Winchester Auto Body had seen better days.
Dean swept the stack of bills off the table and poured himself another shot. He couldn't pay them, he didn't know why he was spending another night up late looking at them – if business kept going at this pace he'd be lucky to keep the lights on for another month, let alone....
Dean sighed, bending down to pick up one of the bills from the floor. The Stanford logo in the corner felt like an accusing eye glaring at him; he and Sam had learned the hard way that scholarships covered a lot but not everything, and all those extras kept landing in Dean's mailbox. He crumpled the bill up and then winced, smoothing it back out against the table. Dean had promised Sam he wouldn't have to worry about anything, Dean would always be able to cover whatever he needed and he would be damned if that was a promise he'd break.
After he'd finished sorting the bills into the usual piles of collection letters, final notices and worry-about-later Dean compared it to the outstanding invoices he expected to collect on in the next week and knocked back a strong shot. Then he redid the math, poured himself another and knocked that one back too, muttering Fuck because the ratio was even worse than it had been over the past few months and Dean didn't know what in the hell he was going to do.
He could call Bobby. It would be the second month in a row and it killed Dean every time he made that phone call – he didn't know why Bobby hadn't started blocking his calls, all he ever did anymore was ask for money they both knew Bobby didn't really have – but wounded pride had never been enough to keep him from picking up the phone, not when it came to Sam. But the truth was Bobby had his own finances to look after and while Dean knew he'd never tell Dean no there really was a limit to how much blood someone could squeeze out of a stone. Keeping the shop afloat wasn't worth losing Bobby his house; Dean knew about the mortgage he'd taken out to finance the last loan. And he knew Sam would blame himself, even though it would be completely Dean's fault.
The failure would burn less if Dean could tell himself it was because he did bad work and deserved it, but he knew damn well that wasn't true. He did awesome work, Winchester Auto was the best shop in the state but he only had two hands. Getting a reputation for being slow in this business was almost as bad as having one for being a cheat – worse in some ways, because there were plenty of rubes who were more than happy to pay for sub-par work if it meant it was done fast. And Dean knew he could cut corners like everyone else but he could never quite bring himself to do it; every time he so much as entertained the thought he heard his father's voice in his ear, telling Dean he expected him to run that shop right, the way he always had.
Of course, the difference there was that John Winchester had been able to count on free labor from his sons in addition to being able to hire the odd employee; it had been over a year since Dean had been able to afford even someone part time, not even some punk from the tech school, and with Sam gone Dean could only do so much. Every day a job sat in his shop unfinished felt like the whole business slipping through his fingers. And the business itself had changed since John had inherited it from his own father; each year less and less people drove the classic cars that had put Winchester Auto on the map in the first place. It was all smart cars and hybrids and ugly boxes on wheels nowadays with computers to tell their owners when something was wrong; no one knew what a good running engine sounded like anymore. Dean wished he could switch to a pure restoration shop, that was where the real money was but properly restoring something took even longer than just repairing.
In fact, Dean had a restoration job in the shop now that he'd been working on until his fingers cracked to get it done by the contracted deadline, a gorgeous Charger with a rich douchebag owner who didn't deserve her. Dean didn't like to work with hard delivery dates but the reward in this case seemed to be worth the risk, twice the amount any of his other clients paid and a bonus for each day early he could deliver it. Finishing the Charger would solve an awful lot of problems, at least for the moment.
Dean wished he had just one more pair of hands. The delivery date for the Charger was first thing in the morning and it needed one more full day's work.
And as if the Charger's jerk owner could hear him thinking, Dean's phone rang, that hated number blinking on the screen. "Mr. Roman," he said, putting that professional tone in his voice that always made him want to puke. "Just the man I was about to call."
Damn, this guy could talk. Dean squeezed his eyes shut as he rode out the rant, waiting until the guy took a breath so he could get a word in edgewise. "Yes, Mr. Roman, we did schedule the inspection for today. Yes, I know, I should have called." Dean would rather have set the whole shop on fire and walked away than call that morning to say the Charger wasn't fit for inspection. Roman just would have marched his expensive suit down there and that would have been Dean's whole day. "That's why I was about to call, to give you the update."
Dean leaned against the wall, rubbing his forehead in an attempt to fend off the headache building behind his eyes. "No, it's not a good idea to come down here now." Dean swallowed hard, his throat so dry it felt like he'd just downed a handful of razor blades. There was still time to...Dean didn't know. Throw himself off the roof. That sounded like a plan. "I'm just gonna need until the weekend."
Dean winced as the volume went way, way up. "Yes, sir," he said, and did it ever kill him to call this slime in a designer suit sir. "I know that's not what we agreed to." He rode out the next couple minutes of lecturing. "Yes, I understand how important the car show coming up is to your business. If you're worried about getting it shipped there in time, I'll drive it down myself, no charge, no problem...of course. Right, obviously no one can drive the Charger. I don't know what I was thinking." There was a part of Dean that wanted to hide such a gorgeous car from someone so undeserving.
Dean slumped down to the floor, his knees pulled up to his chest. "No, Mr. Roman. We don't need to get any lawyers involved." He bit his lip to keep back the profanity fighting to get out, hard enough that he tasted blood. "Guess I'll see you in the morning then." Roman switched back to that cheery fake professional voice so quickly Dean felt his stomach lurch. "Looking forward to it."
The call ended and Dean stared down at the phone for a few long seconds, watching the number blink on the screen. Then he snapped the phone shut and pulled himself back up, pouring himself one more double shot to wash the taste of all of that out of his mouth before grabbing his tool kit and heading out to the shop.
When he switched on the shop lights Dean felt like the stripped down Charger was pleading with him. "Yeah, I know, girl," he said, stroking one hand along the front fender. "I don't want to hand you over to that douche either." But there was no way around it; he couldn't be sure Roman would really sic his lawyers on him if Dean couldn't deliver in the morning, but it wasn't a bluff he could risk calling. He couldn't afford a lawyer and he sure as hell couldn't spare the time or money defending himself from a lawsuit. And even if Roman decided to play nice and not sue Dean's pants right off him the alternative wasn't all that better; according to the contract if the work wasn't finished to Roman's satisfaction all the hours of work he'd poured into the Charger would be for nothing. Roman could just pick up the car, get the finishing touches done by whoever and never pay Dean a dime. He couldn't afford that, he'd been banking on this car and this payout and without it the doors to Winchester Auto would close a lot sooner than later.
So the only solution was to get this thing done. Dean surveyed the car; he'd done most of the heavy lifting already, the transmission, the engine, all of that ran better than when the car had first rolled out of the factory and the interior was spotless. All that was left was to finish the repair on the control arm and ball joints, replace the tires and then just the final detail work. Ten hours of work, eight if he really hustled. If he worked through the night he could do this.
It wasn't the first all nighter he'd pulled that week trying to get this car done. He was operating on three hours of sleep right now and hadn't had time to put much more in his stomach than coffee and booze but Dean pushed that aside. Just one more night, then it would all be over. He could do this.
After the first hour Dean felt a twinge in his shoulder and took a quick break to throw his ice pack on it. Another half hour went by and Dean stopped to catch his breath after wrestling the final ball joint into place, leaning his head against the tire well. His eyes burned and Dean closed them for just a second, hoping for a moment of relief.
He was fast asleep before he could even take another breath.
The Charger was perfect. Dean traced his fingers along the racing stripe running down the side, one that hadn't been there the night before. He couldn't get over how straight it was, like it had been drawn with one of those laser levelers Dean had always lusted after but had never been able to afford. Spend enough time around restored cars and you developed an eye for the tiny imperfections in the paint and body work but with the Charger there was nothing. Everything was perfect, straight-from-the-factory perfect except Dean knew damn well the car looked better now than any factory could manage.
Ran better, too; Dean turned the engine over and didn't think he'd ever heard a prettier sound. "Looks like a little motivation was just what you needed, Mr. Winchester."
Dean hadn't even heard Roman come in; he jumped as he looked up, swearing under his breath as he saw Roman standing in his doorway with that shit-eating grin of his. "Mr. Roman," he said, turning off the engine and getting out, being careful not to slam the door. He felt reluctant to even let his fingerprints mar this beautiful thing. "You're early."
"I'm here exactly when I said I would be," he countered, making a slow circle around the car. "Interesting paint job. That's not what we'd discussed."
That was because Dean hated racing stripes, they were always a bitch and a half. Before he could say a word in response Roman said, "I like it. It'll stand out at the show." He nodded to Dean. "Pop the hood." Dean complied and walked over to take a look himself, glad Roman wasn't looking at him in that first second because he knew there was no way he could hide that initial flash of shock. The engine was spotless; forget just from the factory, the heart of this car looked like God himself had reached down to spit shine it clean. Dean grabbed the hood when Roman backed away and lowered it gently, feeling irrationally worried that Roman's sleaze could infect the car.
When Dean looked back he actually though Roman looked a little impressed. "Not bad," he said, which was high fucking praise compared to the usual attitude the guy brought into his shop, then he slid his checkbook out of his pocket and started writing one out then and there. "Our agreed upon price," he said, handing the check to Dean. "Plus a little extra for the innovative thinking on the paint job."
That was a lot of zeroes. "Cool," Dean managed to say, proud of the way he was able to control himself. "Good doing business with you." Wasn't really true of course, but that was the kind of thing you said.
"Likewise. A few more anxious moments than I'd prefer, but results are all that matters." He slid the checkbook back into his pocket. "The shipper should be here to transport it-" Dean mentally replaced "it" with her – "in an hour and then we'll be on our way." He gave Dean an approving nod, the closest Dean ever wanted to come to a corporate evaluation. "I'll keep you in mind for the future."
Even after he left Dean couldn't let himself relax until the shippers loaded the Charger onto the trailer and were out of sight. Then Dean could let his legs give out under him; he sat on the front porch of his stoop and just stared at the check, like he expected it to dissolve in his hands or start laughing at him or anything other than actually be real. Dean didn't get lucky breaks. They just didn't happen.
Dean took the rest of the day off, depositing the check in the bank and paying off a few of the most pressing bills, cutting a check to Stanford and another with some pocket money for Sam, and splurging on a really good bottle of whiskey for himself. By the time he got back the afternoon was edging down towards night and Dean was looking forward to a nice, quiet, relaxing evening. Or maybe change and head out to O'Malley's to see if that waitress who always winked at him had any plans for the night.
Instead his phone rang just as he pulled his truck into the driveway, and he swore so loud when he saw it was Roman's number it all but echoed against the windshield. "Dean!" Roman said before Dean could even half-ass a hello. "Great news, the Charger pulled in double the appraiser's estimate at the auction. I've wired another five thousand into your account."
Awesome. "Mr. Roman, that's not necessary...."
"Think of it as a down payment. You'll get the rest on delivery. Not the way I usually do things, but you've earned a little faith."
Dean was about to ask what the hell Roman was on about when he rounded the corner and saw: the same shippers from that morning were back at his shop door, this time with a broken-down Firebird. "Same terms as last time, I'll have the contract messenger-ed over in the morning. Make me proud, Dean."
Dean shook his head when Roman hung up but it wasn't like he could realistically say no; he'd have to replace transmissions every day for a month to equal the money he'd just been handed for the one Charger.
And besides, he loved making these old girls glow again. Dean directed the shippers inside and showed them where to put the Firebird, walking around it to start the initial evaluation. It needed front end work, a lot of it, and when he tried to start it the engine sputtered and creaked. Not good sounds.
He decided he'd call it a night after all and tackle the engine first thing in the morning.
The Firebird's engine looked like someone had gone back in time to find the one she'd been built with, only no factory engine was ever this spotless. Dean crouched in front of the car, staring at the impossible coils that had been twisted heaps of metal the night before. He'd actually started to doubt his sanity when he'd popped the hood that morning and seen that the dirty, broken engine had been replaced by...by this. He'd never seen a more perfect repair job; he actually hoped Roman didn't plan on taking this one out to auction because he doubted any of the appraisers would ever believe this was the original engine.
It was all very weird. Still, Dean shook that aside; the engine was done but the Firebird still needed a ton of work and wasting time boggling wasn't going to get any of it done.
He decided to try a test, though. Right before he shut out the shop lights that night he took a careful inventory of what he'd done for the day – wheel alignment, window installation, fan belt replacement – and on a second page noted everything that still needed doing, like the headlights and the brake shoes and the cracked windshield. He locked the door behind him and hid the key in the hidden slot behind his parents' wedding portrait. If he was going to sleepwalk his way into this shop tonight, he was going to have to earn it.
Dean wondered if sleep working made someone more efficient, because he didn't manage anything near this degree of time management with his eyes open. Windshield, fixed. Brakes, done. And some other smaller things here and there, like fixing that little rattling sound the steering wheel made when it was turned all the way to the left and doing and starting the initial patch job on the damaged upholstery. He could do that amount of work in a day, but it would mean doing nothing but work from sun up to sun down. Dean worked hard but he'd have to be a robot to make this happen.
But the work was getting done somehow and Dean was starting to go a little crazy trying to figure it out. Part of him kept trying to say leave it alone, that hey, if it's getting done, who cares? But Dean wasn't wired that way. This was his shop, he needed to know every single thing that happened under its roof or he didn't deserve to be running it. And he'd never been the type to take well to charity; Dean took pride in paying his debts, glad that he was finally getting to be in a position to do that, and not knowing who he owed for all this help twisted in his gut like a slowly turning corkscrew.
If it even was someone else. Either way, Dean knew that if stress was making him sleep work he should confirm that, too, before anything weirder started happening. The present was plenty weird enough.
The headlights were still busted, though. That puzzled Dean and he kept coming back to it; that job had been high on his to-do list, way before the torn seat and the steering wheel rattle. It wasn't until he looked over his delivery reports that he realized he couldn't have fixed it because he was still waiting for the back ordered part to come in.
Which at least told him none of this was happening by magic. If Casper the friendly ghost was coming in to do a nightly good deed, he couldn't conjure the right parts any more than Dean could. It did make him feel a little better, to imagine his mysterious assistant sitting around getting frustrated waiting for parts that never arrived. God alone knew he'd wasted more than enough time doing the exact same thing.
But working on Dick Roman's dime did have one advantage, and that was that when he made noise that he needed a part, that part got delivered. The sun was just going down when he opened the package containing the headlights, setting them on the counter as he stepped back to think about what to do. He could replace them now, but one of his neighbors had just brought in an old Dodge with a busted headlight of its own, along with a dented fender and broken right axle after one of his punk kids took it for a joyride and it would be nice to get a little local word of mouth going.
So Dean went to put a few hours in on that and left the headlights on the counter, along with a post-it note saying, "Had them put a rush job on these." What the hell. If he was going crazy he might as well have some fun with it.
The next morning he went down to the shop to find the headlights installed and the note lying flat on the counter under the pen he'd left. Underneath his scrawled message were two crossed out blotches, as if whoever doing the writing hadn't been sure what to say, and then finally just "Thank You" written in the kind of graceful script you found in penmanship books. Dean grinned and pocketed the note; he knew confirmation there really was someone creeping around in his shop while he slept should have had him angry, or at least freaked out, but...Dean didn't know. That whoever it was had apparently agonized over replying to his half-assed note was kind of endearing.
And he couldn't deny that the work was good. Dean did his best to push the mystery to the back of his mind and got on with the rest of the day. Still, when he broke for lunch he took the note out of his pocket and wondered.
"I just think you're over thinking this."
Dean took a beer out of the fridge, cradling the phone against his shoulder. "C'mon, Sam. You're telling me that if every night when you fell asleep someone snuck in your room and did your homework you'd be cool with it?"
"Dean, my homework right now is a comprehensive comparison of tort law on a state by state basis. If your genie gets bored fixing cars over there please, send him over."
"Don't know it's a him," Dean countered, pulling up a chair. "Could be a hot Barbara Eden chick. That would be nice."
"Seriously, Dean." Dean rolled his eyes; Sam had that I'm worried about you tone in his voice. "I'm worried about you," he said, and it took all of Dean's self-control not to laugh out loud at that. "Have you seen a doctor yet?"
"I'm not crazy, Sam."
"I didn't say you were, but clearly something's going on."
"Weren't you the one who just saying I was over thinking this?"
"I mean the obsessing about someone sneaking into the shop."
Dean slammed the beer bottle down on the table hard enough that he knew Sam had probably heard it. "That's what's happening."
"Look, Dean, listen to what you're saying. You're telling me that someone is sneaking into the shop every night – the locked shop – doing all the work you didn't finish during the day, not eating anything, not drinking anything, not making any noise, and then leaves come daylight and locks up behind them."
"And sweeps up, too," Dean said, realizing just how nuts that sounded when someone said it out loud.
"And sweeps up, too. Listen to yourself."
"Okay, smart guy. So what do you think is going on?"
Dean shook his head even though he knew Sam couldn't see. "No way. I lock the door. I put the key in the hiding spot between Mom and Dad's wedding photo, no way could I get that without waking myself up."
"Or you can because you can sleep work without waking up, too. There are cases with people doing all kinds of things while they're asleep, driving, shopping, you name it." Dean knew that wasn't true – he had the note, but he knew if he brought that up to Sam he'd just say Dean was sleep writing, too. "How much are you drinking?" Sam asked, his voice low.
Dean's hand curled into a fist before he could stop it. "That's not it. And none of your business."
"It could be, Dean. Stephen King doesn't remember writing Cujo because he'd been drinking so much back then. If you're blacking out that could explain everything."
Dean actually had cut back on the drinking lately – not fending off calls from collection companies did wonders for that – but he doubted Sam would believe it. "It's not that, Sam."
"Dean, I'm not accusing you of anything here. Like I said, I'm worried. If you are sleepwalking that means you're not really resting and you're gonna crash hard."
"You don't have to worry about me. I've got everything under control."
"Dad wouldn't want you running yourself ragged like this."
Dean ground his teeth. "Dad would be all for it if it kept the shop open, Sam, and you know it."
"Gotta go. Customer's supposed to show up for an estimate any second." He hung up before Sam could start arguing, then leaned back in the chair and stared at the ceiling for a good long while. He felt bad about the fib but he didn't want to keep the argument going; it wasn't leading anywhere and if Sam got worried enough Dean knew there was a good chance he'd fly back home to check on him and he didn't want to be responsible for Sam's perfect GPA taking that hit.
Dean fished that little post-it note out of his pocket and looked at it, trying to make out the scratched out words and taking in the elegant loops of the two simple words whoever it was had decided on. Finally he really did need to get to work and put the note back in his pocket, shaking off Sam's concern and his own worry that Sam might be right.
For the first time in a long, long while Dean thought he actually might be doing okay.
Dean decided it was high time he reorganized his shop. Dean had a system but even he would admit that calling the place cluttered would be putting it mildly; he knew where everything was down to every spare lug nut but he hadn't shared the workspace with anyone since Sam had gone off to school. Just because he could find everything didn't mean it wouldn't be a chore to someone else.
The reorganizing took most of the day but Dean thought it was time well spent. When he stepped back and examined his nice neat rows of tools he felt a little surge of pride; this was how his father had kept the shop, that Marine spit shine living on in gleaming shelves and spotless floors. Seeing the place like this made Dean remember being a little kid and afraid to touch anything.
He grabbed another post-it note and wrote Thought this might make things easier across one of the now so neat it almost hurt to look at them shelves.
The next day he found the note sitting on the front seat of the Firebird, four lines of scratched out writing underneath his message, enough to take up the rest of the space on the note. Dean tried to picture whoever it was sitting in that front seat, staring at the note and trying to think of something to say.
That they'd failed was actually better. Dean tucked the new note into the same pocket as the first one, whistling as he got to work.