaking of which. Sam levered himself to his feet, feeling the soreness in his side where the harness had caught him as he went over the cliff. He gave Dean a hand and pulled him up, stifling a groan. Tomorrow was going to suck.
"'kay, we're gonna head back to the Park, then. See you around, Paula."
She nodded. "Tell Anatole I said 'hey,' okay? See you out there."
As they headed for the car, Dean said, "Something's going on there, Sam."
"I know. But there may be no connection at all, and we promised Anatole and Terry--" And now Anatole's hurt because of me. "Let's focus on the Park. We need to start asking around, see what other strange things are going on."
"Fine," said Dean, as he opened the driver's side door of the Impala. But his eyes slid sideways, and Sam knew that the casino issue wasn't tabled for good.
Getting "geared up" this morning had included borrowing better sleeping bags and self-inflating mats, so for once nobody was sleeping in the Impala. Which didn't make the conditions all that fabulous, Dean had to admit. Sharing a motel room with his oversized kid brother was a far cry from sharing a two-person backpacking tent with a ceiling thirty-six inches high. And, naturally, the manufacturers hadn't factored in the possibility of Winchester height, so Sam was sleeping on his side, knees tucked up so they could keep the door zipped shut and conserve heat.
Christ almighty, Dean hated camping. But it was warmer than last night, and if he couldn't shift without knocking into either Sam or the tent wall, at least neither of them had eaten a bean burrito today. Sam was already asleep, a motionless and very long lump outlined by the moonlight seeping through the tent walls. Sam probably thought Dean hadn't noticed how carefully he'd been moving since he nearly fell off the cliff, but it was too dark and cold to force the issue, and Dean was pretty sure Sam would have said something if he was seriously hurt. Sore they could deal with; some weeks it was the best they could hope for.
When they'd gotten back to the campground, which was emptying now that the weekend was over, Terry and Anatole were slouched in those weird folding chairs around the fire pit, drinking from plastic wine glasses. They were all exhausted, and Anatole was cranky from the pain, and there wasn't much to talk about except one more deconstruction of the accident. Which it wasn't, Anatole had insisted, and Sam had backed him up.
Before heading off to their respective tents, they'd made plans to go in the morning to see the place where Dustin had seen the weird Indian art. It was their only lead at the moment, if they didn't want to canvas all the other climbers in the Park, and Dean just wasn't up for that yet. Dealing with Terry and Anatole was trying enough, and he suspected that the other climbers were even crazier than their two clients. You had to be crazy to do something this dangerous for fun. Hunting was different: they were saving lives--the fun was just a nice side-effect.
He woke suddenly, eyes opening to darkness: the moon must have set. What woke him? And then he heard it again, a yipping bark, and then another one, and then several all together. The yip-yip-yipping was so close, as if they were in the next campsite or even gathered around the Impala. Coyotes. Anatole had said they were a problem in the campground, getting into people's food. Dean hadn't realized they could make so much noise, the barks sharp and mournful at once, climbing and climbing and then dying away into silence before starting again.
Sam didn't move; he always had slept like a log, needing to be yanked out of bed every morning to make the school bus.
Dean lay awake for a long time, listening to the coyotes, tempted to go look for them, despite the bitter cold. The sound of them in the night was compelling, layered over the utter silence of the desert. When they finally quieted, he closed his eyes and must have slept again. He dreamed of a tall-eared, bushy-tailed figure with a jutting penis that tried desperately to tell him something, but the only sound it made was the whining howls of the coyotes.
He woke to the smell of coffee and Sam shaking his sleeping bag. "Dude, c'mon, I'm starving."
Breakfast was lumpy oatmeal and really strong coffee, over the sound of Anatole grumbling about the sling he was forced to wear. He looked pale beneath his weathered tan, and Terry fussed at him until he took the pills the clinic had given him. When they loaded up to head out, they only took two sets of climbing gear, since Anatole wouldn't be climbing.
Dean threw a couple of water bottles in the back seat of the Impala, and opened the driver's door. And then stopped short.
"Dean?" said Sam from the other side of the car.
"Sam, do you see that?" Dean wasn't entirely sure he wasn't hallucinating. It had been a weird night, and the dreams lingered, laying a polarizing filter over the campsite, the rocks, and the car.
"See what?" said Sam, and then looked where Dean was pointing at the middle of the driver's seat. "Oh. Oh, yeah, I see that."
The car had been locked all night. There was no way a dog--or any other animal--could have gotten in and left this deposit. But there it was: a small, curled, cooling pile of shit.
"Son of a bitch."
"Pretty much, yeah," said Sam with a grin, and didn't stop smiling until Dean threatened to wipe it off his face.
At least the stuff didn't stain the upholstery; but when they pulled out of the campsite, Dean made sure to sit on a clean rag from the trunk.
White Horse was in another section of the Park entirely, about a twenty-minute drive away, followed by a half-hour hike into the canyon. Sam didn't pay much attention to the approach, however, since he argued with Dean for most of it.
"No." That was Dean, being bull-headed and dictatorial, just like--
"Dean, don't be stupid! I'm the one with more experience climbing, and you know it."
Terry glanced back at them from where she was leading the way, shook her head, and said something to Anatole that made them both laugh. Dean snarled under his breath. "Look, Sam, whatever this thing is, it's gone after you once already. And you're hurt. I can do this."
"Because you love heights so much? Dude, you don't even like ladders. Remember that haunt in St. Paul?"
Dean kicked a stone out of his way: it clattered along the path and disappeared into the brush. "I remember the hunt in Greeneville when you dropped the shotgun and shot Dad in the ass."
"Dean, I was thirteen!"
"I'm just saying, man. I'm better at the physical stuff than you are. Comes naturally to me."
"You are so not! I can't believe this!"
"Dude--" replied Dean, but Terry cut him off.
"Uh, fellas? Sorry to interrupt, but you don't get to make the decision." She didn't even turn around to say it.
Sam scowled at her and at Dean equally. Ahead, the trail turned and wound uphill, twisting between head-high boulders and dense prickly brush. It was still dark in the canyon, although they could see the sunlight at the top of the canyon walls. The weather was turning; instead of yesterday's clear skies, they had clouds scudding by overhead, and a wind that plucked at Sam's hair. After the third time he had to claw strands out of his eyes, he stopped and pulled his knit cap on, ignoring Dean's smirk.
The surface of the path had gotten tricky; loose stones turned underfoot, and the climb got steeper. There were bare spots on some branches, where climbers had used them for balance or leverage. Despite the cool air, Sam could feel the sweat beginning to gather between his shoulder blades, under the pack he was carrying. Dean had the weapons, gear, and Dad's journal in his bag: Sam got Terry's extra rope and a pile of clanking equipment he couldn't even name.
The next section started with a high-step three feet above the preceding one. Sam planted his right foot on the ledge, crimped his hand around a corner of the rock, and heaved himself upwards. The weight in his pack screwed his balance, though, and he would have toppled over backwards if Dean hadn't given him a good shove. "Fuck!"
"You're welcome, Geekboy."
The trail divided here, splitting so it ran east and west along the base of the cliff ahead of them; Sam hesitated, then spotted Terry's blue jacket through the trees. As he started to follow her, however, Dean caught his sleeve.
"Sam, wait." The smirk was gone. Instead Dean had that intent look he got in a middle of a hunt; generally he was wearing it when something seriously nasty jumped on them. Sam tensed, but Dean just turned his head, his eyes narrow, sniffing. "You catch that?"
"No, what is--Dean!" Because Dean had abandoned the trail completely and was pushing through the brush, in the opposite direction from Terry and Anatole. Sam flung a glance backwards, but Terry was out of sight. Hell. Terry was with Anatole, who even injured was a tough bastard, and Sam wasn't going to leave Dean alone. Sam followed.
He found Dean just thirty yards off the trail, in a tiny dell about ten yards from the foot of the cliff. It was sheltered from most sides, and the only way to get into it was the way Dean had led him, clambering over rocks the size of the Impala and squeezing under a deadfall.
"Watch out!" said Dean, holding up a warning hand as Sam stumbled into the little hollow. He was squatting on his heels, hunched over something Sam couldn't see in the--oh. It was then that the smell struck him: that particular sickly-sweet stench of recent death. Sam caught his breath, choked once, and then spat; he'd learned over the years not to swallow. It didn't help much.
He moved closer and leaned over Dean's shoulder, trying not to breathe. "Who is it?"
"Dunno. Guy's been here a couple of days, I guess." But Dean seemed hesitant. Usually by this point he'd be going through the corpse's pockets, looking for identification, maybe a clue to what killed him. Instead Dean crouched over the body, hands uncertain at his sides.
"Funny," Sam said. "Terry didn't mention anybody missing..." He moved around to Dean's side and leaned over the body, catching just a glimpse of what should have been the man's face, before flinching back. "Yaargh!"
"Pussy." Dean shifted his weight and reached over to tug at what Sam had assumed was a pile of leaves and debris on the corpse's head. But it wasn't; it was hair. A knotted mass of dreadlocks--white dreads, they'd been called at Stanford--dirty blond, littered with twigs and leaves and other debris. But as Dean pulled his hand away, the hair came with it, scritching softly across the stained green jacket, dropping bits of leaves.
What was left behind was--Sam had seen too much to call anything indescribable, but he'd never seen anything like this. The body was laid on its back, head pointed north, the neck twisted at an angle that gave some clue at least to the cause of death. While it stank, there were no maggots that Sam could see, no disturbance. Just the body, laid out neatly as if by loving hands--and the face, bare to the white staring bone.
"What--" said Sam after an appalled moment, and spat again to the side. "What would do that?"
Wriggling his fingers, Dean disentangled his hand from the mop of disconnected hair. "Coyotes," he said briefly, and flickered a finger at the ground around them. There wasn't much soft soil, but Sam could see that something had been here. "They ate his face--clean, too, didn't even touch the bone--and left everything else. Didn't touch his hands, and they pulled off his hair. Why wouldn't they touch his hands?"
"Shit, I don't know," said Sam, leaning forward to take another look at the defleshed face of the body. They'd even eaten his eyes. "Dean," he said after a moment, "this guy's a climber. He's still got his harness on."
"Noticed that, Inspector Clouseau," said Dean shortly. "Also noticed he's got no gear with him, just a couple of carabiners. So, if he fell from up there," he nodded at the cliff, soaring two hundred feet above them, "where's his rope?"
The sound of Sammy arguing with Terry faded as Dean moved warily along the trail at the bottom of the cliff. There was something here, he knew it. He could almost smell it, the way he could almost smell the climber's dead body from the path they'd been following. Even though he hadn't: the wind had been behind them.
Dean was pretty sure Sam hadn't noticed that. And he wasn't about to point it out.
The trail was rutted and narrow, twisting between fallen rocks and scrubby little bushes with sharp thorns and withered grey leaves. They were still in the shade of the ridge to the southeast, but not for long: Dean could see the line of sunlight on the face of the cliff, creeping downward slowly, bringing sharp clarity to the dull monochrome of the shadowed rock.
Whatever it was, it was near. Dean hesitated: ahead the trail kinked hard to the right, dipping downwards and disappearing around an outcrop of the cliff. He still had his gun, though, and Sam was only a little way away. He followed the scent of something he wasn't going to try to name. Not until he had to.
There was a pack resting against the bole of a tree around the corner, and a pair of hiking sandals like Terry wore. Nothing else. "Shit." Dean shrugged, but the itch was still there. He was missing something.
So he looked up. The line of sunlight had edged a little further down the wall, picking out all the features in the rock, throwing long shadows for every minor imperfection. That made it easy, then, to see the image on the wall, just ten feet above his head. A stylized coyote, etched into the living rock, muzzle to the sky against the perfect circle of a rising moon--exactly the same image as the logo of the new casino.
"Son of a bitch."
It was a posh office, nicer than many they'd seen. Deep red-brown carpet and beige walls, and three armchairs richly upholstered in geometric fabric carefully chosen to coordinate with the rest of the decor. A polished young woman with glossy hair curling over her shoulders looked at them brightly. "Can I help you?"
Sam smiled. "Hi, I'm Jon Landau and this is Les Bangs, we're with Outside Magazine. I believe we have an appointment with the casino manager?"
"Oh, certainly. I'll let him know you're here." She spoke softly into the phone, smiling all the while, and hung up with the serenity of a job well-done. Within forty seconds the inner door opened, and she waved them through.
Martin Perez was younger than Sam had expected for the manager of such an extensive complex: no more than 35, he guessed, with a haircut he probably got in LA and a suit that looked like it came from New York. If he was, in fact, Paula's cousin, Sam couldn't tell it by anything more than general coloring.
"Welcome to Cabrolla Casino, gentlemen," said Perez, generously waving them to the upholstered armchairs and taking one himself, instead of retreating behind his immaculate desk. "What can I do for you?"
Sam smiled in return. "Well, my partner and I are doing a piece on the Park, but not the usual puff-piece for the travel section. We're looking at a story about the long-term development going on, and how it affects the entire surrounding community. From what we've seen, the casino is a great example of the synergy between adventure recreation and more traditional commercial development schemes." Thank goodness for that marketing paper Jess had had so much trouble with.
Perez straightened, his eyes brightening. "Well, as I said on the phone, I'm happy to tell you as much as I can, of course." Sam bent over to pull out his notepad, hiding a smile. Everyone wants to get their fifteen minutes, and who more than the manager of a new, possibly struggling, business?
"So Mr. Perez," said Dean, leaning forward. "How long has the casino been open?"
"About a month. We had our grand opening on December 1, it was a big celebration. The lieutenant governor came, and the mayor, the city council, and of course the tribe and the elders." Perez nodded at the side wall, where a series of photographs were arrayed.
Sam got up and looked at the pictures. "Elders?" he said, looking closely at one of the photos. A grey-haired man in a red cowboy shirt and jeans was holding a bunch of vegetation in his hand, his mouth open as if speaking, while the blonde woman next to him thumped a drum. "The elders aren't bothered by ... well, this kind of development?" He waved his hand at their swanky surroundings.
Perez smiled condescendingly. "We're not primitives, Mr. Landau. The elders--like Dell there, he's my father's cousin--they understand what the casino means for our people. The kids we can send to college, the medical care we can get. They benefit too."
"Of course," said Dean reassuringly, with a quick glance at Sam that said, totally checking out Mr. Dell there. "So, looks like you had quite a ceremony. Balloons and stuff?"
"Oh, we had balloons, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and then speeches and blessings, all the usual." Perez got up from his chair. "Now, I assume you gentlemen will want a tour of the casino?"
Was Perez trying to avoid talking about the ceremony? Sam couldn't tell. "Sure, we'd love one!" said Sam, and stood aside to let Perez lead them to the door.
Turned out a tour meant a brief walk through the business offices of the casino--"This is Janine, she's head of HR; Janine, these two gentlemen are reporters doing a story on the casino,"--and then another visit to the restaurant and the gaming floors. When Dean asked about where they kept the money, Perez smiled tightly and murmured something about security concerns. Sam elbowed Dean, and he let it drop.
In the gaming room, Perez was explaining Blackjack for Idiots when he broke off to wave at a blonde crossing the floor. "Beth!" She turned and came toward them, smiling.
"Beth, this is Jon Landau and Les Bangs, two reporters with Outside Magazine. Gentlemen, Beth Folsom is in many ways our guiding angel here at Cabrolla."
"Oh? How's that?" asked Dean, as he shook her hand.
Folsom was a average-sized white woman, dressed in a flattering but professional navy blue suit and heels. She looked the very model of a modern businesswoman, except for the lumpy turquoise necklace at the neck of her white blouse. "Oh, I work for Lagos Entertainment," she said. "We helped fund the casino, and worked with Martin and the tribe to plan it."
"Worked with, nothing," said Perez. "Without Beth, we'd be dead in the water. There's so much competition out there now, so much money at stake, we would never have been able to pull this off without Lagos' support. We owe them a huge debt."
Sam raised an eyebrow. "How big?"
"That's confidential, I'm afraid," said Folsom, her smile gone chilly. "But we--Lagos, I mean, and I personally--are just thrilled to be able to do this for the tribe. It means so much for them, and for the community, of course. We'll be able to fund scholarships and public works projects on the reservation, provide clean water and electricity--do you know that some of the elders don't even have phones?" As she spoke, the polished businesswoman's facade slipped, and her voice became more animated, her enthusiasm more genuine.
"And what do you get out of it?" asked Dean. "You get a cut? How's this kind of deal work?"
With an approving glance at Folsom, Perez answered. "Lagos receives a certain percentage of the gross for the first five years the casino is in business. In return, they provide us with skilled management staff and training opportunities. At the end of the five years, they withdraw, and from then on the casino is run entirely by tribal personnel."
"It's an equitable deal," put in Folsom. "One that's worked successfully in a number of other places."
"I see," said Sam, feeling a little overwhelmed. If Dean was right and the deaths in the Park somehow involved not just the tribe, but the casino too (and Sam wasn't yet convinced: two pictures didn't constitute proof), it made their job a lot more complicated. How were they supposed to figure it out? Sam and Dean didn't have any experience deciphering multi-million-dollar business deals.
Dean grinned. "Hey, can you show us the craps tables? I've always wanted to learn how to play."
Dean let the smile fall as soon as they were out of the casino and into the fading sunlight. Several dozen blue-hairs were being decanted into the casino, and he had to dodge around three old white ladies and a crumpled Asian dude who looked around 140 to catch up with Sam.
In the daylight, the casino facade looked less alluring and more tacky. The big neon sign, though, looked the same: the stylized coyote, his tail curled jauntily behind him, howling at the moon. Dean glared at it and turned away, following Sam out to the car. As he did, he could feel the tension in his back loosen.
"So?" he asked, as they approached the Impala. He tossed his keys in the air. "Whattaya think, college boy?"
Sam frowned, digging in his backpack and pulling out his sunglasses. "Got me, dude."
"We should have asked them about the win percentage." Dean got in the car and leaned across to unlock the passenger door, wincing at the heat. A black car in the desert was just asking for punishment. "Something's going on in there."
"They'd have lied, I'm pretty sure," said Sam. "No way they'd tell a couple of reporters for a travel magazine that nobody ever wins at their casino. I dunno; you think Paula's telling the truth?"
Dean turned the key in the ignition and pulled out of the spot. "I'm positive. Something about that place is fucked up."
"Really." Sam's voice was odd, a little skeptical.
Dean glanced over sharply. "You can't feel it, man? Place freaks me out." He shrugged his shoulders, but already the uneasiness was fading. "Man, I need a beer and a pizza. You?"
Sam stared at him for a couple of seconds, then blinked and said, "Pizza, yeah, but let's not go back to the Park yet. I think we need to track down that elder, that guy Martinez. If there's a connection between the casino opening and the deaths in the Park, well..."
"If there's a connection? What, you missed the neon sign, Sam, that looks just like the magically-appearing petroglyph where we found that guy this morning?"
"All right, already, fine, there's a connection. But we don't know what it is, and I think we need to talk to someone who knows more than we do about Indian mythology."
With that, Dean had no argument.
They found a pizza place not far from the casino, and while Sam placed their order (sausage, pepperoni, ham, and onions: pizza of champions, dude), Dean leaned against the side of the Impala and called Terry. He was pretty sure Sam had talked to her before he and Dean had split this morning.
"You bastards. I cannot believe you left us out there!"
"Sorry about that, Terry, we, ah. Talking to the cops woulda been... messy." Shit, where was Sam when he needed him? Sam would have come up with a completely plausible explanation for the way they'd skipped out.
"Messy is what you're going to be, after leaving us to lie to the fucking rangers!" Terry's voice dropped to a vicious hiss. There was a pause, and then an exasperated sigh. "We didn't tell them you were the ones who found the body. They didn't seem to think it was a murder or anything, just an accident."
Their luck was holding: if the rangers thought the death was suspicious, they'd call in the FBI. "Do they know who it is? The dead guy?"
"Yeah, actually," she said, after a moment "I knew him, he's a free soloer Anatole used to climb with. Pete Omochenko, everyone called him Omo." Her voice had thickened.
"Free solo? You mean, without ropes?" Dean swallowed: he'd done a lot of crazy shit in his life, like the time he took on a banshee with a set of pruning shears, but he couldn't even begin to imagine climbing that cliff alone.
"No ropes, no partner, just you and the rock. Omo was really good at it, got written up in Climbing and everything, but this time--" Terry's voice faltered.
"Not so good," said Dean into the silence, staring at the wild stripes of color the setting sun was laying across the western sky.
"No," she admitted, and then continued, her voice getting stronger again as she spoke. "But that symbol, and the way he was laid there--even the rangers thought it was odd. I've worked accident sites, and they're never that arranged. It's weird."
"Yeah." The door to the restaurant opened and Sam stuck his head out. When he saw Dean, he waved at him; their beers must be ready. "Terry, I gotta go, but, listen, do you have Paula's number? There's somebody we gotta meet, one of her uncles."
"Yeah, sure." She read it out fast and Dean scribbled the number on a gas receipt he found tucked into the ashtray.
"Thanks. Hey, Terry--" He hesitated, then plunged on, awkwardly. "I'm sorry, if this guy was your friend. We'll find whatever did this." He pushed the door open and stepped inside, into the warmth and chatter of the pizzeria. Sam had a booth in the back, with an enormous bowl of chips and two beers on the table, condensation dripping down their necks.
Her voice, when she replied after a pause, was uncertain. "Yeah, okay. Thanks, Dean. Talk to you later."
"Later," he said, as he closed the phone.
"So, you're not hitting on Terry," Sam pointed out as Dean slid into the booth. "You sick or something?"
The beer was one of Sam's picks: some California-brewed bitter brown ale. Girly-beer. It went pretty good with the chips, though. "Dude, we're on a job."
Sam raised his eyebrows. "Never stopped you before."
"True," Dean allowed. He thought for a moment. "She's a client. Besides, I don't think she likes me. Why waste the effort?"
Sam laughed. "Because that never happens to the great Dean Winchester."
"Hey, not often!" It wasn't Dean's fault he was just naturally likable. Just to reassure himself, he gave his winningest smile to the waitress with the pizza; she smiled back helplessly, and looked back at him three times on her way back to the kitchen. But it was a poor tactical decision: when he returned his attention to the table, Sam had already taken the two largest pieces of the pie.
"Coyote," Sam said, later, over the remains of the pizza. His voice was skeptical.
Dean raised his beer and pointed it at Sam. "Do not bullshit me, Sam. Who else could it be? We got the art, we got the shit in the car--literally. We got the way they ate that guy Omo, we got--" He cut off what he was saying and looked away, swallowing the last of his beer.
Sam picked at one of the crusts Dean had left behind. "What do we got, Dean? What is it?"
Dean shrugged. "Dreams, I think. Dunno. Look, it doesn't matter, okay? What matters is it fits."
"Okay, fine," said Sam. "So what do we know about Coyote, anyway? He's a trickster spirit, right? Trouble-maker? Like Loki and Anansi?"
"Yeah, but different. Not much on him in the journal, from what I remember--Dad never ran into him-- but he's also a creator. Loki causes trouble, causes the end of the world, right? But I think Coyote actually helped create the world. In some traditions, anyway." Pastor Jim would be impressed Dean remembered this much from that summer he sprained his ankle and had nothing to do but read through Jim's mythological collection.
"So what's he doing?" asked Sam. "Why's he got it in for climbers in the Park? I mean, it's a park: it's about as protected as it gets. Nobody's gonna build a condo complex there or put a new graveyard there or something."
Dean shook his head and pulled out his wallet. "I don't think it's the Park; I think it's the casino. There's definitely something off about that place."
Sam looked twitchy, like if they had wireless here, he would be tapping away at his laptop. "We need to do some research. I want to look up that gaming company, too. Lagos."
"You do that, research-boy. I'm gonna go talk to that guy Dell, see what he knows."
"Sounds good," said Sam, draining his beer. "I'll talk to Terry, too, see if there's a connection between the climbers who died."
"Oh, I'll do that," said Dean. "We're climbing partners; it's a special bond. You just stick with the library stuff, it's what you're good at. Now, c'mon," he added, swinging his jacket off the back of his chair. "I can't wait to sleep on the ground again." He ignored the way Sam snickered as he headed for the door. Man, just because he usually hit on the hot women, didn't mean anything. Terry was a client. It was a totally different thing.
As jobs went, it had been a relatively easy day (find a body, ditch the cops, lie their way into a casino, get pizza and beer); which was just as well, because when Sam pulled the Impala into the parking spot at Jumbo Rocks, he nearly ran over someone lying on his back in the road, staring at the sky. Dozens of people were milling around their campsite, cups or bottles--or joints--in hand, mostly just dark figures against the light of the fire Anatole had built. Occasionally a flashlight or a random burst of light from the fire would illuminate a face, but that was it.
"Someone's having a party," Sam said, as he climbed stiffly out of the car. He hurt more today than he did yesterday, and he knew from experience that tomorrow would probably be worse, but after that it'd get better. He'd pay good money for a shower, though.
Dean grunted. "Not a party, a wake," he said, and pulled the guy off the ground, sending him staggering on his way with a slap on the shoulder. "C'mon," he said, "I need to talk to Paula."
Sam followed him into the crowd around the fire--and around the alcohol on the picnic table--and then lost him as Dean burrowed into the mob. Sam shrugged and grabbed a can of beer. It wasn't cold, but then the air was, so it didn't really matter. He spotted Anatole in his folding chair close to the fire, and wove his way over. "Hey," he said, sitting on the log next to Anatole.
"Samuel," pronounced Anatole with the careful articulation he always used when he was drunk. "My friend, you owe me a great deal of alcohol, for covering for you today."
Sam shrugged and looked around, but nobody was paying any attention to them. "Sorry about that. Did you get into trouble?"
"They were skeptical. Because I am clearly not climbing, you see? And yet Terry had her gear. So we said our clients would be meeting us later--oh, hello, Ranger Frye. Such a pleasure."
Anatole's voice didn't change at all, and it took Sam a moment to realize what Anatole meant. He shifted his weight and looked up, to meet the assessing gaze of a tall woman in a green Park Service uniform. "Hi," he said, after a moment. Ranger, not cop. Not cop.
"Hi," she said with a nod. "Don't think we've met. I'm Mel Frye."
"S--Jon Landau," Sam choked out, standing up. Her hand was nearly as strong as his, her face weathered under the brim of her hat. "Nice to meet you."
"Landau, huh? I hear you're a journalist."
Sam's other hand nearly crumpled his beer. "Yeah, that's right. My partner and I are, uh, we're doing some freelance work. Pitching it to Outside."
She nodded consideringly. "Freelance, huh? Must be why I hadn't heard of you. I'm a subscriber."
"Well, we haven't been too lucky yet. We were doing a pretty straightforward travel piece, but now--" Sam said, daringly. They really should use the journalist legend more often: it gave them a lot of flexibility that the government covers really didn't.
"Now?" Someone tossed the ranger a beer: she caught it one-handed, popped the tab, and took a swig, all without letting her attention leave Sam.
"Well, there's these deaths. Two in two weeks? And I'm hearing stories about petroglyphs, too, new ones. Could make for an interesting sidebar, you know."
"But only if we solve it?" Frye raised an eyebrow. Past her shoulder, uncertain in the firelight, Sam saw Dean leaning close to someone, his face intent. Maybe Paula, but he couldn't be sure.
"Well, more interesting if you don't," Sam suggested with a smile. "Unsolved mysteries stump the Park Service! Could be bad for business, though..."
"Terrible for business," interjected Anatole, tossing his empty into the bag at his feet and talking over the clatter. "We lose work, we lose cash, and I need steak and eggs to heal! Cannot heal properly on ramen," he muttered with disgust.
Frye took another drink of her beer and looked around, a faint frown on her face. "They're not unsolved mysteries, anyway. They're just deaths. No offense," she said to Anatole, her face solemn. "I knew Lori and Omo, and they were good climbers, but everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes shit just happens."
Anatole's face darkened, and Sam dropped a hand onto his shoulder. "Yeah, I'm sure," Sam said hastily to the ranger. "People don't want to believe that, though. People need there to be a reason for some things, and if there isn't one, sometimes they make one up."
"Sometimes, but not always," said Dean from behind Sam's back. "Sometimes they're not making anything up. Anatole, you got any more of that beer?"
Anatole tossed one up to Dean, while Frye watched Sam and Dean both, her eyes narrowing. She said to Dean, "I met you the other day, right? Climbing with Terry?"
"Yeah," said Dean. "I'm Dean--" he said, at the same time Sam spoke over him: "This is my partner, Les Bangs."
Frye blinked, looking from Sam to Dean and back again. "Les, was it? Right. Well, listen, folks, I'm gonna head out. Anatole, you remember to shut this thing down by midnight, all right? I don't want to come back out again."
"What was that all about?" hissed Dean, as Frye disappeared into the darkness on the other side of the fire. "Les Bangs?"
"Did you forget we're undercover, dude? She knows we're digging around, and she's a fed, Dean."
"Yeah, well, that was real smooth, Sammy. Now she sure as shit knows something's up, if she didn't already."
Sam opened another beer. "Let her. Without our names she can't really do anything, not if we don't give her any reason to be suspicious."
Dean just growled, and slammed back half of his beer. Sam followed suit, trying to ignore the uneasy feeling that their lives had just gotten a bit more complicated.
"Whatchya lookin' at?"
Terry didn't turn around, but she did cock her head in acknowledgment that Dean was there. He figured she must have heard him coming down the hillside behind her; that, or she was even more of a civilian than he thought, not even to startle at his voice. Someone pulled that shit on him, he'd have a knife at his throat in half a second.
"Look," she said, and pointed down the hill. They were away from the campground, and although Dean could still hear the murmur of voices behind them, the hill blocked most of the sound. The low rise they were standing on gave them a view of the open desert: no lights, no buildings, no cars. Just the empty grey-blue plain under the waning moon, and the whisper of the wind. Dean followed Terry's pointing finger, squinting in the uncertain light.
About two hundred yards away was a dark clump, something moving, swirling. Like a dust devil, except not. Dozens of... something, gathering together, breaking apart, shifting back and forth among the grey desert scrub and a single lone Joshua tree. "What the hell is it?" he asked, wishing he'd brought a gun with him. This wasn't natural.
"Coyotes," she said. "Never seen them do that before, though. There's gotta be nearly a hundred of them."
"What are they doing?"
"Hell if I know." She shrugged, her movement just a shadow next to him.
"Party dying down?" she asked after a few minutes. The horde of coyotes was spinning a little wider now, the occasional animal dashing into the brush and then returning.
"Some," said Dean. "Anatole's telling stories about Omo in Thailand. Guy sounds like a lunatic." Woops: he just remembered Omo had been one of Terry's friends.
But she just laughed, the sound pealing out over the hillside. "God, he really really was. On the second pitch of High Wire, he gets up there and pulls out a--" she shut up as Dean closed his hand over her arm. "What?"
A dark blotch of coyotes, maybe a dozen of them, was heading up the rise, towards them. Dean felt the hair on his neck stand up; he reached for his gun, but they'd left the weapons in the trunk. National Park, tourists and feds everywhere, so they'd locked the guns away. The coyotes were closer now, near enough to count them. They were just coyotes, maybe thirty pounds each, but--
"Run," he said, and spun Terry towards the top of the hill.
She ran, as fast as he did, sprinting up the rise, leaving the nature trail they'd followed and cutting across the open space, heading for the firelight they could see reflected off the boulders at the summit. On the other side of those boulders were dozens of people, and more importantly, Dean's shotgun, safely in the Impala's trunk. Damn it.
They came flying down the other side of the hill, feet slipping and sliding in the soft soil, and out onto the asphalt of the campground roadway across from site 43. People were still gathered around Anatole's fire, but the crowd was smaller. Terry paused, turning to look behind them, but Dean knew better. He was across the road and at the car in moments, jamming his key into the lock of the trunk. "C'mon, c'mon," he muttered, throwing the lid up, and there they were, the tools of his trade, beautifully arrayed in something less than perfect order. But the shotgun was right where it should be. He stuffed a handful of shells in his pocket, salt rounds and regular, and threw the trunk closed.
He spun, shotgun in his hands, and there was nothing there, just Terry, looking at him in confusion. "What? I--"
"Get Sam," Dean snapped, and headed back across the road. They were just coyotes, he thought. Maybe. But who knows what coyotes could do, with Coyote behind them? He pushed up the rise, boots digging into the dirt, moving more carefully than he had on the way down. He paused behind a huge boulder, easily twelve feet tall, and eased his way around it. Nothing to be seen, just shrubs and empty ground in the moonlight. Yeah, right.
He pumped the shotgun, the sound shocking in the quiet, and moved forward. Ten feet, twenty, no movement.
"Dean?" Sam's voice was behind him. "Dean!"
"Over here," Dean said softly, and stayed where he was, facing up the hillside while Sam's footsteps approached. When Sam came up beside him, breath puffing softly in the chill air, Dean only glanced at him briefly. "Shotgun would'a been better than the Glock," he whispered, and Sam just grunted.
"I was in a hurry. What is it, anyway?"
"Coyotes." Dean flushed.
He felt Sam stiffen as he bit back a laugh. "Awesome. Well, proves my theory."
"Your theory? My theory, bitch." Dean moved up the hill, eyes wide open, making sure not to turn around. The firelight would screw his night vision, and the moon was almost down. Sam caught up with him as they crested the rise, crouching low and taking cover behind a bunch of sagebrush.
They peered down into the hollow that five minutes ago had been swarming with coyotes like bees on a hive. Now there were only the shadows of Joshua trees and great granite boulders, thrown sharply across the bare ground by the setting moon.
Even the best camping equipment isn't usually designed to fit someone six-foot-five. Sam squirmed and rolled over, trying not to disturb Dean, who was sleeping on his face with his arm underneath him, despite his complaints as comfortable as in any bed. Anatole's spare tent was, if cramped, still roomier than the Impala and a lot warmer.
But Sam felt weirdly exposed and vulnerable: the tent walls provided no protection except from the cold, and there was no way to see out. He had salted the campsite, leaving a three-foot buffer around the tent, but there was no knowing whether salt had any power against what they were dealing with now. Coyote or coyotes: other than the occasional wendigo or skinwalker, the Winchesters had little experience hunting anything specifically linked to Indian lore. Indian curses weren't as common as some folklore would suggest.
He rolled over again, one foot trapped in the twisted bottom of his sleeping bag. He wondered why so many of their hunts involved spirits or creatures from other lands. Tulpas and black dogs and werewolves were all from overseas, after all. Did the settlers displace the native supernatural creatures, the way European grasses invaded the Great Plains and English sparrows took over the niche of North American songbirds? It was probably just as well, if true--European creatures were relatively well-documented by comparison with Indian spirits. Even Bobby's library, comprehensive as it was, had little beyond the basics when it came to Native American information.
Sam sighed and stared at the darkness above his head. A car drove past the campsite, the headlights briefly illuminating the lump of his sleeping brother, Sam's boots by the tent entrance--and silhouetting a pair of erect ears just outside the tent. Flailing at the sleeping bag, Sam surged upright.
"Dean!" he hissed, and grabbed Dean's shoulder.
"Wha?" Dean rolled over, his arm swinging so hard he clocked Sam on the side of the head. "Whazit, Sammy?"
"Dean, look, there's something--" Sam scrambled out of the sleeping bag and crouched at the entrance to the tent, fumbling for the zipper. He finally wrenched the zipper down so the flap dropped open to reveal, grey on lighter grey, the picnic table, a barbecue grill on a steel pole, and one headlight of the Impala.
Cold air gushed in, and Dean squawked. "Jesus, Sam, close it already."
"Yeah, but--" Sam stuck his head out the flap and stared around, but if there had been a coyote--or anything else--it was gone now. "Coyote," he said to Dean as he closed the flap, fingers stiff in the cold.
"More?" Dean flopped back and put his arm across his eyes. "Nobody else gets haunted by fucking dogs. Why us?"
Sam struggled back into his sleeping bag, not complaining when Dean rolled over so his back was pressed against Sam's. "Dunno," he finally said. "Man, it's cold," he added, tightening the hood of the sleeping bag around his head. Dean didn't answer, and when Sam nudged him softly, he just rolled with the motion. Figured.
Five months. Shit. There had to be a way out, because no way was Sam going to be the last of the Winchesters. He fell asleep thinking of Christopher Marlowe and Daniel Webster, and dreamed of vague shadowy figures signing documents in blood.
At some dark cold hour, Sam woke briefly to the echo of coyotes howling, far out in the desert.
"Take this next left," said Paula, pointing. The road--if you could call it that: Dean had hoofed it up more than one canyon that was less steep and rutted than this--forked up ahead, the left side curving up and around the side of the yellow-brown hill.
Dean grunted and downshifted as they took the turn, wincing as the gravel spat and pinged against the underside of the Impala. "How much farther?" he said, but then the Impala came out of the cottonwoods and into the sun. A small trailer, rusted and listing, was perched in the shade of a couple of scrawny trees. There was a card table on the bare ground in front of it, surrounded by three lawn chairs and a faded purple kiddie-pool in which was sprawled something brown and furry.
Dean pulled the Impala into the shade, as much as he could, and turned off the ignition. Aside from the ticking of the cooling engine, there wasn't much to hear, just a faint whisper of wind through the trees, and the rattle of dry leaves. Paula threw her backpack out and swung herself out through the window, ignoring the door altogether. Dean remembered being that agile--when he was fourteen. Hell, he wasn't even thirty but shit, he felt old. Wouldn't for much longer, though.
"Hey, Marshall, buddy." The dog in the empty kiddie-pool thumped a moth-eaten tail against the side of the pool as Paula crouched down to scratch his head. "Good boy," she crooned, and Marshall keeled over onto his side, a string of drool running from his loose lips to the rim of the pool. When Paula thumped him on the belly a couple of times, a cloud of dust rose into the air. Finally, after a few more thumps, Paula stood up and brushed her hands off on her dirty cotton pants.
"Hello the house! Uncle Dell, you here?"
"Psssh, girl. No need to be yelling." Around the side of the trailer came an elderly man with a weathered complexion, carrying an open wicker basket filled with weeds. "You should know that."
Paula nodded, taking a step back and looking down. "I know, Uncle, I'm sorry."
The elderly man deposited the basket next to the stairs into the trailer and came to stand before Paula and Dean. "Welcome," he said formally, nodding to Dean. "My name is Dell Martinez. I'm a member of the Wildcat clan. You are welcome to my home."
Dean nodded back, equally solemnly. It was easier a lot of times to deal with Indians than whites: the rules were a hell of a lot clearer, if you made the effort to learn them. And Paula had been pretty good in giving him the data dump on the drive up here. "My name is --" Shit. He couldn't lie to a shaman, not if he hoped to survive the week. "--Dean Winchester." He'd have to tell Paula some story on the way down, damn it. "Thank you for your welcome."
"Come and sit with me in the shade," said Martinez. "Paula, there is tea in the icebox."
"Yes, Uncle." Paula disappeared into the trailer, and Dean followed Martinez to the chairs around the card table. Dean waited until the old man was seated before picking the chair that gave the best view of the lane leading to the trailer. That it also offered a spectacular view of the valley looking westward was a nice plus.
Martinez nodded toward the Impala and said, "That is a fine car. Sixty-five?"
"Sixty-seven," said Dean. "My dad bought her in seventy-nine, put in a new engine in ninety-two." He didn't mention the most recent rebuild.
"He did a good job," said Martinez. "Not many men would bother, now. Too easy to take the car to the junkyard, get a new one, one of those hybrids, or an SUV."
Dean nodded. "Yeah. Costs a lot to fill her, and she hates the snow, but--" He shrugged. He wasn't going to tell this old man that the front seat of a forty-year-old car on its sixth or seventh trip round the odometer was the closest thing he had to a home. "It's a family thing," he said at last.
Paula came out of the trailer with a small tray. On it was iced tea in plastic tumblers cloudy with age, and a package of Chips Ahoy.
"Thank you, niece," said Martinez, and Paula ducked her head before sitting down in the third chair. It was lower than the other two, and her shoulders barely reached the level of the table.
"Family is important," continued Martinez, turning back to Dean. He nodded firmly.
Duh. "Yeah," Dean said, and stalled out. He knew he was supposed to chat for a while longer, maybe talk about the weather, share stories about working on cars or shit with the old man, but in the face of that calmly serene gaze, his usual creativity had dried up.
"Uncle," said Paula after an awkward pause, while Dean rummaged around his brain for something to say. "My friend Dean here is interested in learning about Coyote. Perhaps you could tell us some stories?"
"Coyote," said Martinez musingly, and took a long drink of his iced tea, before beginning to speak in a measured, formal tone, as if reciting an epic poem. "Coyote is foolish and easily angered. He is fooled by the ducks and the rabbits, and even his own brother Bobcat tricks him into doing stupid things so he dies. That is Coyote.
"Coyote always wants women. He is clever, and he tricks them into lying down with him, and then he goes back to his own family when they grow bellies. He has many children. We say, sometimes, of a fatherless child, that he is Coyote's son. That's Coyote.
"Coyote is Mukat's son, the son of the creator. Mukat made the people and the animals, and when he died Coyote brought the fire so the people could burn Mukat's body. And then when they lit the fire, Coyote jumped into the fire and and ate his father's heart. That's Coyote too."
Dean closed his hand around the tumbler of iced tea and stared blindly at the cracked faux-veneer top of the card table. He should have sent Sam to do this.
Martinez continued on, imperturbably. "Coyote is a hero, and a fool, and in some stories he brings death to the people, and in others life. There are many stories about him, and if you want to sit here for a week I could tell you some. But what more do you need to know about Coyote?"
"I need," said Dean, and his dry throat choked on the words. He stopped and drank down half the iced tea, the ice cubes clinking in the glass. "I need to know about the blessing you did for the casino opening. Did you invoke Coyote?"
Martinez frowned so that his bushy brows jutted out over his eyes like brush over an eroded streambank. "No, I didn't." The storyteller's cadence had fallen away, and he spoke directly. "We don't invoke Coyote: he's wild, he can't be predicted. Besides," he added wryly, "I'm not stupid. The last place you want Coyote is at a casino!"
"Why?" asked Dean.
The old man shrugged. "As the anthropologists would say, Coyote is the spirit of chaos, of creation even. Casinos are not a good place for chaos: you would lose too much money that way. And we need the money," he added, with a glance over his shoulder at the trailer.
Dean followed his gaze, and realized that there was not even an electrical line running to the plot. There was a tank just visible on the far side of the trailer, though.
"You're on propane?" he asked, and Martinez nodded.
"They promise we'll get power and water within five years, if the casino succeeds. It'd be nice not to have to pump, when I get old."
"So what was the ceremony, then? Anything unusual happen?"
"Unusual? No, nothing," said Martinez. "Unless you count that crazy blonde from the casino. I wish she were unusual, but I've seen plenty of her type."
The blonde woman... "Beth Folsom?" Dean guessed. "Pretty thing, blue eyes?"
Paula snickered, and then subsided at a look from her uncle. "Pretty enough," said Martinez. "She's one of those wannabes, you know. 'My great-grandmother was Cherokee so I have a mystical connection to the tribes...' Stupid people, thinking they can get in a week from a two-thousand dollar 'retreat' what it took me forty years to learn. Goddamn Castaneda, anyway."
The secrets of Don Juan indeed. Dean snorted; his dad had also had vicious things to say about amateurs. "So what did she do, during the ceremony?" He remembered the photo on the wall in Perez' office, of Martinez standing next to a blonde woman banging on a drum. Who, now that Dean thought of it, might well have been Beth Folsom without the suit.
"Oh, she had ideas for what she wanted done as part of the ceremony: had a whole script and everything she brought for me to use. When I said 'no,' she was--well, she wasn't rude. She seemed anxious, though." Martinez frowned, tapping the edge of his glass.
Paula gaped. "She tried to tell the puul what to do? But that's--you don't do that!"
Dean leaned forward. "Do you remember what was in the script?" Oh, please let him have a copy of it.
But Martinez shrugged. "Nah. I didn't even look at it. She took it back when I said I wouldn't do it."
Damn. Probably nothing, though. Maybe. He still couldn't make the connection between Coyote and the casino and the deaths in the Park. There had to be something. Sam had already checked: there weren't any murder victims or abandoned graveyards in Whitehorse Canyon. It had to be Coyote killing these people, but why?
He drummed his fingers on the table. "Sir, can I ask you something?" Dean said. When Martinez nodded, Dean went on, "Are there any sites in the Park that are particularly sacred to the tribe? Maybe sites associated with Coyote?"
Shoulders stiffening, Martinez frowned, glancing sharply at Dean. "Why?"
Dean wanted to trust Martinez: other than the woo-woo storytelling, the guy seemed blunt and honest. Someone Bobby would get along with. It was Paula that Dean wasn't as sure about. Could he trust her not to out him to her cousin Perez? Just what did she think he was doing here? He flicked a glance at her, but she was playing with her iced tea, tilting the cup back and forth, apparently absorbed in the way the ice was melting.
Might as well, he decided: getting the intel was worth the risk. "People have been dying in the Park. Climbers. And there are new petroglyphs, images that weren't there before. Something weird is going on, and it involves Coyote, but I can't figure out how."
"Climbers are dying? What a surprise," said Martinez, with a dour look at his niece. She grimaced, but held her tongue; Dean got the sense this was an old family argument, and he had enough of those to deal with. "What makes you think it is Coyote?"
"I didn't say it was, just that the image showing up is the same as the casino logo--a coyote against the moon. And, well."
"Well, what?" When Dean didn't answer, Martinez waved a hand at Paula. "Go get us more tea, niece. Take your time." She rolled her eyes, but obeyed; when she was safely inside, the door closed behind her, he raised an eyebrow at Dean. "Well?"
"Dreams," admitted Dean, slumping deeper in his lawn chair. "I've been dreaming about a naked guy with coyote ears for three nights. And... some other stuff." No need to go into the shit on the seat, or Dean's suspicion that the damned animals were peeing on his tires. Sam would never let him hear the end of it. And there was no way he was describing the dreams in detail: Dean just wasn't that interested in another guy's dick, not even a guy who was a legendary animal spirit.
"Huh," said Martinez, staring at Dean intently. "Who are you, Dean Winchester?"
Which was a hell of a thing to ask a guy sitting in a floppy plastic chair in front of your shitty little trailer. Except despite the holes in the elbows of his shirt, and the fact that he had grass stuck in his hair, Dell Martinez seemed pretty damned serious. Dean was beginning to suspect that "puul" meant more than "chants blessings at ceremonies"--and might even mean "can curse your ass if you piss him off."
But answering his question, even if Dean wanted to, was another thing altogether. "I'm a hunter," he finally said. Brother, son, (orphan,) killer, fugitive, smartass. Dead man walking. He figured Sam could add a few words to that list. Selfish bastard, probably, which coming from Sam was pretty damned rich.
"I thought so," said Martinez, with a grim smile, and pushed back from the table. "I think you should go." He stood up, and fuck if he didn't have a gun in his hand. Where the hell did that come from?
"Uncle?" the trailer door banged shut as Paula came out and then hesitated on the stoop, the tray in her hands. "Uncle, what's going on?"
"Your friend the hunter is leaving," said Martinez. "Go on," he said, motioning with the revolver. It looked old, but well-kept, and the old man's eye was sharp enough to make the shot when Dean was only six feet away.
Keeping his hands to his sides, Dean stepped backwards, just missing Marshall's tail. "Mr. Martinez, I don't know what you think I am, but I'm not here to cause any--well, I mean, we're here to help!" Shit.
"You're a hunter," repeated Martinez, and the emphasis he placed on the noun indicated he knew exactly what kind of hunter Dean was. "The nukatem are sacred to us, and you will not harm them. If I find you have..." He let the threat hang in the air.
"We're not going to hurt the nuke-whatevers!" Dean wasn't entirely sure what the nukatem were: spirits of the ancestors, maybe. "We just want to stop the killings, honestly."
Dark eyes narrowing, Martinez stared at Dean for a long moment, then shrugged. "Maybe so. But I've heard of you hunters, and the damage you do. I think we're better off without your help. Get off my land."
Fucking hell. Dean had a weapon, but it wouldn't be smart to go for it; besides, what was he going to do, shoot the old man? With Paula right there as a witness? Hell, no.
He backed away carefully, hands out to his sides, until he hit the Impala's bumper. "Thanks for the iced tea," he muttered, and eased himself into the driver's seat. The Impala started easily and Dean swung it in a cautious circle until he was pointed down the rutted road to civilization. Neither Paula nor Martinez moved at all until they disappeared in the dust behind him.
Sonofabitch. Well, that went well.
The library wasn't open yet, so Sam had Dean drop him off at the coffee shop down the road before heading off to pick up Paula. Sam settled himself at a table by the window with his laptop. On the way into town, they'd stopped at the gas station/diner/camping supply store near the west gate of the Park and paid three dollars each for hot showers. Dean, of course, had forgotten to bring a towel and had swiped Sam's t-shirt to dry off with.
So Sam was damp and a little chilled, and the coffee cup felt warm in his hands as he lingered in the thin winter sun filtering through the front window. The coffee shop was a block or so off the main drag, and traffic was light. Most of the cars and trucks that passed were four-wheel-drive, sturdy machines of American or Japanese make. The politics of the area, as evidenced by the bumperstickers, seemed pretty evenly split, and every twentieth car had a fading "Save Mono Lake" on its tail. For all that he'd spent three years in the state, this wasn't a California Sam knew very well. It was grubbier and cheaper: Denny's instead of sushi; dusty pickups and hiking boots, not freshly-detailed BMWs and expensive running shoes. Comfortable, really, in a way that the Peninsula hadn't been. He didn't feel so much like he was trying to be something he wasn't, here.
Maybe, though, that had less to do with the place and more to do with him. He shrugged, setting aside the thought, and opened his laptop. A check of his email netted him a bunch of spam, a quick note from Bobby--Still hot. Keep your heads down.--and a plaintive request from Ellen: had they heard from Jo? Sam replied to Ellen, but not to Bobby: he didn't think hanging out at a National Park was exactly what Bobby would mean by "keep your heads down". Nothing else from Bobby, which meant the shaman in Alberta had been a wash.
Lagos Gaming Development had a plush website with very little information on it other than a quarterly newsletter and links to sixteen tribal casinos they had underwritten. The company had been in business for over ten years, was founded by a James Knacker from Houston, and was privately-held. Which meant they didn't have to publish their financial data, and made Sam's life that much more complicated.
Time to do it the hard way: at least he had the name of one employee. He brought up Google and began looking for Beth/Elizabeth Folsom. "Huh," he said, after twenty minutes deep in the bowels of Google Groups. "Would you look at that?"
"Sam!" An urgent hiss jerked him out of his concentration. He looked up to see Anatole looming over him, looking worried.
"Hey, Anatole. What's wrong?"
"You must get out of here." Anatole glanced over his shoulder. "You and your brother, you must go."
"What is it?"
"That Ranger, Mel Frye? She came around this morning, asking about you. Something about--Sam," he said, pulling a chair close and leaning forward, "do you have guns with you?"
Sam didn't let his face freeze. Shit. Someone must have seen into the trunk of the Impala, although he wasn't sure when: they'd been pretty careful. "Is that what she said?"
"That was what she was asking, yes. And about the car, your car. Where had you gone. I said you left, went back to LA." Anatole was jittery, nervous, his eyes flickering away from Sam to the door and back.
"Okay," said Sam, reassuringly. "Okay, Anatole. Thanks for telling us." He didn't move, though, and Anatole stared at him.
"You must go!" Anatole flapped his left hand at him, the right still trapped in his sling.
"Well, no, we just need to be careful and keep our heads down." Had Bobby known? How could he have? "We haven't solved this thing yet, we're not going to just leave."
Eyebrows going up and down like piledrivers, Anatole was clearly struggling for something to convince him. "Argh! You Americans!" He slumped into the chair in defeat and swiped a paper from the next table to read, ostentatiously ignoring Sam--and blocking any view of Sam from the doorway.
Anatole was good people; he'd nearly forgotten that, after seeing no familiar faces but Dean's for months on end. It was weird, having Anatole and Dean in the same place, though--worlds colliding, sort of. Anatole was Stanford: splitting a pizza with Ileana and Marcus, statistics study group on Tuesday nights with Jeremy and Nats, Thanksgiving at Anatole and Ileana's folks' place in Berkeley. Looking back on that time, it felt like they were all frozen in amber, like they shouldn't have changed the way Sam himself had. Yet here was Anatole, working full-time as a guide, like he'd always said he would after he finished school. Life didn't stop happening to other people just because Sam Winchester went back to the family business.
Sam shook his head and looked down at the computer. And then blinked, looked up, and snatched the paper out of Anatole's hands.
"Local Contractor Dies in Freak Accident" was the headline, and Sam checked the date: it was a two-day-old paper. Joe Peterson, longtime resident, blah, blah--at a construction site, supervising as a crane lifted a load of piping to the third floor, binding failed and the load came down on Peterson's head. This was the second fatal accident this week, the first being the three-car pileup on Highway 62 caused by the rear gate of a brewery truck coming open...
"What a way to go," said Sam softly. "Buried in beer." Dean would love it. Except the point was that as of three days ago, there'd been two freak deaths in town. Why had they only been looking at the Park?
Anatole slapped his hand down in the middle of the article. "Tell me what you see." Sam pointed wordlessly to the headline, and the confusion on Anatole's face slowly cleared to understanding, and worry.
An hour's surfing and a large coffee later, Sam had one more death and six more possible hits, going back to the day after the casino opened. All related to things coming open or undone: a gate at a day-care center, a car door on a dangerous curve, a bicycle on the roof of a car. "Fuck," he muttered. If it was Coyote, the dude was singularly unpredictable: the victims were young and old, white, Latino, and Indian, tourist and local. The deaths were occurring within a ten-mile radius of the Park, but nowhere near the casino.
Terry walked in just as Sam was beginning to think about lunch: the cafe smelled enticingly of curry and chicken. As Terry swung through the door, her eyes widening to see Sam by the window, Sam's phone rang.
"Hey," he said to Dean, nodding at Terry as she sat down at the now-crowded table. "Did you find him?"
"Yeah, I found him." Dean sounded cranky. "Bastard ran me off."
"What?" Sam went to get up, and then remembered he was now hiding from the law: taking this call outside the cafe wasn't a great idea. He hunched over the phone, trying to keep his voice down. "What did you do?"
"Nothing!" Dean was aggrieved. "Didn't even lie to him, and he pulled a gun and told me to get off his property or else. Said something about nu--nukatem. That we'd better not hurt them."
"Nukatem, yeah. They're local spirits, animal spirits and so forth. Coyote's one of them." That was about all Sam had been able to find out online: he'd been planning to check the local library. Hell, he'd wanted to hit the Park's visitor center, which was usually a great resource for Native American information. Damn it. "Hey, where are you?"
"Just outside town, should be at the library in about twenty, why?"
"Someone reported the stash in the trunk to the rangers," said Sam softly. "Don't get pulled over."
"Shit." There was a pause: Sam could almost hear him thinking. "Okay, we need a place to hole up until we finish this. Is Terry there?"
"Yeah," said Sam, and handed off the phone to Terry, who took it with a perplexed look.
"Hi," she said, listened for a moment, and then snickered. "Yeah, you would, wouldn't you? Okay, yeah. I'll think of something. We're at Water Canyon, you should meet us. Right, okay." She closed the phone and handed it back to Sam. "Your brother's a real pain in the ass."
"He learned from the best," said Sam, with a smile that only hurt a little, and dove back into the laptop. Why did cases only ever get more complicated?
"So what's the deal with not going back to the Park?" Sam and Anatole had disappeared after lunch, Sam heading for the library to do more research--the guy was unstoppable--and Anatole to clear out Sam and Dean's campsite. Terry had found them a place to crash outside of town, and now sat watching Dean wolf down his second bowl of chicken curry soup.
"We can't, the feds'r after us." Dean dunked a piece of soft brown bread into his bowl, watching as it soaked up the yellow broth.
"What do you mean?" Terry poured another packet of sugar into her cup. For such a health freak, she sure liked her coffee sweet.
"I mean, the FBI is after us."
"You're serious?" She moved sideways, edging away from Dean, her dark eyes sharp. "What did you do?"
He could tell she wanted him to say, "Nothing." Sorry, sister. "Not what they think."
She didn't look reassured. "What did you do?"
"Saved some lives. Killed some monsters. You know, the usual." Dean stirred his soup, watching the door of the cafe. Two men came in: jeans and t-shirts under fleece jackets. Climbers, maybe. A black woman with a baby in a sling across her chest, in a long tie-dyed skirt over cowboy boots. There was a high school kid done up all goth one table away, hunched over a notebook and scribbling furiously. Nobody seemed to be paying any attention to Dean or Terry.
When Dean looked back at her, Terry was just staring at him. Shit. He began to suspect history was going to be repeating itself; at least he hadn't slept with her. And wasn't likely to, not the way she was glaring at him.
"Monsters," she finally said, looking at him, her eyes narrowed.
"Ghosts, too," he said helplessly. "Zombies. Werewolves."
"I swear, if you say 'vampires' I'll pour this coffee in your lap."
So Dean shrugged instead, striving for innocence. Funny: it was a look he had trouble pulling off. Sam was better at it. "We thought they didn't exist, but we ran into some a couple years ago. They're tougher than you think."
"You're shitting me."
Suddenly Dean was exhausted. This was so much easier when he'd just saved someone from a wendigo or a kolowisi. But there was no way to do show-and-tell in this pleasant, sunny cafe, smelling of coffee and the chocolate chip cookies on the counter. "I could show you my scars, but if those things can't exist, what do you think killed Lori and Omo and those people in the paper? Life is weird, but do you really think the way they died is natural?"
"Ghosts and zombies." She looked at him resentfully, and then down at her coffee.
"Yup. And vampires and banshees and possessed trucks--"
"No!" But the protest sounded mostly for form's sake.
"Damn." Her coffee was really interesting for a long time. Finally, after the two guys in fleece had left and an old woman in a fringed leather jacket had come and gone, carrying a tray with six coffees on it, Terry looked up again. "So, the FBI thing."
Man, she was a fucking bulldog. "What we do... looks pretty bad from the outside. And sometimes we can't save people."
"So they--oh my god. Do they think--" She stopped, watching his face. "You don't want to talk about this."
He couldn't help smiling with the relief. "I really really don't."
"Okay." She took a sip of her coffee and grimaced: it must have gone cold. "Just one thing. If you are shitting me, Dean-I'm-being-hunted-by-the-FBI, I will hurt you." And she grinned--a wide, mischievous, evil grin.
Dean didn't doubt it in the least.
Terry was as good as her word: she found them a place to crash that was out of the way, big enough to hide the Impala, and--best of all--had hot running water.
"Dude," said Dean, flopped on the acres of brown leather couch in the living room. "I'm never leaving. Sammy, get me a beer!"
"In your dreams," said Sam, but he couldn't help smiling. Other than on a job, he couldn't remember the last time he'd been in a private home. It was all so unsettlingly ordinary: stacks of catalogs on the coffee-table, candle-wax dripped on the mantle, a recycling bin behind the couch half-full of old copies of The LA Times. "You're sure your friends won't mind?" he asked Terry again.
"Seriously," Terry said. "Kia's always telling me I should stay here when I come out, but it's nearly an hour into the Park from here, and I don't like it here by myself."
"And she's... where?" Dean asked. Sam nodded: homeowners had an unhappy habit of showing up just when it was least convenient for the Winchesters.
"Thailand. She spends the winters in Krabi, comes back here in February after the rains start. It's fine, guys, honest."
"And," noted Anatole from the doorway to the deck, "there's a hot tub."
"No shit!" Dean was off the couch in a moment, but Sam grabbed his shirt to slow him down.
Smile collapsing into something that was damn near a pout, Dean dropped back onto the couch. "Right, research. What'd you get?"
Sam opened his laptop. It felt a little weird, doing this in front of Anatole and Terry: they were civilians. But Anatole had nearly died only two days ago--saving Sam's life--and Terry had seen the strange behavior of the coyotes. Besides, they were the clients. "Okay, so I couldn't get much on Lagos or Martin Perez, but I got a bunch of hits on Beth Folsom."
"Really?" Dean looked up sharply. "Martinez said she wanted him to do some special ritual at the opening ceremony, you know. Said she was a wannabe."
Nodding, Sam paged down his notes. "Yeah, that doesn't surprise me. Turns out she was the development manager for a proposed casino at Pueblo Amarillo, in New Mexico. It was going to be the crown jewel in Lagos' empire, complete with a fifteen-story hotel, concert hall, children's arcades, spa, the whole thing."
"Pueblo Amarillo? Really? That's pretty remote." Terry was sitting on the back of the couch, her thigh against Dean's shoulder. Dean was, surprisingly, not reacting. But then Dean had stopped sleeping with every woman who smiled at him lately; Sam wasn't sure if it was because of that scare with the waitress in Colorado Springs, or because playing the "year to live" card had begun to pall. Either reason was fine by Sam: he really hated sleeping in the Impala.
"Yeah," agreed Sam. "That might be what killed it. They poured over three million dollars into the planning, had to get the tribe to pass a special referendum, took options out on the property, did a bunch of studies--and then it just stalled."
Anatole took a beer from the refrigerator and popped the cap one-handed. "Why did it stop? There is so much money to be made."
"It's not clear." Sam shrugged. "There was a lot of talk on one of the blogs about Folsom. She was pushing hard in the tribal community. I think maybe she got too involved in tribal politics and screwed up the deal. Given the amount of money at stake, I'm surprised she kept her job."
"How much we talking about?" Dean put his feet up on the coffee table; Sam glared at him until he took them down.
"I saw something on one of the newsgroups that said for every day of delay before they opened, the casino stood to lose two hundred thousand dollars."
"Jesus." Dean looked blank. "So... how's that tie back to Coyote?"
"Damned if I know. I think we need to check into Beth Folsom, though. Since you managed to alienate our only tribal informant--"
"--so not my fault!" protested Dean.
"--she's our only lead." Sam raised an eyebrow at Dean. "Distraction or digging?"
Dean pursed his lips, let his eyes flicker sideways to Terry, then shrugged. "Throw you for it."
Sam won: he picked distraction. "We should get out of here, it's almost four."
"You always get the fun parts," groused Dean, as he followed Sam to the door.
Terry and Dean dropped Sam off at the casino, and disappeared around the corner with a wave from Dean. Sam raised an eyebrow thoughtfully, then turned into the casino, its interior dark and glittery where it was bright outside, the sun muted by a slight midwinter haze. He wandered for a while, getting a better sense of the casino geography, and playing a few of the machines. Unlike Dean, he won nothing, but he stationed himself anyway at the corner closest to the door into the administrative offices.
Twenty minutes of nickels finally paid off: there was Beth Folsom, coming through the doorway with a smile over her shoulder, carrying a briefcase in one hand. Sam waited until she'd passed him, then cut across the floor of the main room at a trot, to intersect her just before the main doors.
"Ms. Folsom!" Sam put on his best smile, the one that had always made Jess look at him sideways. "Nice to see you again."
She hesitated, frowning, and then her expression cleared. "Oh, you're one of the reporters. I'm sorry, I forgot your name..."
"Jon Landau," Sam supplied. "I wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk to us the other day."
"Right, right," she said, her attention sharpening. "How's your article going?" Today, Folsom was dressed much more casually, in a long tan skirt and denim shirt, with a belt made of silver plaques over it all. Her hair was caught back in a loose braid; she looked about twenty-four, although Sam knew from his research she had to be almost thirty.
"Pretty well, actually. But I do have some more questions. I was wondering if you had a few minutes; can I buy you a coffee or a drink?"
She hesitated, looking at the casino doorway, where the short winter day was already dimming the sunlight, then shrugged. "All right, but I can't stay long."
"Great. The casino restaurant okay for you? My partner took the car to do some research..."
"No, that would be fine. I don't actually eat here that often."
Really. Sam wondered where she did eat, then, and with whom. They settled in a quiet corner of the restaurant, Sam instinctively placing his seat so he could see the doorway.
"So what would you like to talk about, Mr. Landau?" Folsom's blonde hair shone in the overhead lights, her eyes a brilliant blue. If she was the one causing trouble, she was sure good at hiding it.
Sam smiled; it was easy, as pretty as she was. "Well, you know, we've got a lot of good information about this article for Outside. But I'm getting really interested in the casino, and how this all came together, and I was thinking this might be an opportunity to really tell the tribe's story to the public."
The waiter came to the table, and they both ordered drinks, a beer for Sam and a diet soda for Folsom. As the waiter left, she nodded. "That sounds really interesting, but I'm not really the right person, I think. You'd do better to talk to our marketing manager--"
Crap. "Ah, but you're here now. Can we just talk a bit, and if it looks like I'm going to get a story out of this, I'll make sure to cover all the bases? I promise I won't quote you unless you give me permission." He leaned closer, implying, and the marketing manager isn't as attractive as you are. "Please? I've spent most of the last week talking with smelly climbers and park rangers in big hats."
"Oh, all right," she said, smiling back. The waiter came with their drinks and she picked hers up, sipping from the straw. "So? Question away!"
Sam wondered if she were seeing anyone. Focus, Sam; people were dying. He pulled a notepad from his pocket and put it on the table next to his beer. "So how did you get into the casino business?"
"Dude," breathed Dean as Terry turned Anatole's truck into the driveway; it was a complex, of three sprawling adobe buildings, surrounded by careful desert landscaping, tiled walkways, and tall cactus. Between two of the buildings Dean caught a glimpse of bright blue water, and white and yellow umbrellas. "This doesn't suck."
"Looks nice," Terry admitted, "but the pay's for shit and they broke the union last year." When Dean just looked at her, she shook her head. "Never mind. You want me to drop you off here? And--what are you gonna do, anyway?"
"If I don't tell you, you won't have to lie." Dean smirked at her, checking his pocket for his gloves. He peered through the windshield as they cruised slowly through the parking lot. "Drop me here," he said, nodding to a large RV, the far side of which was hidden from the hotel entrance. "Go get a cup of coffee or something, I'll call you in about an hour."
"Here?" Terry raised an eyebrow.
"No! Go back to town! Go!" He waved her off and dropped out of the cab into the shadow of the Winnebago. She shrugged and took off.
It was fabulous what fifty bucks and some day-laborer Spanish could do. Dean tucked the printout from the website with Folsom's picture on it back in his pocket and eeled down the hallway. Midday it shouldn't have been too busy, but this was a resort, not a businessman's hotel. Dean had to duck back around the corner three times before the stretch of hallway he was interested in was clear.
Finessing the cardlock was less trouble than it might have been: Sam had made a few useful contacts when they were in Seattle last month, and the investment in new gear was paying off. Dean slid inside and closed the door carefully behind him. "Nice," he said, with a soft whistle. The room was done in Plush Southwestern, with rich multi-colored throw rugs over brick-colored tiles, beige stucco walls and a curved archway leading from the living area of the suite into the small kitchen. Through a set of floor-length curtains on the far wall he saw a sliver of bright turquoise tiles and lush green plantings. The other doorway led to the bedroom, where a neatly-made king-sized bed faced a 40-inch flatscreen television mounted on the wall.
"Motel 6 this ain't," he muttered, pulled on his gloves, and started going through the bureau. Nice clothes, soft underwear, a ratty set of pajamas, lots of turquoise jewelry in a case in the top drawer. Chunky stuff, the stones sticking out of the silver settings; it looked familiar, from those shops along Route 66 in New Mexico and Arizona. Not Zuni, but--yeah, Navajo. He dropped the necklace back into the case and kept going, sliding his hands quickly along the bottom of the drawers, disturbing as little as possible.
He hit the jackpot in the living room, where he found a stack of books on Native American mythology and religion, with a special focus on the Southwest. The oldest of them was the sort of book Bobby would have in the climate-controlled cabinet behind the kitchen, a narrow volume with a soft leather binding and rough hand-cut pages. Dean flipped it open cautiously, keeping his head below the level of the window. Shit, it was in Spanish, and not the kind of rough-and-ready Spanish he knew. Old Spanish, with funky print and black-and-white illustrations, stamped or etched or whatever. Maybe 17th Century, he thought, but not from the missions because those guys would have written in Latin. Sam would know: he always paid better attention when Pastor Jim went on about that kind of shit.
Dean chewed his lip: he really wanted to bring this to Sam, but Folsom might notice it was missing. Damn. Tucking it under his arm, he flipped through the other books quickly, but they were the standard texts: academic and popular material, nothing esoteric or unusual. Nothing with spells that might actually work.
The desk was cluttered with paper: Dean suspected housekeeping just skipped over it. Bills, spam--what did they call that shit when it wasn't email, anyway?--the plug for a laptop, which he guessed she had with her. Too bad; he wasn't Sam, but he might have been able to get something off of it. However, buried under a couple layers of tourist brochures and cellphone bills (Dean noted down Folsom's cell number just in case) was a map. He levered up the other papers and moved the entire stack of material to the coffee table, leaving the map where it was.
"Huh," he said, and pulled out his phone. It was a map of the park, wrinkled and folded against the grain, spotted with coffee in one corner. There was a small circle around a dot on the map, like maybe a pen had ticked against it. Dean frowned and traced the main road, following it down past Jumbo Rocks and on into the park; the dot was well away from anywhere he'd been. Shrugging, he snapped a picture of the spot, checking the phone to make sure it came out. Close enough, but he took a few more to be sure, at different distances.
As he carefully shifted all the papers back onto the desk, his phone rang. "Hey, Sammy."
"She's on her way back," Sam hissed.
"Soon. Didja get in?"
"Yeah," said Dean, turning around once, checking the room. Nothing out of place, as far as he could tell. "I thought you were gonna take her to dinner, give her the old Winchester charm..."
"Yeah, well, she said she had plans, so all I got was half an hour over drinks." Sam sounded really disgruntled.
"Losing your edge, Sammy. You shoulda lost the toss."
"Like she'd go--" Sam cut off.
Dean rolled his eyes: trust Sam to get squeamish only now. "How much time do I have?" He still hadn't checked the closet or the bathroom, which he would bet had a jacuzzi in it.
"She just left," said Sam, his voice beginning to fade behind the noise of the casino.
"Okay, so I got a few minutes. I'll meet you at the coffee shop, 'kay?" He flipped the phone shut and went back into the bedroom. Next stop was the closet.
High-rent suits, silk or something like that. There had to be ten pairs of shoes on the closet floor, and one of those thick soft robes hanging in the closet. Nothing interesting; it wasn't until he was turning away that he spotted the small safe on the top shelf. "Okaayy," he grinned, cracking his knuckles.
Ten minutes later he had dragged a chair over from the sitting area, and he was beginning to sweat. The damned thing would not open. Sam was better at this, he had to admit. It was tempting to just shoot the lock off, but it was bolted in place and he couldn't even steal it. For all he knew, there wasn't anything even in it...
His phone rang. He fumbled for it with one hand. "What!"
"Dean, get out of there, she's back." It wasn't Sam, it was Terry.
"Folsom, she just pulled up. Get out!"
"Crap!" No time to ask why Terry was there, when she was supposed to be half a mile away and out of sight. Amateurs; she better not have been spotted, cause Anatole's truck really stood out in that parking lot full of BMWs and Mercedes. He shoved the phone in his pocket and swung the closet door closed. He'd pulled the chair into place, and was heading for the kitchen for one last check, when he heard a key in the door. Fuck.
He bolted into the bedroom, praying that the windows there would open. He flattened himself against the wall, breathing shallowly, as the lights came on in the other room. He lifted his feet and stepped cautiously to the window, barely breathing. If he got caught, he'd spend the rest of his year in jail, which seemed kind of unfair. He slipped a hand under the shades, fumbling for the latch. It turned easily, and the window itself slid sideways without a squeak. Dean was out the window in two seconds, pausing only to slide the pane back into place, before ducking into the shrubberies.
Well, that was about as useful as throwing a gris-gris bag at a werewolf. He hoped sincerely that Sam had had better luck, or that there was something special about that -- shit. He slapped his chest pocket, where something stiff was knocking against his chest. He'd stolen Beth Folsom's old Spanish spell-book.
Dean was late getting back to the coffee place, and the blue-haired girl at the counter was starting to look at Sam sympathetically every time he checked the opening door to see someone else who wasn't his brother. When Dean and Terry did arrive, both looked cranky; Terry snapped her mouth shut on something she'd been saying as she came through the door. Dean didn't sit down, but headed for the counter.
"Get me a green tea," Terry called after him; Dean's shoulders hunched.
"What's up?" asked Sam, moving sideways so Terry could fit on the couch. "What happened?"
"Your brother's a dick," Terry said sourly. "You knew that, right?"
Ah. Sam looked at her a little more carefully. So far as he could tell, this was a standard Dean-is-a-jerk response, and not a why-is-he-treating-me-this-way response, which was always trickier to deal with. "Yeah, I knew." Sam shrugged; it wasn't like she was wrong, after all. Most people never got a chance to find out what else Dean was, besides a jerk. And in five months--Sam forcibly redirected his train of thought. It felt like moving lumber, and every time it got harder. "So what did he say?"
"Oh, he was giving me some bullshit about hanging around the hotel to watch out for Folsom coming back. Which she did, by the way, and he barely got out before she came in."
Huh. Sam pondered that; usually Dean was the one who was all over having people step up to help, and Sam was the one trying to keep the civilians ignorant and out of the way. This was a little different. "Well," he temporized, "this is kind of what we do, you know--"
"Green tea," said Dean in a clipped tone, thumping a cup down; the plastic cover was the only thing that prevented it from sloshing onto the table. Instead of taking a seat, he hovered, eyes flickering all around the cafe. "We need to go," he said to Sam, picking with his thumbnail at the cardboard jacket on his coffee cup.
Sam nodded, folding up the laptop where he'd been making notes. When Dean got this way he was impossible until he was moving--and he was usually right. "Back to the house?" Terry picked up her tea, detouring to the counter to grab a napkin.
"Yeah, there's something I need to show you," Dean murmured, as he led Sam to the door. "Besides, I'm starving," he added, more loudly, when Terry joined them outside. "Let's grab a pizza on the way home."
Dean wouldn't say anything else on the way back, and managed to manipulate Sam into sitting in the middle of the truck's big bench seat, squashed between Terry and Dean. Bastard. By the time they piled out into Kia's driveway, the sky a spangled cloak of ebony above them, Sam's legs had begun to cramp.
Happily, the pizza was still hot, Anatole had discovered garlic bread in the freezer, and there were two six-packs of beer in the fridge. Sam could almost see Dean winding down as he folded his slice of pizza over and popped the last bit into his mouth.
"Okay," said Sam, stacking his plate on top of Anatole's. "You going to tell us what happened?"
Terry leaned across Sam to grab the pepper, shaking it liberally over her bowl. It wasn't pizza; she'd gone scrounging in the freezer and assembled some mess of frozen vegetables, instant noodles, and olive oil. At Sam's look, she shrugged. "I can't live on pizza like you guys."
Dean ignored her pointedly. "Nothing happened. I got in, I got out, no harm no foul. Except." He frowned, wiped his hands on Sam's napkin, and fished a book out of his pocket. "I found this."
"Huh," said Sam, using a clean finger to flip it open. It was old, and some of it was in Latin, but the rest looked like elaborate--maybe even impenetrable--Spanish, from the days of the Missions. This wasn't going to be fun to translate, although he could already tell it was, in fact, a grimoire of some type. "You think she'll notice it's gone?"
"Dunno." Dean shrugged, taking a long swig of his beer. "She had a pile of books, she might not miss it for a while."
"But what is it?" asked Anatole, his head cocked sideways so he could try to read the text. Anatole had been pretty cranky when the rest of them had returned: spending all day trapped in a house without transportation was not his idea of a good time. Whatever happened tomorrow, Sam suspected they were going to have to entertain Anatole, or there was a good chance he would take the Impala out for a joy ride.
"Spell book," said Dean. "The rest of her books were just references, but this is the real thing. Didn't see anything else, though," he went on. "No ritual ingredients, no candles, not even a sage bundle."
Terry dropped her fork into her bowl with an audible clank. "Spell book."
"Um, yeah," Sam said, when Dean just shrugged. "This isn't random, and usually when stuff like this happens, it's because someone--or something--caused it. I think it's pretty clear Beth's behind it."
Dean grinned. "Beth?"
Anatole's hand got to the last piece of pizza before Dean's did; he took a huge bite and swallowed before saying, "But say you're right about the magic--I do not say you are, but assume so--why would she do such a thing?"
Sam shook his head. "I haven't figured it out--" He stopped, looking at Dean, who had a sudden thoughtful look on his face. "What is it?"
"Why's she here, Sam? Folsom?" Dean was pushed back from the table, beer forgotten, digging in his pocket.
"To work," Sam said, feeling a little stupid. "At the casino."
Dean extracted a hand from his pocket and slapped it down on the table, lifting it to reveal a token from the casino, a pretty white plastic coin stamped with the same logo everything else there had. "Right. At the casino."
It felt like someone had come into a darkened room and turned on a switch. One of those dimmer switches, so the light started really low, and brightened slowly. "The casino, which she needs to be successful or she'll lose her job..."
"Which relies on predictability and probability to be successful..." Dean spun the token on the butcher-block table.
Another light went on in Sam's brain. "And which is threatened by random chaos..."
"Except that's everything Coyote is," summed up Dean.
"Jesus." Sam slumped back in his chair. "So what'd she do? Trap Coyote? No, wait, that wouldn't work, we've seen too much evidence of him."
"Yeah, those deaths are too fucking weird to be anything but Coyote. I think she banished him somehow, maybe locked him in--or out." Dean went to the fridge and got a handful of beers, opening them with the bottle-opener bolted to the counter before bringing them back to the table. He took a long swig, frowning, and then straightened suddenly. "And I think I know where."
The pictures on Dean's cell phone were, by turns, over-exposed, under-exposed, and out of focus, but by comparing the three of them with a map Terry had in the car, they were able to pinpoint the location. "I know that spot," said Terry, frowning. "It's near a route I did with Lori, maybe a month ago. I forget the name, though."
Anatole coughed, putting his beer down on the table with a dangerous clank. "Coyote's Den," he said, after a moment. "It's called Coyote's Den. Danny Petrovik put it up back in the 80s, and they saw a coyote pup by the walkup."
"Great," said Dean. "So we know why she did it, and where, but not what."
"Or how," Sam added. "Shit," he said after a long moment during which everyone stared at the map and nobody said anything. "I think we're gonna have to break into her office."
"You gonna make me hide in the bed?" asked Dean as Terry took the truck up the curving road into the Park. If the rangers really were looking for them, might make sense. Not that Terry had any experience being on the run from the law.
"In the bed?" Terry stared at him blankly. "Oh, in the back. Nah, I don't think any of them would recognize you, except for Mel, and she doesn't work the gate. So long as that car of yours stays out of sight, I figure we're okay."
"Right." Dean settled back against the slick vinyl seat, drumming his fingers on the armrest. He didn't like being the passenger, even in someone else's car. He didn't like not knowing how Sam was doing, getting into the casino. And he wasn't going to admit out loud that he was worried about having to do another climb with Terry. The last one hadn't been too bad, but Sam had been there to look out for. "You got any music?" he asked suddenly.
Terry ignored him, guiding the truck past a scenic viewpoint where a camper-van sat, surrounded by a gaggle of shaggy-headed blond kids. Just as Dean snorted, and reached for the radio, she spoke. "Why--how did you and Sam get into this? I mean, it's not like there's a, a union, or a certificate program. You're talking about spells and spirits and shit--and I look at you both, and you're not crazy."
"Thanks, I guess--"
"I mean, you are, you're certifiable, Winchester, but you're not delusional. How's that work?"
Dean winced. Up ahead he could see the gate of the Park, with a green truck next to it. It was early yet; they'd left Kia's house before dawn in order to get Sam to the casino before the building opened. The sun was still behind the hills, but light was growing in the sky, coloring everything--rocks, trees, road--that weird pre-dawn gray. It all looked so empty and open; as though it were impossible that anything deadly could hide here, in the unforgiving desert light. He knew better: death and dying were everywhere.
They rolled up to the gate, Terry nodded at the ranger on duty--no one Dean had seen before--who saw the sticker on the window of the truck and waved them through.
The tension in his shoulders was moving up into his neck; it hurt to shrug. "Just fell into it."
Dean turned his gaze away from the mirror and gave her his best "fuck-you" glare. "I don't want to tell you, and believe me, you don't want to hear it." The last thing he needed was more sympathy: he got enough of that from Sam.
Her hands whitened on the steering wheel. "Fine."
Yeah, this was going to be fun.
"What are you doing here?"
Sam spun around. It was still mostly dark, although the sky was greening in the east. Traffic was picking up on Route 62, the silence of the morning broken irregularly by the hiss-swish of men and women reporting to early shift jobs. But this wasn't, thankfully, a casino employee confronting him.
It was Paula Martinez who had caught him, Maglite in his mouth and picks in his hands, crouched at a rear entrance to the casino's offices, in the pool of shadow left by a conveniently-broken security light. Well, he'd made it convenient, on the third try.
"Well?" she snapped, crossing her arms. Over her shoulder Sam spotted Anatole, looking sheepish. Some look-out.
Sam considered running, then discarded the option. Without a car they were stranded, and he was pretty sure Paula knew his real name anyway. "Hey," he said, dropping the flashlight into his right hand as he straightened. "I know this looks bad, but--"
"Yup." She fumbled in her pocket and Sam tensed. If she had a weapon--but it was just a cell phone. "You gonna tell me what the hell is going on, or do I call the cops?"
She was young, and tall as she was, Sam outweighed her by at least sixty pounds; he could probably get the phone away. Except she was also the one who brought Dean out to meet her uncle. And Sam could use an ally who had the use of both her hands.
"I need to get into Beth Folsom's office," Sam said. "It's important."
"Uh-huh. Why?" She tried to look tough, but Sam doubted she was even eighteen, and he could hear the faint tremor in her voice.
He kept his hands at his sides and his voice low. "It's about the casino," he said. "We think she's done something to it, and that's why the casino's in trouble."
"You're nuts! She's helping run it, she wouldn't do that. Besides, her and Martin--" Paula stopped, biting her lip and jamming her hands into the pockets of her fleece jacket.
Beth and Martin Perez--? Oh. That might explain a few things. "I don't think she did it--whatever she did--on purpose. I think it was an accident, but we have to fix it." He was going to add, people are getting hurt, but he couldn't think of a way to say it that didn't sound insane. "Do you know where her office is?" C'mon, c'mon. It was hard to look innocent when you towered over everyone, but Sam did his best, hunching his shoulders and keeping his hands at his sides. Projecting trustworthiness with every breath.
Emotions warred on Paula's face, half-lit as it was by the growing light. "You know they don't keep the money in the building," she warned. When Sam just shrugged, she scowled, looking over her shoulder at the empty parking lot. "Why can't you just talk to Martin? I could get you in to see him?"
Shit, she was smart. "He won't believe us, not without proof."
She flung a look over her shoulder at Anatole. "You in this with him? He scamming me, Crazyman?"
Anatole spread his left arm out to his side in an elaborate one-sided shrug. "I trust him, yes. He's here to help."
"Fine." Paula stalked past Sam, pulled a key from her pocket, and opened the door. "Well? You coming or what?"
"Huh." Sam nodded at Anatole, who waved his cellphone enthusiastically, and followed her in. "Where'd you get a key?"
She shrugged, unzipping her jacket in the warmth of the dark hallway. "Billy gave it to me--he forgot his bag and asked me to pick it up." There was a keypad on the wall next to the door; she punched in a code and the door went "thunk" behind them: Sam hadn't realized there was a security system in addition to the mechanical locks. Good thing Paula had found them after all.
"Convenient," said Sam. "Okay, so where's Beth's office?"
While the casino was open around the clock, the administrative offices didn't open until 9 AM, which gave Sam about two hours to find some clue in Beth's office about the spell she had cast. Assuming it was a spell--but that seemed a safe bet. And they didn't have any other theories, so if this one didn't pay off it was going to be ugly. Paula's key didn't work on the inside doors, but Sam still had his lockpicks: Paula hissed in admiration as Sam swung the door open.
Tucking the picks back into his pocket, Sam closed the door carefully before turning on the desk lamp. He pulled the shades all the way closed, and then began to go through the drawers of Beth's desk. The top of the desk itself was neat and nearly empty but for a wicker inbox, plugs for a laptop, and a blotter covered with doodled feathers. The drawers were nearly as uninformative: tea bags, tissues, pens, a solar-powered calculator, a copy of Getting to Yes and a copy of Good Girls Don't Get Ahead, a box of tampons--Sam put that down quickly--and a half-empty box of Clif Bars.
"Aren't you going to look in the files?"
Sam glanced up, distracted. He'd nearly forgotten Paula was there. She had the top drawer of the credenza against the wall open, revealing neat racks of hanging file folders, tabs printed and coded in green, yellow, and pink. "In a minute," he said, although he doubted Beth would have filed the spells under "Mysticism, Native American, chaos spirits".
He wasn't even really sure what he was looking for: none of the pages in the spell book had been marked or flagged. None of the spells, so far as he could tell, were specific to Native Americans or southern California or Coyote. He'd sat up until after 2 paging through it and taking notes, but when Dean shook him awake around 6 AM, Sam had had to admit defeat. They didn't know what Beth had done, or even if she had done anything.
Sam closed the drawer on the tampons, wondering if he was just wasting his time. Maybe the spell book was just a fluke. However, the next drawer down was promisingly locked; he didn't even need his picks, as a paper-clip did the trick. He pulled it open carefully, to reveal a small bundle of sage, a matchbook from the Holiday Inn down the road, three blue hundred-dollar tokens from the casino, and a few shreds of what looked like fur.
Sam used a pencil to hook the clump of fur out of the drawer and onto the desk top, while he pulled the drawer all the way out with his other hand. Something dusty and dark was rattling around the inside: Sam wet a finger and picked some up. Something sharp and herbal; he wrinkled his nose.
"What's that?" asked Paula, blocking his light and poking at the fur.
"It's rabbit fur," he said. More than that, it was proof.
"So what are we looking for?" The back gate of the truck swung down with a clank. Terry pulled out a couple of packs and the plastic bag she'd stuffed with food before leaving the house this morning. "Dean?"
Dean shook his head. "Dunno yet." He stared at the map again, but it didn't help. The smudge on Folsom's map hadn't been small enough to give them a precise location, so the best they could hope for was to hike up to the base of the cliff, and see if there was anything there to give them guidance. Either that or hope Sam could find something more in the casino. They didn't know what, exactly, Folsom had done, and they didn't know where, exactly, she'd done it. And if they didn't stop it, more people were going to die.
The truck was wedged into a tiny pull-off, differentiated from the surrounding soil only by a low curb and a squat wooden trail marker with a faded and unreadable sign. It was still early enough, and cold enough, that they had only seen a few cars between the Park entrance and this stop. The trail led from the marker due south into open scrubland for what looked like a quarter mile, and then began climbing into the hills. If there was a cliff to climb, Dean couldn't see it from here. He bent down and took one of the packs from Terry's pile. "You sure this is it?"
"I'm sure," she said, her tone still a little sharp.
Dean rolled his yes. "Right, then. Let's get moving." It was possible Sam wouldn't find anything more than he had, in which case Dean and Terry damned well better get lucky.
Terry led the way, moving at a brisk pace between the dusty grey plants, her boots kicking up dust behind her. Checking that his cell phone was safely tucked into his pocket, Dean followed. The sun glared across the open plain and the chill bit at his ears.
The only other thing in the drawer was a key: an old brass thing, tarnished and worn, with a cylindrical shaft. Sam stared at it; tucked as it was in the same drawer as the sage and the tuft of rabbit fur, it probably meant something, but he didn't know what. He really wished he'd been able to make more sense of the old text Dean had stolen. It was almost enough to justify a call to Bobby, no matter how much Dean would bitch about it after.
But it was getting on in the morning, and they weren't done searching Beth's office. Later, maybe. Sam closed the desk drawer and went to check the filing cabinets along the wall. Maybe they'd missed something. Paula huffed in frustration. "Aren't you done yet?"
"Quiet," hissed Sam, and Paula snorted, sitting back against the window. Sam gave her about three more minutes before she stormed out, but she surprised him. They fell into a quiet rhythm, systematically going through the filing cabinets, looking for anything that might indicate what Beth had been trying to do. Unfortunately, it all looked like standard, if high-flying, business documents: spreadsheets and marketing studies, proposals and memoranda.
He was deep in the Correspondence file--August 2006--when there was a distinct click of a key in the lock. Shit! Sam spun around, but there was nowhere to go as the door swung open and the lights came on. Paula was in full view of the door, caught staring in the light with a copy of some glossy prospectus in her hands. Sam at least was behind the door, out of sight to whomever had just entered--but only until the door closed.
He had a sinking feeling that his rap sheet was about to get a little longer. After all the hoops they'd been jumping through to stay under the FBI's radar, Dean was gonna be pissed.
"What are you doing here?" said Beth Folsom sharply, and Paula dropped the pamphlet. It went thwump on the carpeted floor. Sam reached quietly around to confirm that he still had his gun, tucked in the back of his jeans.
"Uh--" said Paula.
He could feel the blood rushing in his ears. Sam risked a glance through the hinges of the door: no one was in sight, but there was no way he was getting out of here without being spotted. So. Instead he swung around the open door, wrapped one hand around Beth's upper arm, and the other over her mouth. He moved them smoothly out of the doorway and closed the door itself with one foot. The snick of the door closing sounded loud in the suddenly-crowded office.
Sam checked the clock on Beth's desk: 8:20 AM. She was here early. This wasn't what he'd meant to do when he decided to break into the casino offices, but on the other hand, he wasn't getting the information they needed any other way. And he hadn't said anything to Dean, but he'd been feeling a tension growing, a sense of rising pressure like a change in the weather, since last night. Something was building, like a spring winding up, and when it released, Sam was pretty sure he didn't want to be anywhere nearby.
Sam swiveled Beth around so she could see him; she stared at Sam over his fingers, eyes wide and outraged. She didn't struggle, which actually made him feel worse: he liked her. Dressed far more casually than he'd seen her so far, she was in jeans and a fleece sweater, with no makeup on that he could discern. Why was she here early, and like this?
"Paula," said Sam as calmly as he could, without looking away from Beth, "can you take Ms. Folsom's bag and put it over by the window?"
There was an uncomfortable moment, and then Paula shuffled around, taking Beth's purse away. Paula's eyes were wide and anxious and Sam realized that things were going to get pretty messy here quickly. With a forlorn wish that Dean was having more success than he was, Sam steered Beth backwards and into one of the plush "guest" chairs facing her desk. When she was seated, he let go of her arm and showed her his weapon. "You're not going to make a sound, okay? You understand?" When she nodded, her horrified eyes locked on the handgun, he dropped the hand over her mouth.
"Oh my god, what are you doing?" Paula was staring at him as if he'd grown another head. Which, from her perspective, he pretty much had. "Are you--you're not gonna rob the casino with one gun!"
Sam stifled a laugh: at least Paula was focusing on the practical aspects of the situation. "No, I'm not planning to rob the casino. If I'm right, I--we--may be able to save it. Because the casino's not doing very well, is it, Beth?" He kept the gun in his hand, but didn't point it at anyone while he reached behind him and locked the office door. She didn't answer, both hands gripping the armrests of the chair. "Beth," Sam said again, gently. "Is it?"
"What? What--who are you?" She stared at Sam, cringing when he raised a hand to scrub through his hair. "What do you want?"
Sam sighed. "The casino, Beth. You're in trouble, aren't you?" He spoke gently: yelling at people rarely got good data, even when it was really tempting. Even when there was a good chance he would be going to jail for this, if he didn't get out of here in the next fifteen minutes.
Beth nodded, then shook her head. "No," she said, her voice shaking. "Nobody's winning. The state's investigating."
"Right," said Sam. "And you've tried everything, and you just don't understand what the problem is."
A quick nod. The shock was abating, Sam thought; her eyes were sharpening. She looked around, from Sam to Paula, to the clock, and back. Interesting.
Sam shifted his weight, drawing her attention back to him. "So why are you here so early today, Beth? You don't usually come in until nine, isn't that right?"
"No reason," Beth stuttered, and looked away. Sam waited, making sure that his weapon stayed within view. After twenty seconds, she shrank a little back into her chair. "I wanted--I lost a book, I thought maybe I left it here."
"And for that you came into the office early? For a book?" Sam knew damn well which book it was. Damn Dean: the book itself was useless to them anyway. "Isn't it kind of a long way from your hotel? I mean, there are bookstores between there and here."
Shocked blue eyes latched onto his. "Oh my god, it was you! You stole my book! Why?"
Sam couldn't help rolling his eyes. Was he really that trustworthy and reliable-looking? Sure, Jess had teased him about the boy-next-door thing, but dude, that was four years ago. He was on the FBI Wanted list now, and still everyone bought the earnest grad student approach? He sat down on the desk, moving Beth's little pottery cup full of pens out of the way. "I borrowed it, yes. Is that what you used?"
"For the spell," Sam explained distinctly. He wondered what she wanted the book for; was she planning another ritual?
Beth's face went blank. Then it went baffled. "Spell?"
"Christ," said Dean as he staggered upright. "I never want to do that again."
Terry snorted, pulling the last of the rope up the wall and unclipping from the anchors. As Dean rolled his shoulders and shook out his aching forearms, she coiled the rope, stacking loop after loop on a small hand. When it was fully coiled, she whipped a length around it, binding the loops together and turning the hundred meters of braided nylon into a neat bundle she strapped on like a backpack. "Mountaineer's coil," she said, in response to Dean's eyebrow.
"Right," he said, stepping a little closer to the edge so he could peer down the face. "Holy shit," he muttered; it was a long fucking way down.
Terry dropped to the ground and unlaced her shoes, giving a huge sigh as she eased her feet free. She had small feet, but her blue-and-green climbing shoes looked even tinier. "God, that was awesome, wasn't it?" She tilted her head, clearly indicating the sheer cliff behind them.
There was a rip in Terry's pants and blood smeared on her taped fingers. Dean had scratches and scrapes all over both hands, and what felt like a bone-bruise on his right shin from slipping and slamming his leg into the wall. He was starving, his feet were killing him, even safely back in sneakers, and he was pretty sure he would need to ice his back tonight. It was a lot like the end of a hunt, except without the screaming, or Sam needing stitches.
"It was totally awesome," he agreed, and grinned.
They were at the top of the climb, but it was evident that they weren't at the top of the ridge: the rock rolled on in front of them, smooth granite at a slope they could walk up easily, and an angle that was clearly curving to horizontal against the blue of the sky. The summit was still ahead of them somewhere. "So if you were a spell, where would you be?" said Dean rhetorically, and slung Terry's pack, full of protection, slings, and climbing shoes, to his back.
There was no path to follow, but the obvious route was up and over, so up and over they went. Dean led the way, by virtue of shouldering in front of Terry and refusing to let her get around him. About forty yards on, the slope of the hill leveled out. To their left was a clump of boulders, and to their right was a small copse of shrubs, clinging to life in the sandy dry soil in the cracks between granite slabs. In the center, between the rock and the vegetation, was an open area, about ten yards across, studded with ottoman-sized boulders.
Dean stopped; Terry stumbled into him from behind. "Hey, what--"
Two guys were sitting on the rocks in the clearing. Well, technically, they might both be guys, but only one was human.
One was Dell Martinez, this time in a neat cowboy-style denim shirt and scuffed boots; he was leaning forward, elbows on his knees, apparently studying something on the ground in front of him.
Opposite Martinez, on a boulder that looked a little like a petrified tree stump, was... someone else.
Terry's hand closed hard over Dean's arm, hard enough to bruise. "What is that?" she hissed, but not quietly enough. Both heads turned: Martinez's, and the head of the naked guy whose thick pelt of curling hair didn't cover the erect penis jutting from his groin. Nor did the fur hide the tall ears on his head, which swiveled like tiny radar dishes, or the twitching brushy tail.
"Took you long enough, jackass," said the naked animal-guy.
Though, to be fair, there really wasn't any question about who he was: he was Coyote. Dean could have done without the naked, though--or at least without the penis. He winced, and looked at Martinez, who, embarrassingly enough, looked like he was hiding a smile. "Still think I'm after your nukatem?" Dean asked sourly.
"Not sure." Martinez shrugged, but he didn't pull a gun, so Dean figured they were okay for now. "Do I need to introduce you?"
"She's too pretty for you, Winchester," drawled Coyote. His voice had a thin, wandering whine in it, and while he was clearly solid, definitely there, he seemed to flicker a bit against the bushes behind him. Still, Dean was pretty sure if he took at swing at Coyote, he'd connect. "She deserves a real cock, not one of your ten-minute jobs." He thrust his hips, grinning; Terry didn't say anything, but Dean was pretty sure he heard her growl.
"I don't think bestiality's really her thing, Wiley," said Dean, moving forward a little, keeping an eye on Coyote and wishing he'd taken his gun out of his backpack. He signaled Terry to stay back. "Try a little less hair, a little more threads," he went on, scanning the ground for any evidence of the spell Folsom had cast. There: in the dirt next to Coyote's feet was a flash of metal.
Martinez saw where Dean was looking, and extended the stick in his hand to poke in the dirt. "Bicycle chain," he said, and nodded thoughtfully. "That'd do to hold him while it was cast."
Herbs or something to call Coyote, cold iron to hold him, blood and god-knows-what to bind him. Pretty standard, once you thought about it. How to free him, though? Could he be freed?
"Oh, yeah," said Coyote, spitting at the bicycle chain. "Still trapped. Keep fighting it, punching out, getting pulled back. But it's coming..." He put his head back and emitted a sound that wasn't a whine and wasn't a howl, but was something in between. It made the hairs raise on Dean's head.
"What's coming?" Terry had come up next to Dean, despite his warnings. Well, it wasn't like she really had anywhere to hide, anyway. "What do you mean?"
A long, long, red tongue came out of Coyote's mouth as he grinned at her. Terry snorted and held her ground. "Bang," said Coyote. "The binding's gonna break, kapow! and man! then I'll go-go-gooo! Freedom, sugar, and is this place gonna blow, oh, yeah."
"Blow?" Dean glanced at Martinez.
Martinez dug his stick into the ground again. "I'm not sure, but... it's like a dam on a river. All that power, built up, trapped inside. All that wildness--" he raised an eyebrow at Coyote, who was jittering in place, head tilted to one side, eyes raking over Terry. "Let it out all at once, and what happens?"
"Shit," said Terry. "Chaos. Too much chaos, all over the place, all at once."
Lots of people were going to die. "Pretty shitty for the casino, too," Dean realized. "All those people winning at once?"
"So what do we do?" asked Terry.
Right on cue, Dean's phone rang.
There was a soft beep from the phone on the desk, and the intercom light came on. "Beth?"
Paula gasped, her eyes darting to Sam's face. It was 8:45 by the clock on the wall, and Sam had seen cars pulling into the lot on the other side of the office windows.
"Beth, I saw your car," said the phone. "Pick up. I don't know where you were last night, but..." The voice trailed off uncertainly.
Sam looked at Paula: "Perez?" She nodded; Sam leaned across and picked up the handpiece, muffling the mouth with the heel of his hand. "Get him in here," he said to Beth. "We won't hurt either of you, I promise."
When Sam put the phone to her mouth, her eyes filled with tears. Sam felt like an asshole, and then reminded himself that at least four people had died so far, and Beth was responsible. "Martin," said Beth, her voice shaking. "I don't--I feel awful. Can you come in here?" After a moment, she nodded jerkily, and Sam hung up the phone. He patted her on the shoulder: she didn't cringe, but she didn't smile, either.
"It's okay," he said, and moved to stand next to the door. She just shook her head, still leaking tears.
There was a soft knock, and the doorknob turned. As Perez stepped into the office, Sam stepped in behind him and put the gun to his back. The safety was on; he wasn't planning to shoot anyone, but he couldn't risk these people knowing that. "Step around to the other chair and sit down next to Beth," Sam ordered.
"What?" Perez began to turn around, and Sam shoved him forward, so he stumbled into the desk. "I--is that a gun? Who are you?"
Paula closed the door and locked it; Sam nodded at her in approval, and moved around so he could face Beth and Perez, standing where they could both see the handgun. Perez's eyes widened. "You're the--the reporter! What the hell?"
"He's not a reporter," said Beth, over a sniffle.
Unlike Beth, Perez was dressed for business: sharp lilac shirt and grey suit, with a multi-colored tie. He grabbed her hand where it rested on the arm of the chair. "God, Beth, are you okay? They didn't hurt you--" His voice trailed off when he noticed the final inhabitant of the room. "Paula! What are you doing here? What's going on?"
"Oh, god," said Paula, and slumped against the filing cabinet. "This wasn't supposed to happen!" she hissed at Sam. "You never said anything about hostages!"
"Sorry," said Sam. He meant it: he hadn't intended to get Paula in trouble. If only Beth hadn't noticed her missing book. If only Perez hadn't seen Beth's car in the lot. If only Dean and Terry weren't out there on that cliff, without any idea of what they were facing. "I'm here because Beth did something, something unusual, maybe unintentional, and now people are dying for it."
"What? You're blaming Beth? She'd never hurt anyone!" Perez looked outraged.
"I didn't say she meant to. But I know she did something." Sam nodded at the stuff on Beth's desk: the ragged bundle of sage, the scrap of rabbit fur, the key. "This was in her desk drawer." He didn't mention the drawer had been locked.
Perez stared at it, then looked up at Beth, his eyes doubtful. "What is all this?" Sam was reminded that Perez was Indian, and Beth, for all her sympathy and research, wasn't.
Beth shook her head. "Nothing! It's nothing, just a stupid idea. I didn't do anything." But she looked worried; pale, worn, and older without her makeup.
"You did so do something. You invoked Coyote," said Paula flatly. She leaned against the wall, arms folded, a frown across her face like a crack in a granite slab. "You should have known better."
"Coyote?" Perez stared. "That's just..." He hesitated. "It's just ritual. It doesn't mean anything."
Sam snorted. "Tell that to Lori Masterson. Or Pete Omochenko. Or the guy who died under thirty barrels of beer last week. Some rituals mean a lot, Mr. Perez."
Perez choked a laugh. "You've got us at gunpoint, and you're still calling me Mr. Perez? Politest armed robber ever."
"He's not a robber," said Paula, fiercely. Sam blinked. "We're trying to help you, if you'd only listen."
"Help, how?" Perez's shoulders slumped. "We'll be shut down tomorrow, and I'm probably going to be arrested. Beth will lose her job--at best--and that'll be it. No other investors are going to risk their money on the tribe again, not with the Agua Caliente down the road."
Sam leaned over and tapped the files on the desk. "You've been looking in here for your answers: that's not your problem. Your problem is here," and he waved at the air around them. "Look, here's an example," he said, in response to the baffled faces staring at him. "Do you keep milk in your office fridge?"
After a long moment in which even Paula stared at him, Beth nodded. "Yeah, we get a new quart every week."
"Right. Did you maybe notice that the milk isn't going sour when it should?"
Perez shrugged. "What?"
Paula, on the other hand, sat upright. "Oh!" She was sharper than she let on; Sam suspected she got bad grades in school because she was too smart for the classes. "And the slots! And the card games!"
Sam nodded. "Beth did something," he said, trying to look as sane as possible. "She probably didn't mean to, but this ritual she did," he gestured at the sage and the rabbit fur, "it screwed up entropy. In particular, it, well, it removed chaos from the casino."
"Removed chaos." Perez's face was still perplexed, but Sam spotted the dawn of a realization on Beth's face. "How? You can't--chaos isn't a thing, like a cockroach. You can't do anything to probability, not like that. This is nuts!"
"And yet you've checked the software over and over again, it all works right, and yet nobody's winning. It's statistically impossible--and yet it's happening."
"Dean won," pointed out Paula. "How come?"
"That's different," said Sam. He had a suspicion about that, but he didn't want to talk about it, or even really think about it. If he'd been smart, he would never have sent Dean off to the Park: he'd have been safer here.
"So I don't understand," said Perez. "What did she do?"
Beth tugged at her sleeves, folded her arms, unfolded them, pulled at her knuckles. "I meant... well. Your uncle wouldn't do it," she flashed resentfully at Paula. "I think he thought--I don't know. He wouldn't, anyway." Her lips turned down and she hunched her shoulders.
"Where did you get the ritual?" Sam asked carefully. He was pretty sure he knew what Martinez had thought. When he was at Stanford, Pammy King had hung a dreamcatcher over her bed, worn a fringed leather jacket with turquoise beads, and kept her hair in long braids. Pammy was from Long Island: she'd made Sam's friend Janine Begay grind her teeth with frustration. Spend a winter up on the mountain with the grannies and the sheep, Janine had said once, then tell me how romantic it is to be Indian.
"The library," Beth said. Sam sighed. "Well, and I saw some rituals at the Pueblo. I kind of mushed them together."
"Sage and sweetgrass," said Sam; she nodded.
"I got a rabbit from a pet store."
Paula stood up. "You killed a rabbit? What the hell?"
Sam ignored her. "What else. What did you bind him with, Beth?"
"Bind? Oh, um. Well, there was a bicycle chain, and I buried something. A lock I got at a thrift shop." She shrugged, as if it were meaningless.
Sam kept himself from throttling her, but just barely. People had already died: it wouldn't help to add Beth to the list. Well-meaning amateurs. "What happened?"
She blinked up at him. "Nothing."
"No wind, no noise, no sudden flash of light. You didn't see any coyotes?"
"No, nothing." But her eyes shifted sideways; either she was lying or she didn't want to remember something. It didn't matter.
Sam pulled out his cell and called Dean. It rang four times before Dean picked up. "Tell me you got something, Sammy." Dean sounded ragged. "Cause I'm standing nose to nose here with a dude with really long fucking ears, and he's looking like he's about to blow."
Sam turned away from Beth and Perez, dropping his voice. "He's actually there? In the flesh?"
"Not just him, I got the old medicine man here too," added Dean sourly. "It's like an after-party up here. And I'd sorely love to know how the old man got here without climbing a fucking cliff!" That sounded like it was aimed at Terry, though; Sam grinned.
"You're in luck. The ritual was in the Park, she admitted it."
"And you fell for it, the whole stick-up-her-ass office lady thing--ow!" Terry again, Sam guessed.
"Whatever. Listen, man, it's a lock, okay, a bicycle chain and some kind of lock she picked up."
There was a distinct silence on the other end of the phone. "A lock." Sam could hear him sigh. "Well, thank fuck for symbolism. I got it. You okay there?"
Shrugging, Sam looked at his prisoners--er, hostages--hunched in the soft upholstered chairs across from Beth's desk. He'd be out of here in five minutes; no need to worry Dean about it. "I'm fine. Just uh--watch your back."
"Yeah, whatever. See you back at the ranch, Sammy." The phone went silent and Sam pocketed it again.
"Who was that?" asked Beth, her eyes narrow with suspicion. She wasn't as pretty as Sam had thought, and it wasn't just because of the different clothes.
He ignored the question. "What made you pick that spot, out in the Park?"
"That was the other one, wasn't it?" Perez said. "Your partner."
"Oh my god, you don't even write for Outside, do you?" Beth's voice took on an aggrieved whine.
Sam smiled. "Nope, sorry. Listen, folks, um--" he hesitated. What was he going to do about Paula? He couldn't expect to tie up these two and have Paula leave with him--Martin Perez was her cousin. But he couldn't leave her here, could he?
He stared at her for a moment, indecisive--and then the decision was taken out of his hands. There was a bang outside the office, and then, in a repetition of Beth's entrance, the door slammed open.
"Hands in the air! Now!"
"Okay!" gasped Sam, staring at the three uniformed security guards in the doorway. They were armed, all of them, weapons raised, and were glaring at Sam over the muzzles of their guns. "Okay." Sam carefully placed his gun on the desk and raised his hands toward the ceiling.
"I surrender," he said.
Damn it. Dean was gonna kill him.
"Okay, okay," said Dean, shoving the cell back into his pocket. A lock, Sam had said.
Terry leaned against one of the boulders and uncapped a water bottle. She seemed to be adjusting relatively well to meeting a spirit in the flesh (so to speak). "Did he have any information?"
"Yeah, yeah," said Dean, scanning the ground. "Something about a lock, she buried it." He looked around, but there was nothing on the ground besides sand and sandy dirt, marked with footprints, and the sand-covered and rusting bicycle chain. "Help me look."
Terry put her water away and pushed to her feet, untying the rope around her waist to leave it bundled on the boulder behind her. "A lock?"
"Yeah, a padlock, he said." Dean turned around; it had to be here--here was where the spell was cast, and it wasn't in Folsom's hotel or office. If she left it in her car, I'll shoot her myself.
"Better find it fast." Dell Martinez levered himself to his feet, brushing dust off his jeans. "Look at him," he added, with a nod at Coyote.
Dean didn't want to look: Coyote freaked him out, even if he'd never admit it in a million years. He'd seen stranger things in his life than a naked hairy guy with big ears--but Coyote's weirdness got under his skin. Made him twitch, attracted and repulsed at the same time. And it was worse, now, than even a few minutes ago; Coyote was bouncing on the balls of his feet, the fur on his ears standing up like it was electrified. Those dark eyes were glittering--not metaphorically: there were sparks in there, and sparks arcing off the ground where Coyote's feet touched the stone.
"Yeaaaaah," sounded Coyote, in a growling whine that made Dean's hair stand up. "Soon! Soon soon soon!" He shuddered, and turned a standing backflip. Then suddenly he was calm again--if still sparking--and staring at Dean. "Better get under cover, pup. You wanna be here after, you want what I can give you--" He grinned, a red tongue rolling out of his mouth and past his chin, curling over teeth that were all canines.
"Shit, I don't have time for this." Dean turned away, then back. "Unless you know where the lock is. Do you?" He ignored the offer; wasn't anything Coyote could give him that he wanted. Spirits always made offers you couldn't afford to take. Though some offers were worth it, no matter the price.
But Coyote--weren't his eyes brown before? now they were green--just grinned and snapped his jaws insolently.
Martinez was walking slowly across the clearing, examining the ground with deliberation. "He won't tell you. He doesn't want to be freed that way. Not now he's found the crack, built up the pressure to blow it. It'll be more fun that way."
"For him," said Terry. Martinez nodded. Terry was squatting on the ground, raking her hands through the soil. "There's a lot of climbers on the walls out there," she said, eyes not leaving the ground. "What happens to them when Rin-Tin-Chaos there hits them?"
Dean didn't answer, and Martinez just shook his head.
"I hate you guys," said Terry without rancor, and shifted sideways to sift through some more sand. Dean kept looking, working in a grid pattern across the clearing; Terry focused on the ground in the center where the bicycle chain had been; and Dell moved in seemingly-random spirals out from the middle. Coyote just bounced in place, and howled, and the sparkage grew brighter as the sun climbed the sky.
It was maybe four minutes later when Terry said, "Move your feet."
Dean looked up. Terry was squatting right next to Coyote, about three feet from the chain. One hand on the ground for balance, she was peering up at him, brows lowered. Instead of moving, Coyote waggled his ass so his erect penis bounced in front of Terry's face. "I said, move it," she snapped, and slapped at it.
Dean was pretty sure she didn't connect, but Coyote yelped anyway, and leaped six feet into the air. He came down on top of the boulder he'd been leaning against, and crouched there, snarling and snapping at the air.
Terry ignored him, already scraping at the dry ground with her hands. Within about half a minute she grunted. "Found something," she said, digging deeper. Coyote wailed, and Terry scrabbled, and before Dean even got to her from across the clearing, she had uncovered it and brought it to the light.
It was an old brass padlock, about three inches across and half an inch thick, and definitely, securely, locked. Terry tugged at the shackle, shrugged, and tossed it to Dean. Coyote whined piteously.
"Huh." Dean stared at it, turned it over, looked at the back. "Don't suppose there's a key down there?" he asked Terry; she just glared at him. "Right."
Great. So now he had to solve this, without any of the tools he needed, on top of a cliff. He never should have agreed to splitting up from Sam: it always ended poorly. Hell, it usually ended poorly even when they didn't agree to split up.
"Whattaya think, grandpa?" he said to Martinez. "Opening it up do the trick?"
Martinez pushed his cap back on his head and put his hand out for the lock. "Ouch," he said softly, as Dean passed it to him. "You didn't feel that? The power?"
"Nah, just a tingle," said Dean. To tell the truth, he'd barely noticed it; there was so much energy in the air around them now, it felt like lightning was about to strike, despite the clear sky. He watched impatiently as Martinez turned the lock over in his hands, humming under his breath. "Well?"
"Maybe," said Martinez. "But..." The first time they'd met, Martinez didn't look that old: maybe in his sixties. But something about the harsh light up here, or the short night he must have had, to get on the bluff top at this hour, made him look a lot older. The lines on his face looked carved, worn like the stone about them by the summer wind and winter rains. "There's too much energy built up here: even if you can open it, it'll probably kill you. And us."
"Well, fuck," said Terry. "What's the point, then?" She looked nearly as frustrated as Dean, and not anywhere near scared enough. Her hair was falling out of the ponytail, and dust clung to the drying sweat on her face. What the hell was he thinking, bringing her up here? Oh, wait: she'd brought him, hadn't she? Damn.
Dean scratched his head, dirty hands leaving grit in his hair. "So we leave it and run? C'mon, man, there's gotta be another way. A circuit-breaker or something? Some kind of buffer?"
The sun, now well above the horizon, shone right into Martinez's face as he scowled, thinking. After a moment, he grunted, scratching his cheek with one brown and weathered hand. In this light, Dean saw some scarring along his jaw, three fine parallel lines, like he'd been swiped with the claws of a big cat. "Order, not chaos," said Martinez thoughtfully. "Maybe: it's always about balance. We're on rock here, rock, not wood or soil. Might be enough."
"Is that good?" Terry asked.
If Dean was following Martinez's thinking right, he'd use the earth itself to take up the excess entropy, like a heat-sink, or a battery being charged. That could work. "So what do you need? This lock's old, I can probably pick it in a couple of minutes." He was hoping he'd be able to find something in Terry's pack to use.
This surprised a laugh out of Terry. "You really are a criminal, aren't you?" Dean shrugged, raising an eyebrow at Martinez.
"I need you to be quiet," said Martinez, lowering himself to the ground. He sat himself cross-legged, back against one of the biggest boulders, and then looked around. "You," he said to Terry, his voice authoritative, and somehow deeper than it had been a moment ago. "Sit here, and start drumming, like this." He beat out a slow rhythm on his thighs, a simple thump-thumpety-thump, and kept going until Terry picked it up.
"Give me a few minutes," he directed Dean, "then open it." With that, he began to chant, a soft droning "Hey, yah, hey, yah," over and over again.
Dean nodded, and dug into Terry's pack for something to use on the lock. Near the bottom, on a battered carabiner marked with black tape, he found a long thin probe, no idea what it was for; that, plus the paperclips he always had in his pockets, should be enough to do the job.
The bicycle chain wasn't big enough to surround them all; Dean laid it out around Terry, who glared at him--what was her issue this time?--but kept drumming, and then he salted a larger circle around all three of them. When that was done, he settled down inside the circle, across from Martinez, uncomfortably cross-legged, with the lock and his tools in his hands.
"Hey, yah," sang Martinez, thumping on his thighs, his lids drooping but his face simultaneously tight with concentration. On the next measure he complicated the chant, adding more syllables: Dean couldn't tell if they were actual language rather than filler. But Terry continued clapping without pause on the original beat, her eyes completely closed, so Martinez's singing wound around the support of Terry's rhythm. Even Coyote, perched on the boulder above them, was swaying to the beat, his howling dropped to a rumbling whine that rose and sank with Martinez's chant. Dean could feel the music begin to sing in his own veins, could feel the connection Martinez was building, between himself and the earth beneath them. Like an oak, putting its roots down into the living rock, stretching and growing stronger with every beat. Dean and Terry weren't part of it, but they were carried on it, protected by it, rocked in it.
It was time.
Dean wasn't Sam, hadn't spent hours in the back of the Impala while his dad and brother hunted, learning to pick a dozen different types of lock based on a book their father had "borrowed" from the library in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Dean wasn't good at staying still that long; not for locks, not for research. But Dean could handle most basic locks, and this old thing--well, he was relieved as shit that Folsom hadn't decided to get sophisticated.
The tool he'd scavenged from Terry's rack wouldn't work on any modern lock: it was far too large. But it would do for this, Dean figured. He took a deep breath, let it out, relaxed his shoulders as much as he could, letting the rhythm of Martinez's chant soak into him, grounding him through his spine. When he was ready, he looked up at Martinez, who gave him a tiny nod.
This was going to be tricky without an angled tension wrench: Dean couldn't hold the lock and manipulate the tension on it with the tool he was using for a tension wrench in the same hand. He scowled, bit back a swear that might disrupt the chanting, and finally wedged the lock between his boot and his other leg.
That worked: he got the tension wrench in and applied some pressure, and the barrel turned minutely. With the other hand, he fed the paperclip in, fumbling his way along the pins. There was a god: only three pins. Except the lock wasn't new, and had been buried in the dirt for weeks: the pins were stiff, the springs reluctant to compress. It took him two minutes to set the first pin, and despite the chill he had sweat dripping off his nose.
When the pin set, and the barrel of the lock moved a couple of degrees, Dean felt it in the air around him. Like a spring had just gone "ping", and something ricocheted off the wall of a small room. Something dangerous and sharp-edged.
The air felt thick, and Terry fumbled the beat--just for a moment, and then she recovered. But it was enough to scare him. Dean wasn't exactly sure what Martinez was doing, but if the puul was going to channel Coyote's energy into the earth, that meant he was drawing it to himself--in essence, trapping it and compressing it into the tiny space set off by the circle Dean had laid around them.
If Dean didn't get this lock open, something bad was going to happen--he didn't know what, but something really fucking bad.
The second pin was just as stiff, but Dean had a better handle on it now. He'd been surprised, when Sam came back, how a guy with such ginormous hands could manage the delicacy needed for this kind of work. He'd have to--well, no, he wasn't gonna ask; couldn't give Sam that kind of opening. But next time it came up, he'd watch more carefully. Except thinking about Sam was a bad idea, because it distracted him, worrying about Sam in the casino--and Sam had gotten off the phone really fast there. He bit his lip, gave the paperclip an extra twist, and the barrel shifted again as the second pin set.
One more pin, and now the air was like soup, thick with dust and glitter and tufts of Coyote fur. His hands were slick, the drumming and chanting was almost drowned out by Coyote's howling, and he dropped the paperclip three times.
When he got the last pin to set and cautiously moved the tension wrench--there. The pins were all set: it should open now. With a shaking hand, Dean let the paperclip fall and pulled at the shackle. It stuck at first, and then came loose, the bottom of shackle shiny and clean of the dust and tarnish on the rest of the lock. If they were right, his job was over, and Coyote was free.
Instead of a boom, as Coyote had warned, there was a stillness. Dean looked up; Terry was still clapping, and Martinez was still chanting, but Dean couldn't hear them. He couldn't even hear his own breath, or the wind in the sage.
What he heard was a soft whistle, as Coyote somersaulted off his perch and landed upright in the center of the circle, facing Dean. "Bout damn time," said Coyote, but the whine was gone from his voice, and his eyes looked sharper, less wild. His tail whipped back and forth a few times, and then he dropped to his haunches in front of Dean, a grin spreading wide across his face. "I gotta go, but I like you, dude, you're a scrapper. You helped me out, so you want me to cut you loose? Cause I can do it, now."
Dean nearly choked: Coyote smelled pungently of wet dog, sage, woodsmoke, and blood. "Cut me loose?"
"Yup-yup. You got all those bindings on you," said Coyote, extended a long black foreclaw towards Dean's arm. "That one's real nasty, too," he added, with a snarl that wrinkled his nose all the way to his eyes. "Goes off that way." He drew a line in the air from Dean's torso down towards the southeast. "Rest of em mostly go that way," and he waved towards the north.
"You can cut them?" Dean swallowed. He wasn't hunting this year because he thought it was going to save him; he hunted because it was something to do, and it was the right thing to do. Somebody had to do it. But if the deal with the crossroads demon was one string, what were the rest?
"Sure, if you want." Coyote peeled his lips back from his teeth and leaned forward.
As those glossy canines approached, though, Dean hesitated. "Wait. Can you just cut that one? The nasty one?"
Coyote's eyes widened with annoyance, and he straightened, shifting back away from Dean. At least it smelled better now. "Dude, you want needlework, find one of those Greek bitches. All or nothing, that's the deal."
North was out of the Park: Sam, the casino, even Bobby and Ellen, in a general way. Hell, north was the Impala. Shit. Besides, this might constitute "welching", and no way was he going to take that risk.
"Yeah, thanks man," Dean said, about a tongue that suddenly felt too thick for his mouth. He swallowed once. "I'll pass just the same. Appreciate the offer, though."
"Your funeral," said Coyote with a grin--bastard knew just what it was--and then he was on top of the boulder again. Martinez was chanting, the sound of Terry's clapping was louder and louder. Power gathered in the air like snow in a whiteout. Martinez's voice hesitated, gathered strength until all Dean could hear was the music. Wind whipped around the tiny warded circle, sand and gravel cast into the air, scouring Dean's face. He coughed, covering his eyes with one hand.
And then, on a high note, the puul leaned forward and slapped both hands to the ground.
The wind stopped; the air cleared; Coyote gave a short, sharp bark and faded to transparency. Was gone, between one breath and the next.
Terry clapped another four times, and then stumbled to a halt. "Is it done?" she asked, her eyes wild. Her ponytail had come completely undone, dark hair hanging loose around her face; she clawed some of it away from her mouth.
There was a groan as Martinez rolled over onto his side. "Done, and done," he said, breathing hard. "We're not dead, right?"
"Right," said Dean. He thought about standing up, but for some reason his legs were a little weak. He really wanted a beer, but the only thing they had was water. Except the water was twenty feet away in the packs, and that was just too far right now. Pretty soon he was gonna have to get moving, though, go dig Sam out of whatever trouble he'd doubtless gotten himself into. Which reminded him: "So how do we get down from here, anyway?"
Terry flopped over onto her back, arms splayed wide. "Oh that's easy," she said to the sky. "We rappel."
They weren't the most professional cops Sam had ever seen--in fact it only took one of them fumbling for his cuffs for Sam to realize they weren't cops at all, but casino security. Rent-a-cops, Dean would call them, with the same disdain Dad had always had for beer-bellied faux soldiers. But they had guns, and Sam was in no mood to get himself killed, so he let them take his gun and his cell and cuff him awkwardly.
It was a little chaotic for the first bit: Beth was leaking tears, being comforted by the polished young receptionist, Sam was frisked roughly, and Perez went out in the hallway. Sam saw him gesturing at the head of the security team, a skinny white guy. Sam kept his head down but slanted his eyes to the left, to see Paula still leaning against the credenza, arms crossed and a bullish look on her face.
"Miss, are you okay?" asked the one casino cop who looked like she might be Indian, a short stocky woman with a cauliflower ear that belied her soft voice. "He didn't hurt you?"
"No." Paula glared some more, but at least she kept her mouth shut. Maybe she'd get out of this without a charge of accessory to kidnapping.
Beth Folsom jerked her head up. "Hurt her? She was helping him!"
Or maybe not.
"No, she wasn't," said Sam. "She caught me in here and was trying to call the cops when Folsom came in."
Paula switched her glare to Sam, opened her mouth, hesitated, and closed it again. Sam gave her the smallest nod he could summon.
"Is that true, miss?"
"Why would I want to break into an office?" Paula sounded disgusted as only an adolescent could. "I saw him jimmying the lock and followed him in."
Talk about unprofessional: these guys didn't even know enough to separate the witnesses out from the suspects. If Dean were here, give him twenty minutes and he'd have them arresting Beth for something.
But Sam didn't get twenty minutes; ninety seconds later the real cops arrived. Tribal cops, he guessed, from the uniforms with the stylized Joshua Tree on their shoulders. The last Sam saw of Beth and Perez, Beth was arguing heatedly with Perez in the corner of her office, her face pink with anger and resentment, while Perez just looked frustrated. Sam gave Paula a regretful smile as he was hustled out a side door, his hands cuffed behind his back, and tucked into the back seat of a tan sedan with bad shocks.
The cops weren't chatty, so Sam kept silent and just watched as they headed northwest out of town, leaving the valley floor and climbing into the hills. After fifteen or so minutes, they pulled up in front of a small complex of municipal buildings, poorly shaded by a couple of sad-looking palm trees.
They'd taken his phone, so Sam couldn't tell if Dean had called. Had they freed Coyote, or not? Shit, Dean was up there without backup, with civilians. Sam didn't like the feeling; didn't like not knowing where Dean was, what was going on. If this was what hunting solo was like, he didn't want it.
An hour later he'd been printed and photographed, and was cooling his heels in yet another bland and windowless interview room. Sam was getting depressingly familiar with police station decor. This one had green concrete walls, the kind of construction you saw in high schools built in the fifties, and that dull grey linoleum that never looked clean. Ugly didn't begin to describe it. Sam gave it ten minutes--there was a clock mounted high on the wall behind a grate--before he started trying to fish a paper clip out of his pocket.
"Ah-ah," warned the cop who came through the door, a barrel-chested Asian with close-clipped grizzled hair. His name tag said "Ling" in neat letters over the tribal seal. "None of that. I brought you some coffee, though."
Sam lifted his wrists ruefully. "Can't exactly drink it this way."
"No, that's true," said Ling. "You remember walking in through the offices, all those cops with guns between here and the door?"
"Yeah," said Sam, warily.
Ling nodded, leaning across with a key. "Then you know you won't get out of here, even without the cuffs on."
The coffee tasted pretty good, although it was lukewarm by now--Sam was thankful for any caffeine at this point. "So," he said, setting down the half-empty cup. "You gonna charge me?" They'd taken his prints, but clearly hadn't run them yet, or he'd never have been uncuffed. How long did it take, anyway? None of this was the kind of stuff they'd covered in his Street Law class junior year; he sometimes wished he could send Professor Munroe a note. Please add the legal consequences of faking your own death to the syllabus. Also, what to do when a demon has a contract on your brother's soul.
"Well, that's the problem," said Ling, and scratched the back of his head in a way memorialized by television cops for forty years. "We're not sure what charges to file yet."
"Oh, right! This is reservation land, isn't it?" State laws--even state criminal laws--didn't apply on reservations, Sam was pretty sure.
"Oh, got a legal mastermind here?" scoffed Ling. "Think you understand the situation, do you?" He propped himself against the desk, and sneered genially. "Except this is Indian country, not the Golden State. If you were Indian, yeah, I'd charge you--but I'm guessing you're not Indian. Not that we can tell, given you've got no ID on you. Convenient, that."
Sam met his eyes serenely. "I left my wallet in the car."
"Perez told me you said your name was Jon Landau." Ling grinned. "I saw the future of rock and roll? Jeez, man, that's not even trying."
Wincing, Sam shrugged. He wasn't going to give them any information, not if he didn't have to. And next time he saw Dean, they'd have another talk about their assumed identities: he'd told Dean over and over the games with pseudonyms were just juvenile.
Ling frowned, drumming his fingers on the edge of the desk. "Well, that's no problem: they'll run your prints and we'll get that pinned down. So you'll go to the San Bernardino County Sheriff--or, wait, no. This is the casino, and you know who has jurisdiction over crimes involving Indian gaming?" Ling grinned; Sam was kind of beginning to hate him. "The FBI."
The FBI? Sam felt himself pale. Henriksen had been riding them hard for the past four months, ever since that exorcism went so sour in Texas. "Collateral damage", Dad would have said, and shaken it off. But Manuel Franks had been only nine, and Sam still dreamed about the way his skinny legs had collapsed, the blood congealing on his worn Keds.
The FBI wasn't the worst thing that could happen to them, Sam knew in his bleaker moments, but getting caught would be a death sentence for Dean. No way Sam could find a solution to the deal from inside a federal holding facility.
"Cat got your tongue? Or does that scare you?" Ling was looking like he had a mouthful of canary.
Sam thought furiously; they hadn't made the call yet, after all. He couldn't risk the FBI, but the only way to do it was to confess to something else. But then he'd be stuck with the confession.... He wished he'd gotten more sleep last night, but his brain was just sloppy and slow. "Well, the thing is, sir, I didn't break in for any reason to do with gaming."
Ling raised his eyebrows. "That so? You gonna tell me, then?" He pulled a tiny recorder out of his pocket and set it on the table. I'm all ears."
"I was looking for proof of an art theft," said Sam. "Well, not art, really--cultural artifacts. Someone's been conducting rituals in the Park, using Cabrolla artifacts from a private collection. The ritual necessarily destroys the object's value, but not so much they can't be identified."
Ling snorted, then nodded encouragingly. "Uh-huh. So far, this is not going to keep me from calling the FBI, kid."
They couldn't call the FBI. He'd kidded about it with Dean often enough, but the truth was that the FBI had taken on mythic significance for them, and if they had Sam, there was no way Dean wasn't coming to get him. And that... There was no way that would end well. He had to come up with a better story than this lame thing about artifacts, but his brain felt like it had run completely dry, a gasping fish flopping about the bottom of a drought-stricken pond. Had they given him decaf?
There was a knock on the door and someone surged into the room. "He's still here? Is he cuffed? No? Fine, let's go, son."
Sam blinked. The newcomer was an elderly man in a denim shirt and trucker cap, his grey hair in need of a haircut and dust on his cowboy boots. Sam was quite sure he'd never seen the guy before, but something about him was still familiar. "What?"
Ling looked equally baffled. "Wait, no! What are you doing? You can't take him out!"
The elderly man drew himself up and frowned monumentally. "Are you a tribal council member?"
Ling shook his head.
"Are you the most senior elder and puul for the tribe?" Ling shook his head again. "Do you have any authority not granted you by the tribal council?" And again. "Then let him go, lieutenant."
Ling sagged noticeably, then firmed his spine once more, as Sam looked on with some amazement. It was like watching the Williams sisters, practically. "He had a gun, sir! It was an attempted kidnapping!"
"It was not!" protested Sam, and then closed his mouth when the elder waved irritably at him.
"Mary Josephson of Grass Valley just left the casino with four thousand dollars," said the elder. "This boy just helped save your ass, lieutenant. Or," he added, peering at Ling's somewhat worn uniform shirt, "at least your paycheck. It's not your decision. Let him go."
Ling sighed, and moved away from the door. "I'll go to the council," he said warningly.
"You do that," said the elder, and waved Sam to the door.
Outside, possessed once again of his cell phone and even his gun, Sam was unsurprised to see Dean and Terry in the cab of Anatole's truck, parked across from the police station. He waved at Dean and turned to the elder. "Dell Martinez, right?" Sam stuck out his hand. "Thanks." It was awkward and inadequate, but it was all he had.
Martinez's grip was solid, surprisingly strong. "Don't worry about it," he said, an open smile lightening his face. "It keeps the balance. Now you do me a favor--keep your brother out of Indian Country until Coyote forgets who he is. Bastard's got some kind of weird fixation and it's gonna take me months to get him over it."
"Um, what?" But Martinez just slapped Sam on the shoulder and climbed into the front seat of a rattletrap old Ford pickup. "Hey, wait!" Sam said, putting his hand on the door.
Martinez tugged a cap down over his bushy eyebrows. "Yes?"
"What about Beth Folsom?"
The old man smiled wryly. "Wouldn't worry about her, son. Now, go on: your brother's waiting for you." With that, he pulled out onto the dusty, pot-holed street and was gone.
"Sammy!" Dean waved, and leaned across Terry to honk the horn. "Get your ass in gear, already!"
Sam blinked. It was noon, maybe, he wasn't sure, and the FBI wasn't coming, and the sun was shining even if it was kind of chilly here in the desert. Nobody had died, and whatever had happened, they'd gotten the job done. He still had five months to come up with something. That was enough for now. "All right, I'm coming!" He grinned and loped across the street to the truck.
"I don't get it. How'd he get up there?" Sam popped the beer open and handed it to Dean, his brow furrowed. "You guys had to climb."
Dean shrugged, unconcerned. "Man's a puul, Sammy. You wanna know, you ask him."
Sam rolled his shoulders and took a drink. He looked a lot less fried now than he had when they picked him up, after a three-hour nap on Kia's couch. "Oh, hey, how'd you know where I was?"
Dean gave him his best don't-be-stupid look; it wasn't as good as Dad's, which could blister paint, but it was effective enough: Sam flushed. "Anatole called me as soon as he saw the cops arrive. Sorry it took us so long, though; Terry wouldn't do more than sixty in the Park. They didn't get rough, did they?"
"They were okay," Sam admitted. "But your timing was great, they were just about to call the FBI."
"Aw. Was little Sammy-wammy scared?"
"Little Sammy-wammy has thirty pounds on you and knows all your secrets," warned Sam, with the evil smile Dean was pretty sure he'd been practicing before the mirror.
Before Dean could summon up an appropriate threat, the front door swung open and hit the wall with an almighty crash, so unexpectedly that Dean jumped, hand instinctively going for his gun. A tall black woman stood in the doorway, a duffel bag over one shoulder and a backpack at her feet. The twenty or so climbers scattered around the open living area of Kia's house went silent, beers suspended halfway to mouths, chips falling to the carpet.
"What the hell is that black monster in my car port, and who the hell are--oh, never mind. Someone give me a beer right fucking now, and I'll let you all live."
Terry laughed aloud and ducked under Dean's arm to launch herself at the scowling woman in the doorway. "Ki! Ki! Kia!" she squealed, hugging her before the other woman even set down her duffel.
Dean wiped ineffectually at his jeans--Terry had spilled her beer on him--and tilted his head to check out the new talent.
"Guess that's Kia," Sam said helpfully.
Dean nodded. "Guess so." After a moment, he added, "She's pretty tall, Sammy. Pretty hot, too."
"Shut up," said Sam, without heat. "Terry's pretty hot, too, you know."
"I always know." Dean finished his beer and shoved a handful of chips into his mouth. Which, of course, was the moment Terry chose to bring Kia over to meet them.
Her eyes widening at Dean, Terry hurriedly turned to Sam first. "Sam, I'd like you to meet Kia, whose shower you've been using for the past few days."
While Dean chewed, swallowing chips in jagged pieces, Sam smiled suavely--Dean thought he looked like a lawyer on late-night cable--and stuck out his enormous paw. "We really appreciate your letting us crash here, Kia. My brother's allergic to nylon, so we can't really camp out--" Dean couldn't talk yet, but he squawked around the chips and elbowed Sam hard enough to make him shut up.
Kia smiled, shrugging muscular shoulders in red tie-dye. She had yellow hoops in her ears, set off by her short burgundy hair. "Terry said you needed a place to crash," she said, her smile going puzzled. "But she didn't say anything about allergies..."
Dean shouldered in front of Sam. "Don't worry about it, he's just giving me shit. I'm Dean, and it's a real pleasure to meet you. Kia."
Kia's smile broadened with real humor as she shook his hand. Dean ignored Terry's snort, and Sam coughing into his hand, muttering something about "overkill".
"So," said Terry. "Who needs a beer?"
Two hours later, the party had mostly died down: Anatole was asleep on the floor in front of the fireplace, next to a dark-haired kid Dean thought he'd heard called Ivan. Paula had left with her platinum-haired brother, after a heart-to-heart with Sam that involved some exchange of email addresses: Dean had a dull suspicion Paula wasn't going to be on the reservation for much longer.
After midnight the beer had run out, and Kia had broken out the whiskey--a woman after Dean's own heart. Well, or maybe Sam's--they were shoulder to shoulder on the couch, playing a cut-throat game of Latin Scrabble. Dean snickered--Scrabble!--but apparently six and a half feet of geek worked for Kia. Who knew?
He slid open the door to the deck and wandered outside, breath puffing white in the cold air. This had been a good break from demon-hunting, but Dean could practically hear the clock ticking. There were still over two hundred demons out there, and he was running out of time to put them down. Which reminded him of Coyote's offer: just one more thing never to mention to Sammy.
Tomorrow they'd hit the road again. Well, maybe the next day, depending on how hungover they found themselves in the morning. The whiskey in his glass was the good stuff, and he took a small sip, letting it sit on his tongue before swallowing.
"Stars out?" asked Terry from the doorway.
Dean looked around. "Yeah, but it's fucking cold." The Milky Way was like a river across the sky, pearl luminescence flowing from one horizon to the other. Usually he was too busy driving, or digging up a grave, or running for his life, to look at the stars. Sam would probably call that a metaphor for something; Dean just knew it was the way things were. He gave the stars a toast, anyway.
When he turned, Terry tossed him a blanket, and came outside, sliding the door closed behind her.
"You are an awesome woman," Dean said, pulling the blanket around his shoulders.
She lifted an eyebrow, wrapping herself up in the throw from the couch and leaning against the railing next to him. "Pretty cheap line, Winchester."
"Well, yeah." The stars really were amazing.
"Does it work?"
"Well, yeah." Feeling honest, he added, "Sometimes."
She laughed. "You're kind of impossible, aren't you? With your monsters and your mysterious past. And lock-picking! I don't want to know about the lock-picking, do I?"
Dean's blanket was some geometric pattern that was gray-on-gray in the starlight. It was warm, though. He loosened the blanket and wrapped his arm around Terry, so she had two layers of wool around her. "No, you probably don't."
She slid an arm around his waist in return, tucking fingers into his belt loop. Her thumb, though, found its way under his shirt to the skin above his left hip. He twitched, his hand tightening, then pulled her a little closer. Five months. Not that he was counting or anything.
Her head rested against his chest, her eyes on the stars. "So you gonna ride out of town now, like some guys in a John Wayne movie? That's your M.O., right?"
"Usually, yeah. Sorry." Dean glanced over his shoulder, then grinned. The Scrabble game was over, or they were playing some kind of full-contact version he'd never heard of. "Huh."
"What?" Terry twisted around to look, and snickered. "Kia loves 'em tall."
"I like her, she's cool." Dean dropped his hand to Terry's waist, and found the curve of her hip fit nicely inside his palm. Her hair smelled of woodsmoke and the joint that had been passed around earlier: it was a change from the fruity flowery stuff most girls had in their hair.
"So you should stick around for a couple days," said Terry, turning to press against him directly. "Cause you know, there's something I really want to do with you..."
Dean took in a shaky breath. "Yeah? Like what?" He hadn't thought Terry was the experimental type, but he'd been wrong before.
"Well, there's a five-nine over in Horseshoe Canyon I think you'd really like. It's all jugs and chicken-heads all the way up, and then when you get to the top--"
She shut up about the climbing when he kissed her.