A Mountain in the Distance
1. View from a hotel room in L.A., March 1999
When Ezekiel Stone was a rookie cop, back in New York City, their precinct captain harangued them each morning with a pep talk that always concluded, "Get out there, get it done -- you can relax when you're dead." At the time, Zeke found that more unsettling than inspiring; with the benefit of hindsight, he sees it as a sound suggestion.
Zeke's practicing to be a laid-back guy.
The world changes around him, but over the past six months Zeke has remained the same. His hair, his nails, the stubble on his face, the clothes on his back (the number of bullets in his gun each morning). Nothing changes for him. He's a still center of a revolving world. (A black pit rotting underneath it.) As his employer reminds him (often), Zeke doesn't need to sleep, he doesn't need to eat, he doesn't need to do anything but fulfill his contract.
("You can be replaced, Detective," the convenience store clerk informs him when he hands Zeke his short-change. "Never forget that.")
But Zeke likes to eat breakfast. He likes his coffee black, his hashbrowns salty, his eggs over easy, and he likes the quiet diner where he watches the world rush by the windows. It relaxes him. Zeke likes to brush his teeth, leisurely sessions when he mulls over the day he's had, the day he's going to have. He likes long, hot showers, at least until the next guy waiting his turn in the hall pounds on the door. Zeke likes to read books, and magazines, and the morning paper. He likes taking care of his cat, Buster. Zeke's been thinking maybe he should have a hobby or two; other people have them.
("You're not 'other people,' Mr. Stone," says the man washing the storefront window, "you're dead." Zeke's perfecting the art of ignoring him. Maybe this can count as his first hobby.)
Zeke likes to go to bed early at night, and he loves sleeping late in the morning. Zeke has this recurring dream. He knows it's a dream because his life wasn't (isn't) like this. He was a pretty driven guy. While he was married, Zeke never took the days off; he spent more time with his partner than he spent with his wife. He had a thick folder of commendations. It's only now, now that he's dead, that he's been taking the time to smell the flowers (acid, burning scent).
Zeke can (still) distinguish a dream (sharp, tactile) from reality (blunted, blurred).
Zeke knows his wife (widow) isn't here with him, in this room, in his bed.
But it's so damned vivid that at first he always thinks this is real, finally, oh thank god. Rosalyn is lying next to him in his bed in the hotel. She's kissing him, slow and wet, they're taking their time. She rubs against him, and he can see she doesn't care about his tattoos. She swings her leg over his hips, slowly taking him in. Ros is rocking against him; she's leaning down, and her dark hair's falling over her shoulders, tickling his chin. Zeke closes his eyes at the sensation. He can feel her body moving over him, around him. He feels the moistness with his fingers, and the clenching, tight heat inside her.
He slides his hands over her smooth thighs, clutches her hips. He opens his eyes. Ash pushes aside her short blonde hair, gazes down at him; her hips roll under his hands. She combs her slim fingers through the hair on his chest; she lightly strokes one of his tattoos, over his heart. "What's this one mean?" she asks.
"I don't know," he admits.
"I miss you, Zeke," Ros says. "I do love you, even after all this time." Ros's yellow eyes are damp.
"You don't know me," he tells her. "You said that."
"No, you're right," Ros agrees. Tears streak her face now. "I don't know you anymore."
Zeke's wife isn't here. (Ash isn't here.) But it feels real, it feels so perfect; he doesn't know why she wants to ruin it like this. "I know I made mistakes," he tells Ros. "But you're more important than any job. I'll stay home. This is all I want, to be with you. We can have kids. I want a daughter who looks like you."
"I have a daughter," Ash tells him.
"You killed her," he says. "You told me that."
"I protected her," Ash says. "I saved her. You don't understand. You can't."
"I don't have to, Ash," he tells her. He grips her hips, grinding her down harder, faster. "I'm going to kill you anyway."
"No, Ezekiel. For Ashur Badaktu, Priestess of Ashureth, of the temple of Tyre, loved her daughter above all things," she says, softly, a chant against his lips, "thus will she burn this world that your god built for your people on her ashes."
Zeke's on the edge, but something here is important. Something about Ros. Something about Ash. Something about himself.
That's when Buster walks on his face. Cats don't care about relationships or revelations. They care about food in the morning. That, Zeke can understand without any effort at all.
Zeke rolls over, yawning, and his employer eyes Zeke over his glasses and the morning paper. He's helped himself to Zeke's orange juice again. "The late bird feeds the worms, Detective."
Zeke ignores him and stumbles over to shake out a bowl of cat food.
2. View from a suburb in L.A., March 1999
Max, the manager at Zeke's fleabag hotel, tells him that he should get out of his room and "own his issues" and be "more proactive in his journey of recovery." Zeke hasn't told her that what he's recovering from is fifteen years in hell, and that his main issue is being a corpse. But, still, he figures it's probably not bad advice -- after she'd translated it for him from Californian to English.
So Zeke's been taking "proactive" out for a spin. He's on a vacation from his exhausting schedule of reading and staring at the wall and watching his cat sleep and evading his employer. Zeke's been visiting his wife.
Tonight, Zeke's been crouching in the bushes along her property for a few hours. The patrol car that's begun to cruise Euclid a few times each night is regular as a windup toy, so it hasn't bothered him.
He's good with this distance for now, even though he can't see a lot from here. Ros has put up blinds on her kitchen windows, and she has new, thicker curtains on all of the others. Zeke can't watch her in her living room at night any longer. As a cop, Zeke approves wholeheartedly. Ros should have been a lot more security conscious before. Considering why she'd moved to California. Considering the whole reason she'd moved out here from New York was--
Max tells Zeke that he should call Ros up, find out how she's doing. She tells Zeke he should invite Ros out for coffee or something, talk over their split. Max thinks he should consider couples therapy. Zeke's never told Max that the last time Ros saw him was as a body on a morgue slab over a decade ago. He's not sure how counseling would handle that kind of issue.
Now that the local beat has rolled by, Zeke can move a little closer, over by the tree on the sidelawn.
Zeke has Ros's schedule down to a science now. He's made up for lost time, trailed her for days, learned her patterns. He knows where she teaches, where she shops, where she banks. He knows who her friends are, which neighbors she's on good terms with, which men she--
Her lights will go off in another half hour; Ros has to stay later than the other teachers at the junior high tomorrow because she's been meeting with the drama club students. Zeke will have plenty of time to let himself in after she's left; he just needs to be sure everything's secure. She used to hide her spare key outside under the third rock from the end of the right corner of the porch; he'd used it a few times. That's gone now, too, and Ros changed the locks. Zeke recognized the brands though, so they haven't been much of a challenge.
Zeke had left her a present after he'd run Ash out of town on the proverbial rail. He hasn't found that snow globe in her collection yet, but he's sure she has it somewhere. Zeke needs to know what she's done with it. That's the clue he needs. He needs to know whether she misses him as much as he misses her. He could leave Ros another present. Maybe he should leave some flowers on the counter in her kitchen this time. Not roses, though -- Ash has ruined those for good.
Ash shouldn't have had such an easy time worming her way into Ros's life. But mostly that's Zeke's fault, he knows. He hadn't been watching Ros properly before.
Zeke starts to stand as Ros's bedroom light goes out, and he's genuinely startled when the hand presses into his shoulder.
He's got company again. Ros's bushes are Grand Central Station these days. "It's so wonderful that you're looking out for Rosalyn," he murmurs in Zeke's ear. "Never lose faith, Ezekiel. I believe that you're meant to be."
"You 'believe' that." He glances over; his eyesight in the dark is 20/20 now, but it wouldn't matter. Angels seem to stand out clearer than their surroundings.
"Oh, absolutely, Ezekiel!" This particular angel is awfully chipper for 10:30 at night, and he's fiddling coyly with his damn kerchief again.
"You know what? About that, I've got a question."
"A question?" He smiles broadly, and slaps his hands on his legs. "Of course, Ezekiel. What is it?"
"I was just wondering if you can change the past."
"Change the past?" He cocks his head, birdlike, and blinks at Zeke. He's the picture of perplexity. "Why would anyone want to?"
"It's just that--" Zeke's getting worried. He's noticed how Ros's hair has started to go gray. "Look, how exactly is it that I'll be getting my life back? I mean, after I've kicked all hundred and thirteen of these slimeballs back to hell? No one's giving me a straight answer on this."
"The past no longer matters, Ezekiel," he assures Zeke earnestly. "And as long as you're doing God's work, you're making your own future." He snorts, disgusted. "Never let him convince you otherwise."
Zeke sighs to himself. "Do I get tea with my fortune cookie?"
"What do you mean, Ezekiel?"
"Nothing. Forget it." Zeke wonders sometimes why this angel's smile and eyes always seem so damned empty to him.
"Ezekiel," he says firmly, "remember how much your work is appreciated."
"Sure." Zeke looks away. "I hear that a lot."
3. View from a laundromat in L.A., May 1999
Phone booths are weirdly hard to come by these days, Zeke's found. Finding one that still works is even more of a challenge, so he's had this particular payphone staked out for a while. The change box looks like its been crowbarred a half-dozen times, but the current lock's heavy duty and is standing up to the assaults. So it's a bad neighborhood but a quiet street, a laundromat with a dour, closed-mouthed attendant and very few customers at this hour if you don't count the dealers hanging out on the curb.
The attendant is folding sheets around the corner to the soft strains of mariachi music; as usual he doesn't even look up when Zeke slinks in.
Zeke could use the payphone in the lobby back at the hotel, but he likes his privacy. He doesn't feel like "sharing" this with Max or any of the collection of lobby lizards. This phone has a dial tone, and that's all Zeke requires. He sets out his small stacks of quarters on the remains of the shelf, then starts plugging in the first pile. He dials the number. He waits.
You've reached the Stone residence. Please leave a message.
Zeke presses down the lever, waits for the dial tone, replaying her voice in his mind. He sweeps up the next stack, drops in his quarters, jabs a rapid rhythm on the number pad, waits.
You've reached the Stone residence. Please leave a message.
He's on his fifth call when he notices that the attendant is leaning on the nearby laundry table. He's paging idly through one of those tattered, coffee-stained tabloids from the waiting area.
"Oh, terrific," Zeke mutters, hanging up. He scoops the remaining quarters into his coat pocket. "What now?"
"Your lack of intellectual curiosity is disappointing, Detective," he says, turning over a page, and shaking out the creases. He glances over at Zeke. "You really should take more of an interest in current events."
"I'm taking 'em at my own pace," Zeke says. Catching up has been nothing like easy. The accumulation of minor details throws him again and again. Max's expression when he asked about that little record player she clips to her belt was a case in point. Zeke's getting seriously peeved by how creatures like Ash take this all in stride: background, apartment, job, computer, money, car. The sad fact is that most of Zeke's quarry are a hell of a lot more adaptable than he is; a few times that's made a critical difference.
"Really? You seem more interested in the past than the present," he observes, a gesture at the phone. "Still too shy to leave a message, Mr. Stone? Or is shyness the fundamental problem?"
"It's none of your business."
"My business is your business, Mr. Stone. And my business has been shamefully neglected of late."
Zeke shrugs. "I've been keeping an eye out. I haven't seen anyone else pop up around here."
The attendant looks him narrowly, taps his chin. "Hmmm! Now, what could that signify? Let's think about it, shall we? Why, I have an idea! Could it be that you've dealt with all of the lemmings who scrambled toward the sea? Could it be that those with slightly more intelligence -- or, at the very least, a more highly developed sense of self-preservation -- are elsewhere?" He tilts his head, frowning to himself. "Do you think they might be avoiding you, Detective? Could it be your deodorant? But they exude that same brimstone aroma as you . . ."
"Oh, c'mon." Zeke huffs, but he's wondering now. When the attendant turns his attention to ostentatiously folding his tabloid, Zeke surreptitiously sniffs his sleeve.
"So, as I was saying," he slaps the paper down on the table, "current events. Let us keep abreast of them, Detective."
"Yeah, and I guess Weekly World News should be my one-stop shopping?" Zeke glances at the headline: "Supermodel Spontaneous Combustion! Could Tyra Be Next?" it screams. The article underneath says something about aliens.
"You could do worse," he tells Zeke. "In fact, you will indeed do worse -- far worse -- shortly if you don't stir yourself to action very soon, Ezekiel." Zeke catches the note of warning, and knows that this time it's real. He swallows.
"So, uh, supermodels in peril, huh. How'm I supposed to get to New York?"
"The same way you fetched yourself thence to California? That is hardly my concern, Mr. Stone."
Zeke sighs. He hates hitchhiking; for some reason, people seem reluctant to give him a lift.
"Here," he says to Zeke, holding out a flat box that reminds him of Kleenex. "It's called 'fabric softener.' Smell this, and give me your opinion."
Zeke leans over and cautiously sniffs. He gets a noseful of floral mixed with pine and lemon and god knows what else; the chemical reek rocks him back on his heels. "Jesus H. Christ," he spits out, holding his nose. "What the hell is that?"
"Yes, I was rather wondering that myself. It's perfectly foul, isn't it? Ah, the modern world." He turns to the wall of dryers, and begins to pluck tissues out of the box and fling them into each dryer on the wall in turn, including those that are currently rotating clothes. "So it is time that you live up to that badge you're perpetually flashing, Mr. Stone. Go, gloriously return to your roots."
Back to New York City again. Zeke slumps. He can hardly contain his excitement.
4. View from the fashion district in New York, July 1999
Zeke didn't really grok fashion back when he was alive. Ros had dubbed him Second-Hand Zeke, said his habit of throwing on whatever first came to hand was appalling but kind of endearing. He hopes she still feels that way, 'cause he's never going to change: Ever since he crawled out of his New York cemetery, no matter what he wears, it becomes the same bleak November layers he'd died in. First, the colors leech away; finally, the clothing itself creeps back to his original set. The windbreaker he'd gotten to replace his burned coat took a few weeks to revert. Initially, Zeke found it pretty damned disturbing; but the contents of his wallet reset each night as well, so mostly he's just relieved. He could write a book, "How to Live on $36.27 a Day."
Except he can't claim much expertise on the "living" part any more.
So, sure, Zeke wishes he'd been wearing different clothes when he died sometimes, but he's grateful not to be stuck with the full-dress uniform he got planted in. Now that would be a bitch to explain away every day.
That's why Arlindo Vicente deserves, in Zeke's modest opinion, to collect his coatcheck in hell. He's far too invested in this whole image thing. Melting the clothes off unappreciative women, along with a lot of their skin, isn't winning him any style points in Zeke's book.
"Hey, Lindy -- I can call you Lindy, right?" Zeke calls around the corner. The whole floor housing Atelier Vicente is going up in flames around them. Zeke's not bothered by the heat, but he can't get a clear shot from here.
"No, you cannot!" Vicente screams back. "Fuck you!" It comes out sounding more like "fooka yoo," which sort of ruins the intended effect.
"Lindy, listen up. I'm closing down your sweat-shop here, and we can do this nice and easy. If you make me work for it, I'll make you regret it."
"Regret it!" Vicente's laughing like the lunatic he is. "Regret it? Do you have any idea how long I was in hell? Do you not understand? An artiste such as myself does not belong there -- I traveled the whole of Europe, Stone! Mine was the hand to dress the court of the Sun King himself, you badly-dressed bourgeois salaud!"
Whatever that means. "Uh. I'm hurt?"
"I am the hurt one, Stone. I am meant to be here, where my genius is embraced. You ragged, homeless peasant, you never should have left the Tasteless Coast."
"No argument from me, Lindy." Zeke drops and cautiously crawls over to one of the worktables. He can see Vicente's leg, and there's the hem of that formal he's clutching -- it's smoking, melting in white-hot, plastic ribbons that peel off and puddle onto the floor. Zeke can guess who Vicente's planning to throw that on, but he's still facing that corner where Zeke was before. Zeke's not overly concerned; acid personality is all Vicente's got going for him. Otherwise, he's nothing but a jumped-up tailor.
"So, Stone, if you agree with me, then why--"
One smooth movement: Zeke stands, aims, and has plenty of time to squeeze off a shot as Vicente turns. Vicente's down -- one eye gone, dirty soul spilling from the hole, a piercing scream of rage.
Zeke pulls from his pocket the pair of shears he'd found on the floor a few rooms ago. "That's the thing, Lindy," he says, kicking Vicente's shielding hands away. "It's not up to me." Zeke stabs the scissors down into his remaining eye.
Scratch one fashion fiend. Zeke clenches his jaw, waits out the tattoo burning itself off his lower right leg. He's only five floors up, so a quick leap down from a back window to the side street clears him of the sirens. Some of these guys got too comfy, moving in and settling down after Zeke'd left; he needs to clean them out. Zeke pops his clip and does a quick verification. He's right, only six bullets went into this job. He's got more than enough to put down that busker who's shattering eardrums in the Village. He'll be back up to fifteen tomorrow, can start rooting out the rest of the vermin.
Then he can head back to the West Coast. But it's not the beach he wants to see.
5. View from office windows in California, February 2000
"I'm sorry," the real estate agent tells him. Her name's Janice, and Zeke got her information off the sign on Ros's front lawn. "The previous owner specifically requested that no personal information be provided to inquirers. I'll be handling the sale in conjunction with the lawyer and the bank." Zeke notices she's being pretty careful not to let on that the previous owner is a woman. He's not sure why.
"I see," Zeke says, though really he doesn't. "Did the owner say why that is? Is there, uh, some problem with the neighborhood? I'd heard something about . . . snakes."
"I really can't speak to that." Janice smiles stiffly. "There was a minor problem with some exotic pets escaping well over a year ago, but I can assure you that it was swiftly dealt with by animal control. Were you interested in looking at the property?"
"Yeah, I'd been thinking about it," Zeke says, "but I'm pretty sure it's outside my budget these days."
When he came back from New York, his first stop was Euclid Avenue. His next was the real estate agent. Zeke's tracked down a lot of perps in his time; it bothers him using the same procedures for his own wife. The office at her junior high isn't telling him anything either. The secretary refers him directly to the principal. "Ms. Stone no longer works in this school district," she tells him, and she looks at him askance. "If you're with the police, Detective Goner, I'd think you'd have known that."
"Yeah?" He's flying completely off the charts now, feeling his way along the terrain. "So what was the problem, Ms. Peterson? Do you remember which division of the department was handling it? I'm actually tracking down witnesses to a convenience store robbery near there about a year ago, and I was heading back in after this."
"Oh." It must sound plausible enough; she's a little mollified. "Kristin," she says to the secretary, "could you look that up for the detective?"
Detective Barbara Palmer isn't anyone he's met, and this business the principal mentioned about Ros being stalked worries him. A lot. If Ash never left L.A. after all, he needs to know what's happened. But this Palmer isn't going to share any file information with him unless he's got a legit referral. He tries a call to Ash's old partner Fraker. Guy's picked a fine time to go on vacation.
Next he tries the bank -- Ros's widow's benefits go there, he remembers. He has the account number; he can get an address.
Or not. "Tsk, tsk, my dear Detective Stone," says the assistant manager, adjusting his hornrims. "You have no jurisdiction, no warrant, and no cause to be requesting this information. What you do have, however, is a job that is still crying out for your attention. Your lack of concern for that is shocking."
Zeke shrugs. "Yeah, well, how about you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours?"
The manager's mouth curves upward. "An intriguing proposition, Mr. Stone, but perhaps another time. As I recall, at this moment you should be enjoying the Florida sunshine. I thought you were fond of beaches these days?"
"Look," Zeke says, biting back the note of desperation, "you're sitting there, and there's one of those things right there--"
"A computer, Detective. Why yes, your observational skills are unparalleled -- there is!"
"You could just look," Zeke finishes, feeling defeated.
"Make it worth my while, Ezekiel," he says, sitting back in his chair. "So far, it's not." Then he turns to the keyboard. "At any rate, the payments you were inquiring about are placed into the account by direct deposit, so--"
"Direct deposit?" He chuckles. "Nothing that need concern you, Mr. Stone, as I'm afraid you're too far down the income scale to qualify for banking services at this institution or any other." He frowns. "Although I admit that I'm impressed by your latest trick. The bags in the alleys?"
Zeke stiffens. He should have known that wouldn't pass unnoticed.
"You've been placing the remaining money at the end of each day into a bag, which you tuck into some public nook. As long as it's not in your possession, you can discover it the next day like anyone else. A clever workaround, I must say, but how do you prevent others stumbling over your 'stash,' Mr. Stone?"
"Sometimes they do," Zeke admits reluctantly. "But it's not like I'm getting cost of living increases here. I have to do something." Zeke knows damn well he doesn't have a sympathetic audience here, so he just waits for the boom to descend along with the reminder that he doesn't need food or sleep or even to come in out of the damn rain.
To his surprise, it doesn't come. "You know, it's quite fascinating how simple it is to move a single cent out of one account and nudge it into another. For hundreds and hundreds of customers at once," he says, tapping away at the keyboard, and peering at the screen. "Marvelous. I wonder that you don't at least attempt to use these devices, Detective."
"I have," Zeke says, irritated.
"Oh? Have you? Well, perhaps another solution to the problem will present itself as well to your fertile imagination, eh, Mr. Stone?"
Zeke scowls at him. He's got to know Zeke's memory has started to leak. Anything that's not tied directly to his previous life somehow tends to slip away, for reasons Zeke can't figure out. And, unfortunately, Zeke's office skills had begun and ended with two-fingered typing on a manual.
"In the meantime," the manager coughs, "I do hope you'll remember to dress warmly down there in Florida, Ezekiel. It can be so chilly for your kind in the spring."
The Road to the Mountain
6. View from a diner in California, February 2001
"Stone! Oh my god, Stone! Where the hell you been? You went back to the Big Apple, but you never said you were never coming back to L.A.!" She's a small woman, close-cropped dark hair, piercings and tattoos on view, tight tanktop, jeans, and a hooded sweatshirt. She's carrying one of those plastic pet carriers. She's standing beside Stone, punching his shoulder.
Zeke assumes that he must know her.
She's carefully placed the carrier on the floor, and dropped down on the next stool at the counter. She starts to swivel it, back and forth, barely contained energy. "No, I mean, how freaky is this, huh? I'm just coming back from the vet with Buster here, and here you are! I mean, what are the odds, huh?"
"Have a cup of joe?" he asks. If she just gives him a moment, he'll get this.
"What? You're buyin'? You're on!" She waves a hand at the waitress, calling, "Teresita, he's buying me coffee!" They both laugh about that. Stone figures the joke will be clear to him soon enough.
"So, you've got a cat?" Stone says. He tilts back a bit for a better look at the carrier. What he can see through the small door grill is yellow and striped. It looks just like his and Ros's cat, and that makes him uneasy. "I used to have a cat like that once, back when I was married," he tells her. "Named him Buster, too."
She blinks rapidly. "Well, yeah," she says. Whatever Zeke just said that bothered her, she throws it off quickly enough. "So how ya been, huh? Why'd you never come back? I mean, I still got your stuff in storage, you know? Well, what there is of it. Room just couldn't just stay empty like that."
"No, I guess not," he agrees. Room. His stuff. He has a key in his pocket with a number on it, but he wasn't sure where the lock was. His feet had found their way to Ros's house across town, but someone else was living there. Next he'd let them lead him to this diner. Zeke knows he's been here before. "So, yeah, hey," he says. He tries on a smile. "Long time no see."
"Yeah. Long time," she agrees. Now she's looking uncertain. "But seriously. What you been up to?"
"This and that. The usual." He's sent over forty of the damned back to hell in the past few years, but Zeke suspects he's finished with the easy kills. The most recent targets have been smarter, stronger; three of them had been too impatient to wait their turn, and they'd come for him first. Each one is taking more time, sometimes months on end; Zeke's got a goal, and it's frustrating as hell -- he yanks his attention away from the job, back to his coffee cup. He idly stirs his coffee and his memory both; it's soothing. He came to this diner for a reason, and he's almost got it. The waitress clatters down the woman's coffee, distracting him.
"Never sure what the usual was, Stone." She punches his shoulder again. "Mr. Man of Mystery."
"That's me," he says drily.
"So, um, maybe you got back together with your old lady? What's her name -- oh, yeah, Rosalyn, right?"
Zeke stiffens, gripping his cup. He can't think of any situation where he might have talked about Ros. The more people who know about her, the less safe she is.
The woman suddenly inhales. "Oookay," she breathes out, reaching down for the handle. "Look. Y'know, if you didn't want to talk to me, you should have just said. I can take a hint. I'm not stupid."
Zeke scrambles for damage control. "No, that's not -- it's not that. I do want to talk to you." He adds, earnest as he can manage. "Stay. Just, I just need a moment here."
She frowns. "I know you got issues by the truckload, Zeke, but I gotta tell you -- even for you, you're being weird."
Issues. That's what he needed -- he's got her now. "Maxine. You're Max," he blurts, then immediately he kicks himself. He can usually cover his gaps better than that. He'd just been surprised, was all.
"Yeah," she says, "I'm Max. Stone, what the hell --" She cuts off, and her look of disappointment's suddenly replaced by a look of pity. That sort of thing doesn't bother Zeke anymore. He knows he's a little pathetic; he can own his issues.
Own his issues. It's another one of Max's pet phrases. He's reeling in more of this now, and he fumbles for his notebook, irritated. He needs to start writing more of this stuff down. He doesn't have so many friends these days that he can let them get wiped off his slate this quickly.
"So you really forgot me?" Max says, watching him scribble notes to himself, but now it's a teasing tone. "Here, I figured I was unforgettable."
"You are, Max. Trust me," he assures her wryly, "just, like I said. Sometimes it takes a few minutes."
Now she's stirring her own coffee, looking too thoughtful. Which, he figures, is completely understandable. "Okay. You told me once," she ventures, "that you got shot in the head. That that's why you were retired from being a cop and all. Um. This have something to do with that?"
Zeke had been shot in the head. More specifically, repeat fire, point blank to the face. He's never bothered to find out, but he's pretty certain he got the closed-casket treatment. Ros can tell him later; they'll need to air out all of this after they're back together. "Well, uh," is what he says.
"You could have said," she points out.
"Nah, not really a problem," Zeke says. He didn't know it was a problem at the time; he doesn't let it be a problem now. He has other things to worry about. He smiles. "It's all here, I just need to keep dusting it off." It's not a subject he wants to talk about, so he changes it. He's remembering Buster the Second now, too. He was Ash's uncooperative sacrifice, the proof that her plans don't always work out. He hadn't intended the catsitting to be permanent, but he's grateful she kept him. "So how's Buster doing? He's been giving you trouble?"
"No, nooo way, we're golden," she says with a laugh. "Just getting him his booster shots, y'know? Rob was gonna take him over for me, but I had the day off, figured I'd do it myself. So, y'know, it's just weird running into you all of a sudden. Like, what a coincidence!"
Zeke's pretty sure it's not a coincidence. Those don't happen to him often. But he doesn't know what to make of this one.
"So, uh, speaking of, I gotta meet Rob," she says, hastily gulping down the rest of her coffee, "but you gonna stop by the hotel later? I'm still living in the manager apartment. Y'know," she squirms, like a dance move, "see our boy Buster out of the box, you could pick up your stuff?"
"Sure," he says. "I'm in town for a few days. I'd like to drop by."
"All right! Lemme give you the hotel's address," she says, taking it all in stride, just as she always did. She pokes his notebook repeatedly. "C'mon, Stone, write it down!"
When she leaves, she yells, "Hey, Teresita, don't let him forget to pay for me, too!" Zeke shakes his head. Max, subtle like a brickbat. He's missed her. It worries him that he didn't know that.
"A cat's far too much trouble anyway, Mr. Stone, for someone with your busy lifestyle," says the customer on the next seat. "They're such willful creatures. Lazing about, begging for food, always wanting their own way, never doing as they're told. Not like you, Detective."
Zeke ignores that. "One of the tattoos disappeared on its own last month." He'd been on a city bus at the time; Zeke's yelp of surprise and the smell of burning flesh had triggered a minor panic among his fellow passengers.
"Did it, Mr. Stone?" He takes a bite of his piece of chocolate cake, and, after a moment, muses aloud, "I've rather missed the cake here. You're having a hard enough time simply looking after yourself these days, aren't you, Ezekiel? Perhaps you should more graciously accept such interventions."
7. View from a motel in Idaho, October 2003
When he sees Ash again for the first time in five years, Zeke's sitting in a cafe in Boise, Idaho. Suddenly his breakfast doesn't seem so appealing after all. He returns to his motel room, retrieves a faded card from his notebook, and places a call. He doesn't think about how he's going to pay for it; he doesn't care.
Lieutenant Fraker of the Los Angeles police department is now Captain Fraker, and he's out of his office. Zeke is still sitting on the bed, staring at the phone and waiting, when Fraker finally gets around to returning Zeke's call about three hours later.
"Why it's Mr. Zeke Stone," Fraker says. He sounds more satisfied than surprised. "Can't say was I glad to get a call from you. So I-da-ho, is it?" He draws out the syllables, some sort of joke. "That why you haven't been flapping around the edges of my crime scenes like a crow? Those famous potatoes pretty tasty?"
Zeke lets that pass, cuts to the chase. "I was watching CNN this morning."
"So you got one of those newfangled tee-vees up there on the farm? Good to hear!" Zeke bites back the urge to return fire. Somehow he'd forgotten that Fraker only put up with him because of Ash. Zeke shouldn't have.
"It was one of those podium pieces out of D.C." Everywhere Zeke went these days, TVs seemed to be sitting on counters, mounted on walls, blaring away; the cafe this morning was no exception. The camera was on the politician droning on about appropriations and budgets and agendas, then it pulled back. As it panned the anonymous, bored lineup behind him in their folding chairs, Zeke forgot breakfast. Ash was wearing a nice suit; she looked attentive. Ash's hands were neatly folded in her lap, and she applauded in all the appropriate places.
Ash is in fucking Washington, D.C.
"Nice work if you can get it," Fraker says. He sounds wistful. "Department of Homeland Security. The Sarge is doing real good for herself these days. Ditching our L.A. asses and moving on was the right thing to do."
Zeke is speechless for a moment. "You knew about this," he says. "You knew where she was." Zeke's not angry. Angry isn't going to get him what he wants. He can save angry for later.
"'Course I did," Fraker says, like Zeke's an idiot. "The Sarge's stayed in touch with her homeboy. She's been real good about updating her contact info for when I need to go over old cases."
Zeke catches that undertone, a whole working relationship packed into it that he had no part of, that he knew nothing about. He's not sure what to do with that anymore. "She told you not to tell me."
"On the contrary," Fraker drawls at him. "She asked me to let you know exactly where she is and to give you her number -- y'know, if you asked for it." No mistaking the bitter coloring his tone now. "You never did, Stone. Looked to me like once she wasn't useful, you didn't give a shit."
Zeke's misinterpreted the evidence, what he's assumed based on the facts. Zeke forgets that there's other perspectives on all this. He's never once figured what it looked like to Fraker.
Fraker, who doesn't know his partner was a creature from hell. Fraker didn't seem upset after Ash left; he joked about it. Zeke gets it now: Fraker was still talking to Ash. Impartial, noble Ash, woman scorned, who put her job before her feelings, who asked Fraker to keep helping Zeke out regardless. Zeke, the bastard who messed with Fraker's partner.
Zeke twists, looks it from the new angle. The result's pretty conclusive: Fraker hates him.
"Look," Zeke offers lamely, "it was complicated."
"Yeah. I bet everything's complicated for you," Fraker tells him. Zeke can hear the contempt now.
"So why don't you spell it out for me, Fraker?" he says. "What's going on?"
Fraker laughs then; he's still pissed off. "Mr. Stone, maybe you could tell me. How about that? All I know is Sergeant Ash up and quit one day. She was all busted up, gave her notice, walked out on the job, walked out on her cases, walked out on me. She's never said, but it was pretty damned obvious the whole thing had to do with you. And from what I could tell? Just business as usual for you. Nice, Stone. Real nice."
Zeke waits him out, silent, while Fraker takes a breath to collect himself. The equanimity in Fraker's voice is back. "But whatever. I'm just a cop, punching my timeclock, doing my job. I do not know what's going on with you two crazy kids. What I do know is that I'm happy enough that you're not screwing with my cases anymore. I don't want to play the middleman in your little spat with the Sergeant, so take her damn number and do not bother me with this again. You hearing me, Stone?"
"Yeah," Zeke says. "I hear you."
Zeke's burned this bridge down to the bedrock, but mostly Zeke blames Ash for putting Fraker in the crossfire. Zeke writes in his notebook as Fraker recites, office address, telephone numbers. Everything's here; it's been here all along. Ash's had to wait a long time for this trap to spring. She must think Zeke's an idiot by now.
"Listen," Zeke says. "Thanks, Fraker."
"Few years too late for that, Stone." Fraker hangs up on him.
8. View from a motel in Idaho, October 2003
Zeke is waiting for Ash's administrative assistant to put through his call. That's what they call secretaries these days. Zeke's on hold, listening to acoustic guitar; a recording interrupts once in a while to thank him for his patience with the Department of Homeland Security's domestic antiterrorism branch. Ash is something executive now, with a secretary and a calendar and appointments. Ash has desks, and computers, and filing cabinets, and a copy machine, and a coffee maker, and those little office plants. Ash has suits, and an apartment, and a new car. It's a little hard to fill in the blanks on Ash when all Zeke has is a defunct badge, ten dollars, the clothes on his back, and a motel room near an interstate in Idaho to work with, but Ash is giving him plenty of time.
Ash's secretary finally comes back on the line and tells him that the assistant director is still in her staff meeting right now. If he'll leave his number, she'll return his call when she's available.
Ash has coworkers and staff. That's what they call minions these days.
Zeke flips open his ID case to flatten it. He stuffs it and his old driver's license into the Gideon's bible. He drops the book and his notebook into the drawer of the bedside table. The local phonebook, tourist pamphlets, and delivery menus go right back on top.
Ash only makes him cool his heels a half hour.
"Mr. Stone," she says briskly, "what can I do for you?"
"Well, Sergeant Ash," Zeke says.
"Five years ago, Stone," she says, "and I'm busy, so get to the point. What do you want?"
"How you doing these days? Caught you on television."
"I suppose I've been on any number of times," she says. She sighs. "Stone, I have high-level security clearance. Do you have any idea what that means and who you're dealing with? And what have you got?"
"I've got a gun, Ash. I've got your location." He adds, helpfully, "I'm going to kill you."
"Thank you, Zeke. That's just what I needed to hear." She hangs up the phone. Less than a minute passes before the knock on the door. Room service wants to change the sheets. Room service has a deep, male voice.
Zeke gets out his gun; he's already decided on the easiest route. He lifts it, puts two rounds into his heart.
Playing a corpse isn't much of a stretch for Zeke, so he's gone with DOA a few times in the past. The hardest part is remembering he can't scratch his nose.
Zeke also gets bored waiting for the morgue to clear out enough so that he can leave, but he's had a lot worse company. The evidence room attendant berates him, predictably, when Zeke strolls in to pick up his gun, his wallet, and his fingerprint cards.
"With your callous disregard for common sense," he says, "one wonders if you're even trying, Detective."
"Easier this way," Zeke tells him. "Don't have to shoot a lot of people."
"I fail to see why that's any concern," he says. Zeke knows he doesn't, so there's no point in arguing about it.
Zeke stops by the motel to retrieve his stuff, and leaves town tucked into the undercarriage of a semi. He doesn't have everything Ash has, but Zeke's doing all right.
9. View from a phonebooth in Nebraska, November 2003
Zeke picks a phonebooth in Nebraska for the next call. He has a few ten-dollar quarter rolls, some time to kill, and a clear view in all four directions. This time Ash takes his call right away. He's let her make her point; they're done with the exhibition game.
"So I'm informed that your militia group liberated your body from the clutches of the New World Order," Ash says. "Good for you, Stone."
"Sure. I still got friends in low places." He plugs in more change to stave off the recording, and leans against the booth's glass wall.
"He's not your friend, Stone," she points out unnecessarily. "So how was the morgue? Not too cold?"
"Nah, it was fine," he says. He'd been bagged, tagged, and shoved aside, pending a biohazard review. He never bleeds much from that kind of damage; it worries people.
"I wish you'd stayed longer, Stone. I intended to requisition copies of your autopsy photos."
"Do they have support groups for necrophilia, Ash?"
"You tell me," she retorts mildly. "I'm willing to curb my insatiable lust for you, Zeke, to get a better look at those tattoos. I want to see all of them."
"Yeah, I thought maybe you had a tattoo thing. But there's only one that ought to concern you."
"Actually, Zeke, there's only one that should concern you."
Her flat tone sounds like a warning. "What's that supposed to mean, Ash?"
"You're the detective, Detective. Figure it out. Or, I don't know, Zeke, has the brain rot finally set in?"
He doesn't have nearly enough quarters to waste on insults. "So, how's tricks? Guess you're in a good place to find more recruits for your cause, huh."
"My division does document and track domestic terrorists, if that's what you mean," she agrees. "My experience with them from the force in L.A. made me a good choice for this office."
"That's pretty hilarious."
"And, yes, Zeke, it's useful to me," she says, sounding tired, "and the current political climate has helped as well. But none of this is what you want to talk about, is it?"
It's really not. "Listen, Ash--"
"You listen," she cuts him off. "Now you know the kind of access I have. Or were you planning to try carrying that gun into a government building? Or stalking me through the streets of Washington? You can't get to me here."
"I'll wait for the next election. I'm patient."
Ash laughs. "I'm not a political appointee, Stone. Do you still remember those machines they have now, called computers? Find someone to do your homework."
"No, Stone. It's not." Her tone's gone exasperated, and Zeke shifts, uncomfortable. "It's not funny at all. There are things are going on right now, and you have none of the facts. You're blundering around in a mine field. I'm still willing to take you in, you know. You could be useful to me, Zeke."
"Screw politics, Ash. You tried to kill my wife." The connection's getting fuzzy, buzzing in his ear.
"I'm not talking about politics. And she's your widow, Zeke," she says. "I offered to become her. The only way you'll ever have her. You don't even know how much it meant that I offered that, do you? You weren't hearing a word I said. All you could think about was--"
"You smeared blood on Ros's face. You put a knife to her throat. You slept with my wife, Ash. I'm going to kill you."
"Zeke, dammit, for one minute will you just try--"
"You're going back to hell, Ash. I'm sending you there," he says. "Two bullets, both eyes."
"You can't even talk about this, can you?"
"You hurt Ros. No talking." Zeke's shaking; the phone in his hand cracks. "Just dying."
Ash sighs at him. "Very dramatic." But she waits him out.
"So," he asks finally, "you putting me on some sort of watch list?" He's under control again, but this phone booth is never going to recover. The metal shelf is crumpled, and the overhead light's blown for some reason.
"No," Ash says, and he clenches his jaw at her oh-so-patient tone, "I put you on the watch list a long time ago, Stone. Not that you'd board a plane without your gun, but you should be more careful when you're annoying the police at crime scenes."
"Thanks for that," he says.
"My pleasure." Then she says, "I know you think you're different from us, Ezekiel. Obviously you are different in many ways. But in the only way that matters, you're exactly the same. If you ever come to your senses, give me a call."
She hangs up on him. Zeke lurks around the area a little longer, just to see what happens. No one shows up this time to roust him.
The Base of the Mountain
10. View from a payphone in Alabama, March 2004Zeke had remembered the guy's name out of the blue one day, a cop who'd helped him when he'd collected that first soul in New York, back in '98. Zeke'd written it down quickly, before it vanished into the murk of his mind again. He'd put it to use the same day. But it doesn't seem now like it was worth his effort.
Detective William Caine of the NYPD hadn't sounded happy to hear from him again. He isn't being very cooperative, either. Zeke drops more quarters into the slot; this could take a while.
"Look, Caine," Zeke says patiently, "you told me before that you had access to my file."
"Um, Stone, I do, but." In fact, Detective William Caine of the NYPD is sounding jittery. Caine knows why Zeke left the force. He knows where Zeke came from. Maybe that's still bothering him for some reason.
"So you also said before that it had the address where Ros's benefit check goes," he reminds him.
"So you can look it up for me." Zeke remembers now that Caine was a bit slow on the uptake.
"I did," Caine blurts out. "It said those are going direct deposit now."
"I know that already," Stone says. "It's like electronic money. But her new address will be in the file, too."
"That's just it," Caine says, "I can't. Give you the address."
"Can't? Or won't?"
"Either. Both. Listen, Stone, there's this note, a very specific note attached to that file to not give out that address."
"I'm her husband," Stone says. "It's all right to give me Ros's address."
"Stone, listen, okay? I never should have told you that to begin with. I, this note, it says she was being stalked out there, in California."
Ash, of course. Zeke keeps his tone nice and controlled. "Yeah, I know she had a problem with a stalker, Caine. I dealt with that already. But she moved while I was out of town on business. I'm having some problems finding her again now."
Caine makes this weird, strangled noise. "Stone, I appreciate what it is that you do. You know I do. And I know . . . it's tough. But, uh, please. Don't ask me to do this again? Please, just don't."
"Just the state. At least tell me which state, Caine. That's not asking too much."
"I can't give you that address," Caine says. "Stone, I'm sorry."
Zeke rubs his temple, frustrated. Caine knows damn well that Zeke can't call anyone else he knew in the department for the favor. He's dead, after all. "Listen, Caine, whatever you're thinking--"
"We're sorry," the recording informs him, "your call has been disconnected. Please hang up and--" Zeke slams the phone back on the hook. That hadn't been as easy as he'd hoped.
11. View from a ravine in Vermont, August 2005
Zeke learned how to use the term "issues" from Max, back in California. "Issues" is the tactful way to describe his targets' fixations, the leftovers of their lives that are pretty useful for tracking them down. Zeke isn't a tactful guy, though -- "issues" doesn't begin to cover the bugfuck lunacy of Salvadore "Sal" Treviño, who has the appearance of a long-haired, weedy, acne-ridden teenager these days.
Treviño had, Zeke was told by that cart vendor who sold him a hotdog for over thirty bucks in Montgomery, blown up his father's pickup truck back in the nineties with a pipebomb -- while his father, his brother, and two of their hunting buddies were in it. He'd more than earned his extended vacation package Down Under, which Sal got to enjoy after he'd taken a few hits of E and been crushed to death in a mosh pit (whatever the hell those were; Zeke hadn't bothered to ask).
Lacking any more family to blow up, Treviño's extended his "issues" to hunters everywhere. He can be observed in his native habitat, the woods, chasing down and bludgeoning hunters with his weapon of choice, an antler, hollering his favorite imprecation, "Bambi strikes back, motherfuckers!"
Max would probably call this "acting out."
So it's not that Zeke found Treviño difficult to track -- Zeke's not deaf or blind, after all. It's just that the skinny asshole is difficult to catch. One whiff of danger, and he eels off into the damned trees. Treviño also demonstrates his other talent -- a precise pitching arm, backed up by the kind of strength that comes from roasting a while on an open fire.
Zeke scrubs at the mud on his cheek, but he suspects he's just smeared it worse. Zeke likes the city. Zeke is not an outdoorsy type. Zeke, at this moment, hates every twig, rock, puddle, and scraggly bush in the state of Vermont. But Zeke's a generous guy -- he's willing to extend that to the entire Eastern seaboard and beyond.
Zeke doesn't want much. All he asks for is asphalt and smog and rude people and bad coffee. He just wants to take Treviño down and get the hell out of here and find an urban area. A city. Any city. He's not picky.
Treviño isn't being receptive to Zeke's needs. "You fucking tool of the establishment!" Treviño shouts. "You couldn't wait to bend over and sell out, Stone. You collaborationist!"
"Yeah, that'd be me," Zeke agrees drily. Unlike Our Pal Sal over there, Zeke's more than willing to "own his issues." He's checked his notebook; Max explained the importance of that. He slides around another goddamn tree, trying for a line of sight. He should come back with a chainsaw.
"What you are is a murderer, Stone. So I'm gonna beat your head in!"
"Naaah, you got the wrong guy," Zeke calls out. "All I'm saying, is give peace a chance. Make love, not war." Treviño shows his appreciation for Zeke's "reaching out" by launching a rock straight at his head. Zeke figures he's screwed up the lingo again. Zeke dives just as the rock impacts, a missile-velocity explosion, and wood chips rain down.
Zeke decides these trees deserve their hugs after all, particularly this one in front of him right now. Zeke can admit when he's wrong. Max would be so proud.
"Like, you don't even know the meaning of the word freedom, man," Treviño is saying, mid-rant; Zeke missed the beginning. He regrets that deeply. "You're all about oppressing the--"
The booming report and Treviño's shout of rage interrupt whatever inanity would have spilled out next. Shotgun, Zeke thinks, peering cautiously around the tree. Now Treviño's keening a high note of pain -- and, weirdly enough, steaming like a teakettle, from what Zeke can make out.
The other unusual fact of note is that a big-shouldered, scruffy, dark-haired guy in a faded camo jacket is cuffing Treviño's arms back around one of his beloved trees. Zeke steps out from behind his own favorite tree as Scruffy is tucking a sawed-off under his arm and reaching into his inner jacket.
He tugs out a small, leather-bound book, which he balances in his hands along with a metal flask. "You okay?" Scruffy says, leafing through his literature. He eyes Zeke warily.
"Uh, sure," Zeke responds. "Thanks for, uh." He waves a hand at his target. Zeke supposes the gratitude is in order, even though that shotgun under Scruffy's arm is ever-so-casually now pointed Zeke's direction. So Zeke tucks his gun back into the holster and shows some open palms for the cause. He's still open to giving peace a chance.
"No problem," says Scruffy.
"What about me, man?" Treviño demands, turning black eyes on Zeke. "He shot me! I heard you were a cop -- that gun's not even, like, legal! You just gonna let him get away with--"
Scruffy flings some more of the contents of his flask on Treviño, which touches off another bout of ear-rending screams and smoking. "Hippies," he mutters in a disgusted tone, going back to his leafing.
"What is that stuff?" Zeke asks, intrigued.
Scruffy gives him an odd look. "Holy water."
"Huh." Zeke's an old dog now, but he's not averse to picking up new tricks. Holy water's never bothered him, and he's pretty sure others don't sweat it either; his first takedown was hiding as a priest, and Ash torches churches on a regular basis. But some of the damned have a lot more sensitive skin. Could be worth filling up, next time he hits confession. "What'd you shoot him with?"
"Rock salt," he says. He waters Treviño again.
"This is America!" Treviño howls. "I have rights, you fascist pigs!"
"You have the right to remain silent," Zeke says, kicking him, "so shut up already." To Scruffy, he says, "So next comes what? An exorcism?" Scruffy's the farthest thing from a priest he's ever seen, but from the way some of Zeke's tattoos spontaneously flare out on their own, Zeke's been suspecting for a few years that amateurs are on the loose. Obviously, he's just found one.
Zeke picks up the antler that Treviño had been using as a club, and notes that two of the prongs on it are conveniently spaced. Zeke doesn't mind if others want to lend a hand. But Treviño here's number eighty-six, and Zeke's goal's in sight. He doesn't have the time or the patience to mess around.
Scruffy's levering up the shotgun now, never a good sign. "Look, mister, I figured you for another hunter, but if you don't know any of this, then what the hell are you--"
Zeke rams the antler prongs into Treviño's eyes and backs off hastily for the usual fireworks. A tattoo on his left calf sears into life, the nerves frying along with it; it's bye-bye to Sal, hello to whoever's next in line. That and Treviño's passing shrieks are enough distraction to give Scruffy plenty of time to rack another set of shells and get a firm bead on him.
"So," Zeke says, swallowing against rising bile, "a hunter, huh?" He hopes Treviño is appreciating the irony here. "Guess you don't mean moose."
"No," Scruffy says.
But hadn't Scruffy assumed he was one of their merry band at first? That means Scruffy doesn't know all the players either. "So how's that work?" Zeke asks. "You guys got a newsletter or something?" If they've got a Christmas card list, Zeke's been left off.
"No," Scruffy says. Looks like he's short on words, but long on waiting Zeke out. "He said something about you being a cop."
Zeke scratches his muddy check and considers. Nothing Scruffy's packing can hurt him, so it'd be simple enough to walk away. But he has enough people gunning for his hide already; no reason to add another to those ranks if he doesn't have to. And he's curious about what's going on with these guys.
"Used to be," he admits. "I'm Zeke. Zeke Stone. These days, I send damned souls back to hell. I don't have a lot of respect their civil rights, if that's where you're going with this."
"Where I'm going with this," Scruffy says softly, "is that you just killed a person there. Along with whatever the hell you did to that demon."
Demon? Zeke's surrounded by trees, and he's stuck with a religious kook. The perfect end to a beautiful day. Still, Zeke gives a little more thought to the greasy smear left by the late Salvadore Treviño. Zeke's hesitated with some jobs in the past. He's had second thoughts. Every single time -- no exceptions -- they've repaid him by going straight for his throat.
So Zeke may have a lot of those "issues," but this sure as hell isn't one of them. "What I think," Zeke offers, "is that you're not aware of just how dangerous they are."
"I'm aware," Scruffy retorts. His expression hardens into something that reminds Zeke of his employer at his worst.
"Yeah, all right." Zeke helpfully points to the left. "So you also aware of those dead guys over there?"
Scruffy wasn't. Well, his loss for missing the opening credits. Viewing the bodies backs him off Zeke's case a few notches, but Zeke can tell he's still thinking hard. "So, Zeke," Scruffy says. "I'll buy you a drink."
Less an offer, more an order. But Zeke has no objections. He's on a budget here. And most new people he meets try to kill him, not ply him with free booze. That's how he finds himself scrambling back down the mountainside with Scruffy -- and his shotgun -- a sure-footed, grim presence at his back.
At the bottom of the trail, Scruffy places a quick, anonymous call to the cops on one of those hand-held Star Trek phones, and he admits to Zeke, bemused, "I've been tracking him for over a week. I went up that mountain because I thought this was his car."
Zeke kicks the tire of his latest disaster; the last remaining hubcap pops off in protest. This time it's a muddy, rusted-out, pink Ford Pinto. The hatchback's wired to the back bumper, and the passenger-side windows are plastic sheeting duct-taped in place. "It looks like exactly what it is," Zeke grumbles, prying open the driver's side door to toss the hubcap inside, "a punishment."
Scruffy has no idea what to make of that, which is a damned good thing, Zeke thinks. Scruffy's truck is twice the size of Zeke's rust bucket, a hulking black mammoth with an arsenal tucked away in the bed. Zeke's feeling more than a twinge of envy. "Left on the highway," Scruffy shouts directions over the wheezing rattle of Zeke's engine, "two miles down."
"Hey! You got a name?" Zeke shouts back.
Scruffy looks at him warily. "Afraimian," Scruffy finally tells him. "Bert Afraimian."
Though it's a topic Zeke assiduously avoids (because he should have been in diapers then), by Zeke's estimate, this Bert Afraimian's at least five years younger than he is; that's why Zeke suspects more than a few leftover in-country critters are still banging around inside his skull. Because, as it turns out, Bert considers hunting creepy crawlies to be his life's vocation. He grudgingly tells Zeke that his family got hurt by a "demon," which he's after these days. He's just willing to take out anything else that crosses his path. That and a few beers are about all Zeke can get out of him.
Zeke's already admitted that he used to be a cop; beyond that, there's nothing Zeke can add unless he wants another peek at this guy's shotgun. He doesn't.
As Max would have said, it's hard to have a meaningful, sharing dialog of their concerns when neither of them is willing to cede an inch.
So that's where they stall, until Afraimian asks, too casually, "So in all this hunting, you ever seen a demon with yellow eyes?"
Zeke weighs the question. He does know someone with yellow eyes. He's not sharing her. "Nope," he says.
Afraimian looks pretty sour. He seems to think Zeke's not being entirely truthful. Imagine that.
Even so, Afraimian gets up to buy a final round. The guy at the next table sets down his glass of water and leans over to tap Zeke on the shoulder. "Don't doubt your path, Ezekiel," he murmurs. "No matter what he's been saying, you should have faith that you're doing the right thing. Remember that this is also God's work, and you'll be rewarded in the end. Never forget that Rosalyn loves you." Zeke looks over at those flat, empty eyes and the manic grin that goes with them . . . and he turns away. He really doesn't need his own personal cheerleading squad right now.
"Sure," he says.
So a few hours after meeting him, Afraimian's still simmering over Zeke's take-no-prisoners approach. Zeke's pretty confident that Afraimian is one of those high-level, functioning fruitcakes. They aren't coming out of this buddies, but at least Zeke appreciates getting a better picture of his competition.
They're just as likely to turn on Zeke as their "demons" are.
12. View from a motel in Colorado, May 2007
Zeke has a recurring dream. He thinks it started back when he was still in L.A. The details always dissipate when he wakes, but he's had it often enough since to piece together the leftovers. There's Ros. There's Ash. Somehow the two get confused, and he's not sure why or how. That would seriously piss him off, but there's also sex. He's not getting a lot (or any) of that these days, so he doesn't sweat the details.
So Zeke's having that dream again, and he knows it's the dream because Ros is licking his ear. She says, in this low, breathy way, "Wyoming, Stone." That's sufficiently weird, even for Zeke these days, to wake him up a little.
He's holding the phone. Zeke must have answered it in his sleep. He has an intelligent observation to make about that: "Unh?"
"Wyoming," Ros repeats, insistent. Only the voice isn't Ros, it's Ash. It's really Ash; she's on this phone. "Wake up, Stone," she says irritably.
"Ash," Zeke mumbles. As witty repartee goes, he's batting a thousand now. Zeke still dials up Ash once in a while for verbal sparring matches that leave them both cranky. He hates her as much as ever, in a bone-deep way that leaves him shaking when he overthinks it. So Zeke's fully aware of how bizarre this is. He just doesn't really have anyone else he can talk to, and she enjoys opportunities to hang up in his face.
Zeke never tells Ash where he is or what he's doing, but he's not surprised that she's keeping close tabs on his whereabouts these days. Zeke's taken out a lot of her buddies in the past couple of months. Zeke's down to five tattoos.
"Yes, Zeke, Ash," she says patiently. "Are you conscious yet?"
"Uh," he says. He's hoping now that nothing from that dream spilled over the phone from his end. That could be tough to explain.
"As I was saying," she says, "you need to get to southern Wyoming. Today, if possible. You're close enough."
"Close being relative." Zeke's in Colorado; he's spent the last two days being rained on and shot at, and he still hasn't run number five, Mandy Ward, to ground yet. He's really not in the mood for this. "'Bye, Ash. See you soon."
"Zeke, wait." It's an order. He likes that from her. "This is in your best interests."
"Yeah. My best interests are close to your heart," he says. The opposite's true, really; her tattoo's branded right over his.
"Yours and mine, then," she says. "I'm not exactly sure what's going on yet, but it's definitely not in my favor either. If you're smart, you'll head to Wyoming and shoot anything that looks like it came from hell."
"Not on my personal hit list, so I'm not interested, Ash." It's true. Zeke has a contract; he's almost filled it. Any others that have managed to worm their way into the world aren't Zeke's concern. He yawns. The clock's reset itself to 12:00 am; but Zeke's sure it's more like 3:00 am. He'll make sure Ash regrets that, too.
"Try to see the bigger picture here, Zeke?" she says. "I realize you have your limitations, but I think you're still capable of that much."
"Way to win me over," he says. "Really persuasive."
She goes silent. "All right," she says. "I can adjust my plans. You might bear in mind, Ezekiel, that I did warn you."
As usual, she hangs up on him.
Zeke gets his man -- or his woman, in this case -- after another long day of scrambling through the mud and the brush. Ward is a scavenger, not one of the high-level types. She's lasted this long strictly by making herself so goddamned difficult to get to. Zeke's not the outdoorsy type; he's never met a sagebrush he's wanted to tumble. So when her tattoo burns off his backside, he feels a sense of vicious satisfaction. He's pretty sure it's that schadenfreude thing.
So Zeke's worked hard, the job's going well, his boss isn't in evidence, and Zeke's feeling optimistic for the first time in years. He's looking forward to his redemption in the form of one Rosalyn Stone. Finally.
That's why Zeke's so shocked to wake up back in hell. But the shock only numbs the pain for an instant.
He's being skinned again, which happened more than a few times in that not-so-corporal way, so he recalls the feeling fairly vividly. Zeke blacks out eventually. But after a while his nervous system kicks back to life, because his body's sadistic that way. As he waits out the shakes, Zeke knows what's happened.
Zeke's entire body was only branded the one time. It's a concrete memory. He's never going to forget it. So when he can lift his arm again, he already knows what he's going to see.
He's stunned at the sheer unfairness of it.
"As per our agreement, Mr. Stone, as long as one hundred and thirteen of my wayward souls wander the earth, your job is to return them to my gentle, loving embrace." Zeke's on the floor. Lounging on his bed, smoking a cigar, his employer is thumbing through a sheaf of paper. "Would you like to review the terms again?"
Zeke swallows. "No" is what he tries for; what he gets is "Ngh."
He glances down at Zeke. "Is that, no, you do not need to refresh your memory? Or was it some other variety of pointless protest, Detective?"
Zeke licks his lips. He'll have that pointless protest shortly. Very soon. He's working on it right now.
"Fortunate, really, in these situations, that an experienced contractor is already on site," he tells Zeke. He sets aside his papers, and puffs a few smoke rings. He eyes Zeke curiously. "I'm pleasantly surprised, Detective. I would have expected you'd have far more to say, in your characteristic manner."
Zeke manages a single finger. He's screwed. Zeke knows he's screwed. He should have known from the start that he was going to be screwed somehow. That's the way these things go. Worse, Ash had tried to warn him; Zeke can blame her. Beats blaming himself for being so naive.
Zeke gives himself the time he needs. He makes damn certain he can get this out clear. "This," Zeke grates out, "is a . . . nonsmoking room."
He grins back at Zeke, delighted.
13. View from a bar in Ohio, July 2007
The cook leans over the counter and stabs his knife down in middle of Zeke's sushi roll with an ominous thunk. "O-hayou-gozaimasu, Stone-kun."
Zeke prods his murdered sushi sadly with his finger. "Ohio?" he says.
"Toledo," the cook agrees, freeing his knife. He flicks it through his hands in a flashy display, then adds, "That is, if it's not too much trouble, given your busy schedule of loafing here in Atlantic City."
"Dunno. Lemme check my dance card." Stone's tired of New Jersey anyway. It's too far from California, too close to New York City. He's been ready to leave since he stepped over the state line two weeks ago. "I'm not going to take down Zozicki," he admits. "Not this time."
"So I've also come to conclude, Detective. The fleetness of your flat feet has never been legend, but lately they've become positively leaden."
"Maybe I'm depressed?" he muses aloud. He pushes up a sleeve and runs a finger over his tattoos. Nothing he can do about them but try to get rid of them; these days, each one is replaced as soon as he's wiped it. Zeke seems permanently stuck at one hundred and thirteen. He doesn't know how many are really out there. He has no way to find out. "Could be the company I keep," he notes.
"You're depressed? What have you got to be depressed about, Mr. Stone? I am the one saddled with the lazy employee who downs tools at the drop of a hat."
"It wasn't a hat," Zeke says. "It was a steel I-beam, and he dropped it from ten stories over the street."
"But the practical difference would be what?" the cook inquires.
Zeke picks up his mutilated sushi, stuffs it in his mouth, and chews contemplatively. "Toledo. That's where Zozicki's run?"
"Why, no, Ezekiel, I've decided that someone of your evident skill should explore a more challenging career--" he pushes a takeout bag across the counter "--as a delivery boy." He whisks Zeke's plate away before he can nab his final roll. "Your total comes to $36.27."
"Yeah? Just so you know, the service here sucks," Zeke says, rooting for his wallet. "No tip for you."
Zeke helps himself to the contents of the bag while he leans by the side of the highway, occasionally sticking out a thumb. He figures he should have enough for a bus ticket again once he's a few states closer to Ohio. The order stapled on the bag has an address.
The address is a bar, and that's where he finds her lurking, right on schedule. Long, blonde hair, thin in an expensive way, snappy dresser, attitude on tap. He homes in on her immediately; no woman looking that sharp would be taking up space in a sleepy dive like this. He, as usual, fits right in.
Zeke thinks he's being typecast by his director. It's not the first time he's played this scene, it's not the twentieth time; he falls back on the script by rote. Zeke sidles by her, heads for the back, runs the pool table a few times to clean out the rubbernecking locals. Eventually curiosity wins, just as it always does; she stops trying to drain the bar dry and free the world of its cheese fry supply to make her own way back.
See, if there's one thing the dead love, it's a really obvious come on. Makes 'em feel wanted, Zeke guesses. He knows she's not as drunk as she pretends -- or even drunk at all; booze doesn't affect their kind. Still, he takes it easy on her.
She doesn't return the favor. Fifty bucks of his hard-earned cash down, he asks her, "So what's your name?"
"Who's asking?" she says scowling prettily at the break.
"Zeke," he says. He donates a grin to the cause.
"Zeke who?" She doesn't look impressed.
"Well, Zeke Stone, you are one ragged-ass excuse for a player," she points out. She drapes herself over the table again and lets him survey her landscape. It's a nice spread of land, if a little on the lean side. Zeke doesn't mind. She pockets her final ball.
"I've been hearing that a lot lately," he admits. "But lucky for me, I make up for it in other areas."
"I do." That echo of another place, another time, another woman makes him wince, and he needs a few quick seconds to recover. He doesn't need that happening. Not here, not now.
She's studying him narrowly through the haze of cigarette smoke. "Ruby," she tells him at last. "Buy you a drink?"
"Nah, I'm good." He tilts his beer.
"So, Ezekiel. I'm curious about those other areas of expertise," she says. "Wanna take this elsewhere?"
"Might be open to that."
He guesses that declining a drink with a girl so obviously out of his league was the tip off. That's even though he let her grope him a bit along the way. He wanted to take it somewhere more private, too.
Shooting women in the face goes smoother with some privacy, he's found.
The back door slamming shut and snapping his wrist is a lesson in the rewards of being a gentleman. She had the drop on him the instant he drew; Zeke feels slow, a lot slower than normal. The knife that's pressed against his throat is burning in an unfamiliar way. He's not sure which is more disturbing, being a millimeter from losing his head or how much he's amused by it.
"It's not you, Zeke, it's me," she's saying. "I'm not in a good place for a relationship right now."
"Yeah, well, I wasn't planning for the long term either," Zeke admits.
"And you just handed me your name when I asked for it," she says, disgusted. "You know, I'd heard that you were kind of dim, but Jesus Christ!" Stone chuckles -- her swearing just flicked her own eyes over. "Are you retarded?"
"It's just my friendly personality."
"So why the hell are you coming after me, Stone?" she demands.
"Dunno," he says. It's easy enough to concede. "I don't make the list, I just collect the property."
"I'm one of your marks?" That completely throws her for a moment, but she gets over it just as quickly, so no opening there. "Gee, hell's repo man, no questions asked. Real classy there, Zeke."
"I try and I try," he tells her sadly, "but I just can't seem to chin up to you guys' gutter." The knife slices in a little deeper, and now that burn's intensifying. Something is definitely off about this knife. Ruby's carved hers up all pretty like one of Ash's -- must be one of those girl things, he supposes -- but hers is packing one hell of a bigger bite.
"Okay," Ruby says. "Listen, Sparky. You got some balls trying to take me on, but you ever try this again, I'm serving them up to you on a plate." Then she knees him in the aforementioned balls like a pile driver, enough to make even him double over.
He's busy sliding down the wall when she flips the knife into a sheathe behind her back, which he hadn't picked up on in the bar; now he's really wondering at how far he's off his game. She helps herself to his gun with her other hand, all one smooth motion. Zeke's impressed, in that tiny portion of his brain that's not convinced that he's dying again. She's popped the clip, yanked the slide to eject the one in the chamber, and is examining the works with a look of intense concentration. He lets her. He's magnanimous that way.
"Take it . . . you're one of the older ones." He only gasps a little when he says it, so he's calling it a win.
She flicks him a sour glance. "So-so," she says. "Nice gun. This work on you?"
"Hasn't yet." The one time someone tried, it jammed instantly.
"Huh." She doesn't go for a practical demonstration. Instead, Ruby pokes at the gun a while longer. She holds up the round from the chamber like a jeweler inspecting a gem. "Yeah, I get it," she mutters to herself. "This could work."
Whatever that means. He's not quite resigned to getting stamped Return to Sender yet. His wrist is knitting back together on schedule so he'll be ready to do . . . something. Shortly. For now, he goes with a leg sweep.
Which she easily avoids; unlike Zeke she doesn't have the coordination of a toddler. "It's your lucky day. If it wasn't for this," she says, reassembling what she's pried apart and slapping the clip back into place, "you'd be more trouble to me than you're worth. As it is, though, you're pretty damned convenient." She tosses Zeke's M9 back into his lap; before he can react to that, she's crouched down on her tottery heels and snaked out manicured fingers to break his left wrist again.
Second time around hurts as much as he'd expected.
"Sure you're not forgetting something?" It's not that Zeke wants to go back to hell; but he knows how this ends, and he's getting impatient with the floorshow.
She snorts. "I don't think so. You're harmless enough." That doesn't hurt Zeke's feelings. He's pretty sure that's not her reason. He's right. "See, the other thing I'd really, really like to know," she says, going for faux sultry, "is which of these assholes is pulling your strings. Lots of speculation on that front, Zeke, believe it. Wish I had the time to pry it out of you, but I've got places to be. Stay off my back, and you'll live longer -- or whatever the hell it is you call what you do."
She pats his cheek. "So let's do lunch sometime, huh? Kiss, kiss." She straightens back to her feet, gives herself a leisurely stretch, and saunters off down the alley alone. Fifteen minutes later, give or take, he'll be ready to try that himself. Probably.
Zeke gets comfortable and meditates on the cracked asphalt. Once he's got the complete set of bad-attitude blondes, he's trading them in for a brunette who actually matters.
The back door to the bar opens, and the guy who'd been playing pool at the next table steps out into the alley. He eyes Zeke critically. Then he leans over and starts rummaging through Zeke's pockets.
"Rolling me for my fortune? Little late. I got maybe five bucks left," Zeke points out.
"Don't be ridiculous, Detective." He plucks a small, dirty-looking cloth bag from Zeke's jacket pocket. "Hex bag, Mr. Stone. I'd think, given your past misadventures, you'd be slightly more wary of letting yourself be pawed by your clientele. Next time, at least try to avoid being cursed?"
"Huh." Zeke's sliced up neck is finally starting to seal up again. He supposes he's lucky that his employer looks more amused than ticked off this time. Though Zeke's damned if he knows why.
No, wait, Zeke corrects himself. He's damned anyway.
The Path up the Mountain
14. View from a diner in Michigan, November 2008
The hashbrowns here aren't bad, but Zeke's still not certain why he's sitting in this diner in the Upper Peninsula. The tourist season's over, so he has no real competition for his chance to enjoy the weird, nursery decor at the Huggy Bear Motor Court on the outskirts of Reiff; he's only sharing the parking lot there with an SUV hauling a boat, a black sedan that looks like an old decommissioned police car, and a blue pickup truck. Zeke's own contribution is his latest company car, an evil variation on the Corvair convertible line, which he's "leased" for the princely sum of $36.27. It belched black smoke, flaked sheets of rust all the way to town, and generally seems determined to live up to its 'unsafe at any speed' reputation.
Zeke's sending it straight back to hell's motorpool at the earliest opportunity.
The other customers in the diner are the usual assortment. There's a loud, middle-aged, balding guy with a beer-belly occupying a stool at the counter, regaling the cashier with a story about "Old Foggy," whatever that is. Zeke doesn't want to know, and the cashier seems to share Zeke's opinion; she looks more interested in the TV set tucked under the counter, which Zeke can barely hear in the pauses in Beer-Belly's story. There's an elderly couple eating breakfast, two tables down from Zeke, and two women along the window in a booth have a pint-sized girl sharing one bench and a toddler shoved up against their table in a high chair; he's flinging the contents of his plate around with all the enthusiasm of a future major leaguer. His mom keeps absently adding more from her own plate. The guy at the table right next to Zeke's is confidently working on his morning crossword in ink.
Most of the business here seems to be carryout though; people have been passing in and out to grab bags of donuts and coffee since Zeke arrived.
Aside from Beer-Belly at the counter and his fog fixation, as far as Zeke can tell, everyone seems to be speculating in low tones about the sirens that went out about forty-five minutes ago.
"Hmm," Mr. Crossword hums to himself. "Twenty-six across, 'The worst sort of renown,' starts with N."
Zeke considers it. "Notoriety?"
"Only eight more letters," he muses aloud. "But 'notorious' would fit." He jots down the letters in blood red ink.
Zeke's waitress, "Hi-I'm-Angie," is clattering over to him in her jeans and clogs with a carafe to refill his coffee. She looks like she wants to say something; Zeke tries to look receptive.
Apparently he's succeeded. "Um, aren't you, uh, hot?" she blurts out.
Angie's wearing a sleeveless tee-shirt under her apron, and he can see now that she's been sweating lightly. Zeke glances around and notices that he's the only one here who's actually dressed for November in Michigan. "Nah," he says, "I'm cold-blooded. Medical condition."
"Oh," she says, flushing red. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have--"
"No, it's okay, I'm used to it. Guess this weather's not really typical for up here."
"God, no. No no, it's totally not," she says, clearly relieved at the subject change. "And second year in a row, eh. It's got to be that global warming."
Zeke doesn't know what that global warming is. He's willing to concede her point though; so he obligingly starts to shrug off his overcoat. He's still got the hooded sweatshirt, the sweater, and his long-sleeved shirt on underneath it; those have to stay on, for obvious reasons. Another car pulls into the parking lot outside the window, and everyone's glancing up because it rivals his own disaster-on-wheels for decibels. He recognizes it from the motel, the black sedan with the Ohio plates.
Angie the clothes critic seems to be more of a fan of the office look. Zeke figures this from her sudden intake of breath and the way she's riveted by the two guys who've climbed out of the car, straightening suits and adjusting neckties. Angie hightails it back to the counter, smoothing her hair.
The guy at the next table glances over at Zeke. "How about 13 across? Five letters, 'The usual circumstances at work'?"
"Any letters?" Zeke mutters back.
"The second letter is N."
Zeke pokes at his eggs with his fork. "I dunno. Try SNAFU."
"Ah. Perhaps." He pushes up his glasses and hunches over his paper, writing.
The bell over the door chimes, and the two suits walk in, one slumping a little to ensure he clears the space; Zeke's not short himself, but this guy's a super-sized package. Giant's pocket immediately begins to tick and shriek; both guys stop dead in their tracks and stare at each other. Everyone else in the diner is pretty interested at the racket, too.
"It's mine," Giant mutters, turning on his heel and darting back out the door, fumbling in his jacket pocket. The other guy grins a general apology to the room, and strolls toward the next booth down from the moms. Outside, Giant's got one of those tiny phones pressed to his face. He opens the back door of their car and leans in, rummaging around in the back seat.
Angie's homed in on Other Guy like a guided missile, and now they're talking about the board on the wall and the morning's specials. He's ordering for both of them. He's also checking out everyone in the diner in the same low-key way Zeke had. His eyes skate over the elderly couple, the guy at the next table, and Zeke, lingering over the coat on the back of Zeke's chair, then he moves on to the booth with the moms and their kids, where Junior All-Star has progressed from pitching bits of bacon to fingering his hashbrowns. Other Guy's expression goes tight after he gets to the moms.
Zeke's pretty interested in the newcomers, too. He recognizes those bulges in their jackets; they're both carrying.
"Seventeen down, five letters, second letter U, ends with an R: 'Another day on the job.'" Mr. Crossword is still at it.
Zeke thinks it over. "FUBAR," he says curtly.
Giant comes back in with a trenchcoat over his arm, just as Angie launches herself away from their table and back to the counter with the order; the two briefly waltz to avoid a collision. He's apologizing, Angie's simpering, everyone's fascinated.
Zeke's especially fascinated by that glimpse of shotgun under the trenchcoat that he's just gotten.
Giant slides into the booth across from Other Guy, and they shift around finding space for their legs. Beer-Belly at the counter clears his throat loudly, and both look up.
"So you guys, you're those FBI guys eh," he calls.
Silence reigns. They both look disconcerted. "Uh, yeah. Yes," Giant says repressively.
"You're looking into Steve, then?" Beer-Belly says. Everyone's waiting for their answer.
"We're looking into it," Other Guy says. Then he grins weakly. "But not until after Angie feeds us." Angie's clearly pleased.
"So what about those sirens this morning?" says one of the moms at the next table. She looks pretty anxious. "What was that all about? Did the Satan worshipers do something again?"
"We can't really talk about that," Giant says quickly. "Your local police will be releasing a statement. You'll have to wait for that."
No one looks happy with that response except the guy at table beside Zeke, who chuckles over his paper.
"It's Old Foggy," Beer-Belly mutters. "I'm just saying."
Zeke goes back to his own interrupted breakfast, and mulls over his own observations. He had to deal with FBI occasionally back in New York. Zeke doesn't know who the hell Giant and Other Guy are, but he's pretty sure they're not FBI agents. But that shotgun sparked a memory; that guy in Vermont. Zeke's thinking these two could be the same type. He's encountered a few others like that since then. He slips his notebook out of his pocket and pages through it as he eats. Zeke's having trouble recalling the details, but he probably wrote them down.
"Which leaves us with 13 down, 'The opposite of the hard place.'" Zeke hears the smile. "Starts with an S. Five letters."
"Stone," Zeke says. He sighs and sets down his fork.
"Oh! Verrry good, Mr. Stone," he says approvingly. "All nicely boxed in now."
"What's your point?" Zeke stares at him. "Look, I'm here, aren't I?"
"So many failures of late. Yet here you are. Enjoying your repast with not a care in the world. I'm forced to ask myself, Mr. Stone, if you're truly committed to my cause."
Zeke snorts. "The employee benefits could use some work. Maybe I'm lacking incentive."
"Completely understandable. I can see how you'd tire of all this," he says, a significant nod to the window. "And, of course, you've made so many new friends over the years. You must miss them. I know they'll be so gratified to welcome you back to your fetid little corner of the inferno."
The newspaper slaps onto Zeke's table, nearly upsetting his coffee. Zeke angles his head to read the red-inked boxes.
"Consider it your performance review, Ezekiel," he says, getting up. "Have a nice day."
"Thanks," Zeke says, reaching for the paper. He unfolds it. The front page is devoted to a body found out at Malaise Wilderness Area. A quick glance at the letters to the editor tell him that what he's heard in the diner sums up the local opinion on the matter (Satan worshipers), though some woman's complaining about something else (goats).
Zeke counts out his tip, and grabs his coat. He ignores the attention his leaving appears to merit from Laurel and Hardy over in the booth. He's got a call to make.
15. The view from a payphone
"Got a problem," Zeke says, no preamble.
"Hello to you, too, Stone," says Ash drily. "So tell me, why do I care?"
"Two FBI agents," he tells her, "in Michigan."
"Why are you in Michigan, Stone?"
"You know why." He doesn't say, I've got some errands to run before I keep our appointment in Washington. That's understood.
"Fine," she concedes. "Why are they in the area?"
"Been some deaths. Unusual ones." Exactly the kind of thing that tends to precede Zeke's arrival in a town. She already knows that. "We're talking dot on the map here. I want you to keep 'em off my back."
"Now," she says, "tell me the part you're leaving out."
Ash is familiar with how Zeke operates, a lot more than he's comfortable with. "They're playing legit for now, but I'm pretty sure they're ringers," he admits. "Locals don't have any experience with feds. I need to outrank these two, fast." Zeke isn't entirely sure what game they're playing, but he doesn't need them directing the wrong kind of attention at him while he figures out his latest target. Ash is holding the trump card these days; Zeke can use that.
"Hmm." Even over the phone, over a distance of hundreds of miles, Zeke feels the quality of her attention shifting in his direction, turning over what he just told her. Zeke knows why she ought to be interested -- if she was who she pretends to be. Why she's actually interested worries him a little, but that's over his paygrade. "All right," she says finally. "I think this may be useful for me, too. Tell me where to overnight the paperwork."
"Yes, Stone. They can do that now."
"What are you sending?"
"Temporary civilian contractor status with my agency," she says. "Liaison with local law enforcement, clearance you need to access our databases and the ones we're tied into. Better make the best of it, Zeke. This offer's good for one week only." Then she gives a long-suffering sigh. "Just promise me you won't shoot any library terminals. Let the cops do the computer searches for you?"
Zeke grits his teeth, gives it a pass. "Tell me what you want in return, Ash." Removing her name from his hit list is off the table; she knows better than to even bring it up.
"Nothing, Stone. You've asked me for my help. You know I never could refuse a request from you."
"Shove it." Zeke's not willing to hash out their relationship long distance. He intends to do that in person. "What's the exchange rate here?"
"I meant what I said," she says. "More or less. A lot of things are going on right now that don't concern you, Stone. You've made it clear you don't want to be involved. So just keep hunting down your strays, stay out of my way, and we're good for now."
Zeke doesn't like it, but he has to let it go. Asking for help from Ash is galling enough; she's not going to tell him whatever she's holding back. He gives her the name of the town and the address of his motel. As long as Ash has a vested interest of some kind in a job, Zeke trusts her not to turn on him.
He's got a week with Ash's sufferance before they're back to open season.
16. View from town hall
The local municipal building, a squat brick building with a garage along one side, houses the local government of the town of Reiff. What passes for the volunteer fire department and ambulance service, the police station, and a collection of other offices all share the space. Zeke's arrival at the police counter prompts a minor meltdown for the clerk, who's also the dispatcher. She's pretty young and heavily pregnant, and she looks like she's had about as much as she can take today; she passes Zeke straight into the hands of the marshal without any argument.
The marshal is a different story. He eyes Zeke over his desk. "We got this fax saying a lee-ay-son was coming in," he says, drawling it out, mildly hostile. No offer to shake hands. Zeke wonders if Ash knows how people react to her agency; he can definitely work with this. The marshal pushes a stapled sheaf of papers across his desk, and Zeke can see the coversheet, all official and governmental, has "Don't screw around on my dime, Zeke" in Ash's no-nonsense scrawl at the bottom. "Ezekiel Stone. That you?"
"That's me," Zeke says easily. "Rest of my ID stuff shows up tomorrow, if that's a problem." He scratches his cheek; he's deprecating. "Thing is, I got drafted. Friend's tip line got a call, and she knew I was up here on vacation. I'm a retired cop; we worked together for a while. So she asked me to drive over and take a look. See if it's anything her agency needs to get involved with."
"Domestic antiterrorism?" The marshal looks a little incredulous. Zeke can't blame him.
"Yeah, well," Zeke says, he doesn't have to feign the embarrassment now, "Satanists apparently qualify these days. But just between you and me . . ."
"Yeah, okay, got it," the marshal says, and he laughs. This is the reaction Zeke's aiming for. "Retired cop eh. Kinda young for that, aren't you?" The marshal's in his fifties. Zeke's about ten years older than him.
"Pensioned, actually. Got shot."
"Huh." The marshal chews that over.
"Anyway, yeah, detective squad, New York City," Zeke says, shrugging his whole career away. "Listen, I just want to look over the files and stay out from under your feet. If you do want any help, I'm already around, so that'd be no problem." Zeke's in; he can see that. So he adds, "Looks like you've already got more help than you can stand though." The expression on the marshal's face tells him that his competition hasn't made the best impression.
"FBI," he says, snorting. "So you're not with them?"
"Nah. They're still a separate agency." That much Zeke knows; he's been reading up on Ash's new job. "Staying out from under their feet, too."
"Well, I'd sure like to know what that's all about," he says. So would Zeke. He really would.
"Anyway, you're just in time for two more bodies," the marshal says. He's unhappy, and Zeke's unhappy to hear that. "We got an anonymous call this morning. Two more deaths out at the campground."
"The same one?" says Zeke. "That's Reiff Ravine, right?"
"That's the one."
"It doesn't close for the season?"
"Nah, Forest Service runs it. That one's what they call primitive facilities. Old Steve worked for the Forest Service's contractor, and he was maintaining the place," he says heavily. Zeke recognizes the name, Steven Turner, their first body. Sounds to Zeke like the marshal knew him. "Someone left that goddamn gate open, and these two came in and set up camp in there. They probably didn't even notice it was a crime scene 'cause the tape was over on the other side of the loop."
"Okay." Zeke's not sure what this "loop" is, but he can clear that up later. He waits for the rest, but the marshal's just shaking his head. Zeke prompts him. "Same deal as before?"
"Yeah. Both of them. We've IDed them from their driver's licenses. Scott and Stacy Lawrence out of Iowa City. Now we're just waiting for the state police to finish their workup."
"Okay," Zeke says. "I might take a look, too, if that's not a problem."
"Right now," he says heavily, "everything is nothing but problems."
Zeke can see his point, but Zeke's less interested in who's been killed than in who he has to kill. "Your files will probably be enough for me."
Zeke takes his copies back to his room to read. He tries to ignore his surroundings, but it's a challenge. There are pastel animals dancing on the wallpaper and coverlets. There are stuffed bears on the beds. He eyes one of the bears. If he pokes out their eyes, will this whole place be swallowed into hell? Worth speculating, but not worth trying -- he still needs somewhere to sleep tonight.
Outside, on the opposite side of the court, he can see his fake FBI agents in their natty suits come and go, separately and together. They're obviously Zeke's competition, a couple of "hunters." But otherwise Zeke has no idea what they're doing. If they get there first, it'll just save him time. One way or the other, someone's going back to hell, as soon as Zeke can arrange it.
17. View from a keyboard
Zeke's back late the next morning with Ash's envelope in hand. Letters really can be delivered overnight across the country now; Zeke wonders how he missed that one. He's read over his own copies of the police files, and he's not clear on how any of this relates to his own work yet.
"So," he says to the clerk at the desk, same woman as the day before. "FBI buddies been in yet?"
Unlike the marshal, she looks pleased. "Agents Geddy and Tyler?" she says. "This morning! They are really nice guys."
"Yeah, I'll bet," Stone agrees. Looks like they're building a local fanclub. "Listen, I need to fill in more information in my own files. You got any hits on that partial print from the campground?"
"Um, yeah, that's . . . but it wasn't any good." She's sorting through the stacks of folders on her desk. "Five potentials, but three are dead, one was deported to Guatemala a month ago, and the other guy's in prison."
Zeke's very happy to hear that. "I should get the file information on them anyway. Did you guys print it out?"
She looks up, startled. "Uh, no. We didn't need them. We don't actually have access to some of those records here, so we just asked--"
"How about I get all of them just for my files then?" he says. He holds up his stuff from Ash. "Could you maybe give me a hand?" Zeke's only interested in three of them, but he'll take them all as a diversion.
Maybe Zeke's not in the same league as tall, dark, and FBI, but she's very willing to give him a hand. Her name's Susan, she's married a tree surveyor for the Forestry Service, and she has a degree in art history, which has prepared her well for this illustrious career managing the desk of the police cubbyhole in the Reiff Town Hall. "But it's okay," she tells him. "My husband's job pays more than anything I could get, and we love living here, so close to the outdoors."
Zeke smiles stiffly. He tries to look like he "relates." He really, really doesn't.
She's already printed up the summaries of the records that are available from the national crime database. She's looking at her watch. "I need to go out and grab lunch for everyone. Two of the dead guys are stored on the FBI database only. Do you really have access to that?"
Zeke waves his paperwork. "I really do. Tell you what. I haven't used it before either. If you want to go ahead and show me how to get in, I guess I can figure out what to do from there?" He probably can't, but he'll give it a shot.
"Sure! I'll get you started here. I'll be right back if you have any trouble."
He's sure he's going to have trouble. But he watches her follow Ash's directions to pull up the Bureau's database; then she heaves herself off the chair and sits him down in her place. Susan patiently shows him how to enter the security passcodes.
"So," she says, "it's easy. You enter the case numbers here," she points, "and that pulls up the individual record, right? It's pretty much like you saw me do with the other one, right? There will be a print option on the screen. It automatically routes that to our printer, right?"
"Right," he says. Zeke has no clue. She abandons him anyway.
Zeke moves the little pointer, he presses the button, he hopes to hell something happens. Nothing does.
But he's cultivating laid-back, here. He works with it. After he finally figures out how to enter the case number, the first record comes up. "Hello, Mr. Alcala," Zeke mutters, peering at the information. Kidnapper, armed abduction, died in prison. "You're a possible." He points and clicks a bit more, manages to startle the hell out of himself when the machine behind him begins to churn out paper again. Zeke can do this after all.
"Next," he decides. He enters the other case number, and a few moments later, his next dead felon appears. Zeke stares.
Samuel Winchester, former denizen of the Most Wanted list, died earlier in the year in Colorado while in federal custody. Bank robbery, B&E, resisting arrest, credit card fraud, weapons charges, and escaped felon, among other fun activities.
But the best part is the mugshots -- of the so-called Agent Tyler.
"Huh," says Zeke to himself. "Gotcha."
Winchester's record is linked to a second one -- which turns out to be his brother, who died at the same time. Zeke followed that link, already knowing what he'd see: "Agent Geddy," his various expressions ranging from bored to asinine in mugshots from across the country. His record is even more entertaining. He's a suspected serial killer, for one thing, which made him a much higher placer than his brother on the FBI's wish list.
"So you two are partners in crime, huh," Zeke mutters. But what makes these two something other than Zeke's usual day at the office is what's seriously pissing him off: Both are satanists with militia ties -- and a long-term addiction to grave desecration.
These two are Ash's. Obviously.
So they're Ash's, but not on her good books if she's using Zeke to mop them up. Zeke still isn't sure which of them is his intended dance partner this week, but he'd have to collect the other eventually. So Zeke's fine with a two for one job. First, he'll find out what they know about Ash's operation. Then he'll kill them. Zeke's going to enjoy this.
The lights flicker, and the screen blanks out. Zeke looks around, startled. "Um. Okay," he mutters, "what did I do?" He pokes at the keyboard a little, cautiously. Nothing happens. It looks dead.
Zeke feels oddly good about that. He's finally returned something to hell this month.
But Susan is deeply distressed. "Oh man, I'm so sorry. We do have surge protectors on everything, but this rode right over them," she tells him. "It's crazy. Lights in the whole building, too. You must have been pretty surprised."
"A little," he agrees. He doesn't know what a surge protector is.
"Did you get everything you needed before it happened?"
"Yeah," he says, "I sure did."
"I do keep a backup of the system, but this is awful. We just got this machine, and we don't really have the budget to replace it before the insurance clears." She sighs. "Back to the old one, I guess."
"I kind of feel responsible," Zeke says. For all he knows, he is. He has no idea how the damned things work. "I'd like to help. How about I replace that for you -- and anything else that needs it?" He holds up the paperwork that Ash had sent along; he's pretty sure Ash's secretary included some of this stuff as a matter of course. She couldn't have known that Ash would never willingly hand all of this over to him. "Expense account with a federal agency," he says, smiling. "That sound helpful to you?"
Zeke admires that gleam in Susan's eye. He hopes Ash's budget will appreciate it, too.
Zeke's been taking lessons from the best.
18. View from a campground
When Zeke consulted the discarded newspaper from the previous day, the crossword made it pretty plain. One of the 'down' clues is "Rebel without a cause"; the answer to that one, partially written in black ink like the rest, intersects with those four words inked in red:
Zeke has to smile. He hadn't doubted it, but now he's positive he's on the right track. If he throws in the bonus brother, that should put him back where he needs to be.
He's back to watching his "agents," but with more intent now. They shuttle back and forth, from room to car, car to room. They'd come back in suits; but they'd left in flannel shirts and jeans. They returned with pizzas. Nothing they've done so far makes any more sense in view of them being Ash's. He'll figure that out later.
Zeke can't decide when to take them down, frankly. He'd prefer separately; unlike yesterday, they seem to be joined at the damn hip now. Worse, they've begun to look wary, scanning the parking lot every time they leave their room. He wonders if they know they're being hunted. He wonders if Ash has set him up.
A phone call or message attempting to lure one away wouldn't work in that case. He needs to keep any element of surprise he might have left.
Zeke prefers deserted areas. Somewhere other than in the motel or the middle of town. There are quiet ways to put out eyes, but taking on two at once needs firepower, and these two are also armed. He's thinking through the alternatives, but he's not hitting on any good options. Zeke may have to trail them to another town where they'll separate again, as they did yesterday. He doesn't bother to kick himself over that; he hadn't known then.
Late afternoon comes on, and the two climb back into their car and pull out of the lot again. They're not checking out; they don't stop at the office. The Do Not Disturb sign is still hanging from their knob. But a car that resembles a rolling dumpster and sounds like a freight train isn't a surveillance vehicle, so Zeke has to let them go for now.
Zeke mulls this over.
He could check that campground they've been so interested in. If they're out there, it's a stroke of pure luck for Zeke. He's got the maps and layout of that area in with the police files. Zeke hadn't bothered with them before, beyond cursory glances.
Zeke coaxes his uncooperative car out of town, and down the gravel road that passes by the Rieff Ravine turnoff. He finds a place to pull over near a gaudy sign that proclaims "Gifts! Goats! Firewood $3 (5 MI)" farther along.
"You're going back, too, jackass," Zeke reminds his car when he gets out. He slams the door, hard. "Only a matter of time before I put you down. You're cutting your furlough from hell shorter each time you stall on me or pretend the battery's dead."
The car just creaks ominously at him. It doesn't heed good advice; they never do.
Zeke walks back to Rieff Ravine. It's already starting to get dark and a dank mist is rising, none of which is a problem for him; it probably will be for them. He spots their car before he sees the Winchesters; it's parked near the open turnstile gate by the campground's notice board. Zeke steps off into the trees to work his way closer. They're standing on the loop road by the water spigot.
First, he hears Dean Winchester's voice. "No, I already--"
The annoyed huff belongs to Sam Winchester. "Just put it on, Dean. The Lawrences were both wearing bear bells."
Dean throws up his arms. "Flashlight, bug spray, cute bell, is there anything else you want me to wear, Sam? Can I borrow your sparkly tiara?"
"No one's going to know you weren't cool hiker guy. We're the only ones out here."
Zeke isn't certain this is the ideal time to prove how wrong that is. He still wants to know what they're doing for Ash out here. And if he's wrong, if they're not Ash's . . . Zeke still wants to know what the hell they're doing.
"No one wants to be cool hiker guy, Sam. That's the whole point. Why would anyone want to be in the damn woods unless they're hunting?" A sentiment Zeke wholeheartedly agrees with. "Where'd you get this one anyway? I never seen one like this."
"Well, actually . . ."
Winchester's voice goes dark with suspicion. "What is this, Sam?"
"Look, Laurie Holden told me that one of her goats . . ."
"Holden? As in Down-the-Road-There Holden? Herbal Tea Holden?" Dean says, sounding incredulous. "You stole her goat bell?"
"No, I confiscated it. It's evidence," Sam says, sounding irritated. "Of a crime."
"A crime against goats."
"It's a crime in the eyes of the law, Dean."
"We aren't the law, Sam," he retorts. "You do remember that, right? And you told me it wasn't chupacabra. You gave me all these reasons. So why the hell are you putting a goat bell on me?
"It's not a chupacabra, Dean! We're in Michigan."
"Mosquitoes don't have ears, Sam!"
"It's a spirit possession! It's, it's a -- just wear the damn bell."
"You wear the damn bell."
"All right," he says, sounding oddly triumphant. "I will. Hand it over."
"Give me back the bell, Dean."
"No," he says. "I need this bell. I'm the bait."
"Look, you said--"
"Forget what I said. I'm bait, dammit. I lost, and loser gets to be bait."
"Yeah, well, only if you change the rules. Most people--"
"I am not most people," he declares grandly. "I am the bait."
"Fine. You want to be bait, go be bait. Go." He pushes him. "Go make noise."
Bait for what? Zeke doesn't know. The entire conversation was so bizarre that Zeke can't help himself: He genuinely wants to know whether there's some valid reason for what they're doing or if they're clinically insane. The latter is looking more and more likely.
Dean is now strolling up the "loop," the long circular dirt road with small posts set along the outside at intervals, each marking the entrance to a campsite; his brother has stepped off into the trees and brush on the inside of the loop. Zeke slips into the center area as well. It's a large, wooded area and the mist has become a light fog; Zeke has no problem keeping far enough away from Sam Winchester that he won't be seen by either while keeping both in view.
Dean clears his throat. "Aaaand our first request at the top of the hour is from Little Sammy, tucked up all alone in his lonely bush in the U.P. Whoo! Let's go!" And then he belts out raucously, "Your love is like bad medicine, and bad medicine is what I need!"
He sings an entire song, and he doesn't stop with that. Zeke's evening has become a special sort of torment, which sounds like "the driving raaain! Yeah, like the restless ruuust! I never sleep!" Dean Winchester never shuts up, either. Zeke's rapidly losing any curiosity about the point of this exercise; if it's intended to be a ritual, these two are the most incompetent satanists he's ever met. Even the woods around them feel offended.
The two of them -- one in front on the road, the other trailing a yard or so back off it -- are progressing at a crawl. Winchester's repertoire seems to range from fist pumping ("At the midnight hour! More! More! More!") to perverse ("Sex farm woman!" he bawls, "I'll rake and hoe you down!"). He also seems to have vocal cords of steel: durable, like rusted gears. Zeke's feeling very enthusiastic about killing Winchester when this is over.
Finally, Winchester halts the torture. "Anything?" he mutters. "No? This isn't working, Sam. I . . okay. Maybe he's enjoying it too much? Time for the big guns." Then he's singing again: "As the midnight mooon, was drifting though the laaazy sway of the trees!" Zeke stiffens. In spite of the singing, he recognizes this song. No, god no, he thinks, just as he hears the other brother groan, "Oh, maaan."
But nothing can stop the implacable Dean Winchester from plowing on to the chorus. "I want a man with a slow hand!" he's howling. "I want a lover with an easy touch!"
That's not even the worst of it. "Next up, kids," he announces, "the no-holds-barred knockout." He starts humming opening bars to himself, and Zeke groans softly. He recognizes this one, too. Sam apparently does as well; he hastily mutters, "Dean! Wait. Try breaking something instead."
Blessedly, Winchester stops. "Like what?"
"Doesn't matter," his brother whispers. "Branches. Tear up a bush. Throw rocks. Just be destructive."
"Ohhh, yeah. Good idea," Winchester agrees, pulling out something from his pocket. Then he hums that final bar.
Sam apparently comes to the same realization as Zeke. "Dean, you don't have to--"
"Sitting here eating my heart out waiting -- waiting for some lover to come!" Dean wails, not listening. Dean's spraying what smells distinctly like lighter fluid on a bush, filling the night air with Donna Summer. It's really too much. "Looking for some hot stuff, baby this evening!" Winchester lights a match, tosses it on the bush he'd just doused. "Got to have some love tonight!"
Winchester's hip thrusts by his burning bush are accompanied by the clanking of the bell on his belt. Zeke decides in this moment that he's done. He doesn't care what they're doing; he's not paid enough to sit through this. He starts to work his way closer just as a huge, dark shape to his own left drops from the trees.
Zeke's not the only music critic in the woods tonight. Winchesters apparently answer theirs with shotguns -- it's the damnedest thing Zeke's ever seen.
Though Zeke's grateful to the thing that interrupted the serenade, he's still not sure what it is. It's now lying in the middle of the road; the Winchesters don't appear to find anything abnormal about this.
"Only stands to reason, Sammy," Winchester's saying comfortably. He doesn't even sound hoarse, which Zeke finds a particularly offensive testament to stamina born of hell. "Being dead's no bar to enjoying the classics."
"He died at the turn of the century, Dean."
"What's your point?" Dean says. "But, see, no one likes disco. I knew that would work."
"Lucky for us you knew all the lyrics then."
"Ha, look at this," Dean says quickly. "They really do breed 'em the size of a cow up here!"
"Dean, don't kick it."
"No, I'm just saying this is . . . Jesus, it's, look at all this . . . oh shit." He's hopping on one foot now, muttering, "Did I get that on my boot?"
Sam sighs at him. "He's fed on two goats and three people, Dean. What were you expecting?"
"Oh my god, this is disgusting. Shit, and it's still moving."
"If you're that disgusted, Dean, do something about it."
"Sam, you got the salt, not me," Dean points out. "You're the one who needs to get the lead out, here."
"Oh. Right." They're digging through the small backpack that Sam had been carrying on his back. Then Dean's pouring what looks it really may be salt -- and from the smell, more of the lighter fluid.
"Ethan, you were truly one cranky-ass, miserly asshole," Dean says. "Sayonara, goat-sucker." A blaze of a match, and Winchester's lighting the entire book and dropping it on the twisted remains of whatever had come down through the trees. The odd sense of stillness of the air lifts slightly, and a breeze strikes up.
"Stinks," Sam murmurs.
Deserted area, neither one is holding a gun at the moment, and both are going to be night blind after staring at that fire they've just lit. This is probably as good as Zeke's going to get. Enough bullets should put them both down long enough for him to get to their eyes.
"Still checking that meter, Sam?"
"Yeah, that's what I -- down!"
Dammit. The taller one, Sam, shoved into the other just as Zeke fired. Rather than reacting as he expects, both keep going, rolling on the ground then diving into the brush. They've split up. Zeke can hear them now, heading in different directions.
"That's just . . . perfect," Zeke mutters, leaning back against a tree. Zeke thumps the back of his head a few times, tries to decide the best way to deal with this. They know he's here now. Run down one, let the other get away? Zeke thought he winged the taller one, but both hit the woods like jack rabbits, so probably not.
He hears a distant whoop from the noisier of the two. But Zeke's not going for the bait. He moves down and collects the dropped shotguns. He's got a better idea.
19. View from a motor court
Zeke staked out their car for an hour, until it became clear they weren't coming back for it. But unless they really were intending to spend a few nights huddling under bushes, they'd have to return to the motel eventually.
Zeke's willing to wait this one out. He's motivated.
He'd briefly considered disabling the car; but it wasn't so different from cars he'd owned himself back in the '60s and '70s -- no point in passing up better wheels. This particular car had even been hotwired before; Zeke found the taped wires under the steering column pre-stripped for his convenience. Nice.
Zeke left them his own transportation. He even tossed the keys on the seat because he's generous that way. Zeke's going to have lots of warning -- and so will everyone else within a few blocks -- when they decide to use it.
So now Zeke's looking over their motel room. He's finding this, combined with the contents of that car, to be pretty damned strange. This is more than the usual detritus of two guys on vacation, plus a few odd boxes of ammo. It looks to Zeke like he's got control of everything they own except the lint in their pockets right now.
They're definitely not running away from this one. Even better.
Their room's the same layout and decor as his, right down to the pink striped sheets. Their suits are hung up in the closet alcove, but not with any special care; looks to Zeke like they were done with playing big bad agents. He's not sure what to make of the discovery that the stuffed bears off their beds are piled in a corner of the closet alcove with a ring of white powder poured around them -- which turns out to be salt.
So two guys, one a lot tidier than the other from the looks of it; Guy One closest to the door is a bit of a slob, but Guy Two even makes his own bed in a motel. Both kooks.
Poke around? Zeke considers. He pokes around. He finds more salt along the door and the window as well, confirming that they're kooks of the paranoid type. But Zeke's no longer interested in their eccentric personal habits, or even in interpreting their woodsy performance art. He's not confident they're Ash's now; Zeke can only imagine what she'd make of that farce back in the campground.
He just wants a better idea of when to expect them back in their room.
For that, he has the small table near the window with one of the thin, square computer machines on it, hooked to another small machine. There are stacks of folders labeled in a tight, impatient-looking hand with some sort of private system; there are pages taped to the wall in regimented rows.
Guy Two with his neat bug again. Zeke wagers it's the younger of the two, Sam.
Zeke looks over the wall. Charts of lake levels of Superior, graphs tracking temperature levels in the area going back pretty far. Despite what Angie-the-waitress said, Zeke sees this isn't the first heat wave they've had in the fall.
He shuffles through the files. Some are police files, which he's already seen. Another has news clippings. One labeled "Chem." is printouts and a few jotted notes about chemicals; "Ent." seems to be bugs; two others labeled "Loc. Hist." and "Loc. Leg." are filled with photocopies and legal pad sheets, same handwriting. He's also got "WL," which apparently stands for wildlife, and "Pos.", whatever that means, which is assorted printouts about animals and "spirits." One is labeled simply "Goat," with smaller, scribbled sheets from a pocket notebook; the photos inside are pretty disgusting.
Zeke rubs his temple. He doesn't want to read all these. They might explain the campground, but that's not telling him what he needs to know now.
He opts for the folders with the maps. Several he's seen before, but most are new to him. They've got a combined topographic and geological map, and Forest Service surveys of trees and plants. A few versions of the wilderness area . . . Zeke pauses over these. One has tiny notes written on it.
The small, handwritten labels with tiny arrows on one tell him that they've found an "o.dock," a "boat," and "sac" near the lake itself. There's also "shd" and "dmp." These are all in proximity to "org. fnd." and "Hse."
It's "Hse." that interests Zeke. He goes back to the "Loc. Hist." folder.
Voris House, explains the stapled photocopy pamphlet from some local preservation group, is a local historic site. The group's in negotiations with the Forest Service for access to the property, among other things. A quick skim reveals that it belonged to a Cyrus Voris in the late 1920s, an East Coast businessman who came to Michigan for the hunting. He'd built himself a house by Malaise Lake to use while he was in the area.
The house was apparently built on a site that belonged originally to an ex-logger named Ethan Reiff, the obvious source of local place names. "Ethan" rings a faint bell. Zeke's starting to see vague connections here.
Reiff disappeared around 1910, presumed drowned in Malaise Lake. Much later, Voris and several of his last hunting party disappeared as well. The property reverted to the Voris family, who rented out the house to hunting groups and later donated the entire tract to the Forest Service as a tax write-off in the 1970s. Malaise Wildlife Area, which is a lake, a bog, and the forest around it, is a "wetlands" administered under the Hiawatha banner now.
As for the house, it's been empty ever since the government took over, source of a local 'spooky' legend ("xr o.fog." a scribbled note informs him unhelpfully).
Zeke rubs his chin, thinking. That has to be where they are.
He helps himself to their trail maps of Malaise. "Malaise Bog Trail" has a trailhead on the seasonal road, runs along the wilderness area border, dips in for a view of the southern side of the lake, then winds around and into the bog for "boardwalk," the map key tells him. Then it meanders back to the trailhead, a total length of 12 miles.
Zeke's not interested in the total miles, just in one stretch. The bog trail passes within a quarter mile of Reiff Ravine Campground on the edge of Malaise. He's laying odds that, people being people, one or more of those campsites have unofficial paths that link up with that trail. That Voris house isn't on the trail, but it should be visible from it.
The Winchesters could have scurried down any of those paths from the campsites to hook up with the main trail. They seem to know that site pretty well now; they know how to get to the house. They'd need a place to meet, whether Zeke had gone after one of them or not.
So Zeke gets it. He was supposed to follow them into the woods. The house is a convenient, obvious choice to turn the situation around. They're still holed up there, waiting for daylight, waiting for Zeke to come to them.
Zeke sighs. He could just wait them out here; they have to come back eventually. Zeke eyes the decor moodily; trashing this place in the process would benefit humanity. But the woods are still better for his purposes.
Zeke loves walking into traps. He's had plenty of practice.
20. View from a wilderness area
Zeke sees the flash of light in the upper window of the house when he steps off the trail. It's the story of his career lately. Not only is he walking into a trap, but now they know he's coming. But he's got to clean up this mess. Two down, one of them ahead of schedule even, then he can hit the road for more, and he'll have time left over to search for Ros. Zeke can make this work. Zeke's dealt with far worse customers than the two Winchesters, and he's still standing.
They're a team. If he takes one out as quickly as feasible, it'll throw the other off balance.
Order doesn't matter; whichever one steps up to the plate first is fine by Zeke.
He studies the outside first. It's exactly like the murky photos in the pamphlet. Two stories, no basement. Large front parlor with a fireplace. Back rooms include the kitchen area and the stairs.
They may both be on the first floor. They may be on the second, hoping to catch him on the stairs. Judging by the campground, they seem to need light, so that's a point in Zeke's favor.
First, sweep of the main floor. Zeke enters silently, pushing aside the listing door. He can see the local teenagers have been at work in the front room. There's graffiti on the walls and on the floor. Zeke feels a prickle of uneasiness. He's not sure, but something's wrong here. It's jangling his nerves though he can't identify what it is.
He's learned from hard experience to pay attention to that feeling. Zeke carefully steps around the questionable scribbles on the floor -- then he hears a soft scrape to his left. Got one. He sees a glimpse of movement in the doorway, and Zeke aims.
Nothing slams into him. Zeke stumbles, braces. Still nothing to see, but the air feels thicker, heavier. It's slowing him down. It's similar to what some of the damned have pulled on him in the past, so he can deal. All he needs is the direction, and he's -- he's got it. Zeke's squeezing the trigger even as he hears the shout, and other's barreling into his side, knocking him back.
That bullet goes wide, but Zeke's got a Winchester right in hand now, and an elbow to the face stuns him so that Zeke can -- But that's when the knife slashes into Zeke's arm for a scorching flare of pain, and his arm's gone, paralyzed, Zeke's gun's clattering to the floor.
The one that grabbed him kicks Zeke's gun away, and is scrambling out of Zeke's reach. He hears his gun rebound off the wall.
Zeke throws himself after them both, and -- slams into the air. He's cast back by nothing. Zeke hits the floor with a thud that rattles the floorboards.
"Shit, that hurt," one of them's mumbling. "Shit, shit, shit . . ."
"Dean! Are you--"
"Fine, I'm fine, just, fuck -- he's helluva lot stronger than I thought."
Zeke's glad someone besides him took some damage here; he can't lift his left arm at all. He raises his good hand to tentatively feel out the space. So far, so good.
"Is it broken?"
"Nah, it's just, it's fine." Then at a shout, "And you -- dammit, I told you not to--"
"He wasn't stepping into it, Dean. I had to do something!"
"You didn't even know it would work! He would have hit you if I hadn't--"
"Okay, no, not what I'd planned, but I was supposed to let him shoot you?"
"Since when is shooting you any better? I could have--"
"Why are we even arguing about this? It worked. He's in now, it's done."
In what? Zeke wonders. There's nothing here. But . . . there. His hand's being repelled again, at the edge of the scribbles on the floor. They're a pattern of some kind, he realizes. He's never seen anything like them before.
"We're talking about this later," the one warns the other. Dean, Zeke thinks. Then a flashlight goes on, then another. "Yep, and here he is. We got our beastie."
Zeke sighs, resigned. He doesn't understand the hows or even the whys, but they don't really matter. Stuck is stuck. He doubts that he'll be here long anyway. Hell's going to be worse, now that he's had over a decade free of it.
"Look, he can't move his arm," says Sam. Zeke feels like a zoo exhibit. "So the knife worked, too."
"Yeah, all right," Dean says, "we're awesome. We got 'im."
"Congratulations," Zeke responds drily.
They both startle. "Uh," mutters Dean, elbowing the other, "demon's talkin'." Then, weirdly, he lifts a hand and says to Zeke, "Hey there. You damn near knocked out my teeth, you asshole."
Zeke grins. He should have hit a lot harder; he'd been distracted. He heaves himself back to his feet, looks over his new confines. They're both watching him a little warily.
"So," Zeke says. "Now what?"
21. View from an abandoned house
"You stole my car," says Dean. "You deserve this."
"Technically, I borrowed it," Zeke points out. "Drove it back, didn't I?"
"You. Stole. My car," he repeats, like Zeke hadn't heard it the first time. He's making it sound like an unforgivable sin; Zeke senses that this isn't a point of sane discussion.
"So you guys put all this together just for me?" Zeke says instead. "I'm flattered. Easier ways to send me back."
The two exchange a look. "Hold your ponies, Tex," says Dean. "We're still setting up."
"Setting up what? A Hammer film?" Zeke eyes the candles. "So you guys are the satanists in the woods."
"There aren't any satanists in the woods," says Sam. He sounds irritated. But then he sounded irritated before all this, Zeke recalls. Sam might be professionally irritated or something.
"Candles are cheap," says Dean, lighting some more of them. "Kerosene costs too much right now. And it stinks up my car."
Zeke sniffs ostentatiously; the room is filling with the battling scents of vanilla and cinnamon. Dean wipes his nose and mutters, "They were on sale. We're on a budget here."
Oh, this going to be fun, Zeke thinks, rolling his eyes. He goes back to studying the graffiti on the floor. It's a large circle with a pentagram and squiggles. Outside it four symbols are painted at what he assumes are the compass directions. They're brownish.
"Sure looks like blood," Zeke says, pointing to the one of them. "You sure you guys aren't the satanists in the woods?"
"No, geez, there aren't any satanists in the woods," says Dean. "Nobody's a satanist in the woods!"
"Blood?" Zeke prompts.
"Whatever works," Dean says. But Sam's looking even more ticked off, mouth setting in a thin line; Dean's avoiding looking at him. Sam over there has a bandage on his arm. Zeke's pretty sure he's the donor; Zeke checks out the blood with a lot more interest.
He's never noticed anything special before about the blood of damned souls. Usually there's not much of it, but that's about it. So this must be a new trick, along with whatever he'd been hit with when he walked in. From the shouting, he gathers that Sam's the one who did that. Dean hasn't used anything out of the ordinary yet.
"So what's his deal, then?" Zeke asks Dean, looking sideways at Sam. Zeke's not feeling too charitable right now; he's listened to these two, he can hit where he thinks it'll hurt. "Nothing normal going on there."
"Shut. Up," Dean says. Sam just stiffens and lights some more candles.
"So. Demon blood, huh," Zeke sneers.
"Ohhh-kay," Dean says, rubbing the back of his neck. "Sam, you know what? Maybe you should go do your thing now."
"It's all right, Dean," Sam says, scowling. "I'm actually a grownup. I can deal."
"No, I mean," Dean waves a hand awkwardly, "get this show on the road."
They glare at each other a few moments, a few twitches here and there, and then they both turn the glares on Zeke. He waves cheerily. They can't do anything to him, Zeke figures, unless they're willing to step into this circle with him. If it works on him, it should work on them. He thinks they'd be at a serious disadvantage in a cage match. Looks like they may have realized that.
Now they're back to exchanging those long looks again. It may be a sort of ESP thing, Zeke decides. That's inconvenient. He never would have guessed it from that ruckus in the woods earlier.
Sam sighs. "Okay," he says.
"Donuts," Dean shoots back. "Don't forget to take that with you."
With one more dark look in Zeke's direction, Sam gathers up Zeke's gun, ignoring Zeke's scowl, and shoves it in the back of his pants. Then he collects a shotgun, his coat, and he stomps out of the room. Zeke hears him leaving the house by the back door.
So now Zeke's lost his gun, too. Zeke is the one who's incensed here. If he wasn't going to get fired before, this would be the clincher.
"Well! Just you and me then!" Dean says, clapping his hands and rubbing them together. He's grinning like Zeke hadn't just been trying to kill them both. So Dean here's going to be Zeke's good cop, trying to establish a rapport; the other one'll waltz in later with the threats. Zeke doesn't get it. Why the hell aren't they just going for Zeke's eyes, here? He has no way to know; their insanity's already been established.
"I'm excited," Zeke tells him drily.
"Yeah, me too," Dean says, beaming. "So let's talk. How 'bout some share and care time?"
"Let's not," Zeke says. Or maybe . . . He's getting the distinct impression they don't know how to take him out; that's a refreshing change of pace, if nothing else. So Zeke's not intending to help them out with that. He nods at the door. "So where's he off to?"
"Division of labor," Dean tells him. "They got wifi back at the motel, plus we got no reception out here. We had to set up in a hurry, so we skipped some of the basics. Me, I get the babysitting detail."
Zeke still has no idea what the other's doing, but his guess was right on the role playing. Winchester and he are supposed to be "bonding," as Max would say. "By set up, you mean all this."
"Yep. Not bad, is it? We put it together yesterday. Had an idea you'd be hitting us at some point, though I gotta admit that we're still not clear on the why part." He grins proudly. "But Plan C worked awesome. My plan, by the way."
Zeke sighs to himself. "Look. You guys strike me as the holy water and exorcism types. Why don't you just cut to the chase here?" He spreads his arms. "Hey, exorcise me."
"That work?" Dean asks, sounding genuinely curious.
"No idea. No one's tried it before."
"Huh. Really." He's pulling a metal flask from his pocket. "You mind?"
"You're offering me a drink?"
"Not exactly." He screws off the lid, and says, "Heads up," just before he flings some water over Zeke.
Zeke wipes off his face. "So amateur hour begins. You gonna just keep prodding at me from out there til something works? This is Ash's big plan?"
"Ash?" Winchester looks confused. "Uh. You mean the dude who worked for Ellen? You knew him? Buddy, I hate to break it to you, but he's kind of . . . deceased now. Like for over a year."
That just figures. This guy doesn't even know who Zeke's talking about -- and it's clearly not feigned. "Forget it," Zeke mutters. It's just confirmation of what he'd already figured. Ash would never put up with these two idiots.
"Huh." Dean's looking at him speculatively. "Nah, you know what? I got a much better idea."
"Yeah?" Zeke donates a smirk. "What's that?"
Now he's pulling out a deck of foxed cards with a rubberband around them. "I'm thinking poker. Five-card draw for us beginners. You game?"
"You have got to be kidding." Zeke stares at him. Does Zeke want to play cards with someone who's sending him to hell?
"Hey, I'll go easy on you," Dean says. He's looking terribly earnest; con artists, Zeke recalls from the files.
"You're not kidding."
"Nope." He drops to sit on the floor by the circle and flicks off the rubberband. "I'm gonna have to deal and push your cards over the line, but you don't mind, right? Or do you really just want to sit around and stare at each other til Sammy gets back?" He's actually pouting. "I'd be bored."
"Look," Zeke tells him, "first, I don't carry much money. And, second -- you know what? It doesn't even matter, because I'm pretty sure 'demons' aren't going to honor poker debts. That's probably a rule or something."
"We're not playing for money," Dean says. He adds, awkwardly, "Uh, none of the stripping either. I mean, unless you're into that?"
Zeke glares at him.
"I'm guessing no -- uh, which is good, by the way. Not saying you're an unattractive demonic creature or anything, but--" He shudders, and says hurriedly. "Just forget that. So here's what we'll do."
This is how Zeke finds himself sitting cross-legged on the floor staring at a poker hand as Winchester messes with his mind. Zeke's decided Winchester won't get anything of use out of him, but Winchester's turning out to be an unstoppable trivia fountain.
"Raise," Zeke says. "Two twigs."
"I'll see your twigs," Dean says. He drops two broken twigs from Zeke's dwindling firewood fortune into the pot and nudges over a few of his own. "Raise you a leaf and five pine needles."
Zeke is getting his clock cleaned. It's annoying. Winner of each hand gets to ask a question by Winchester Conversational Rules, his bizarre version of an interrogation technique. Zeke's also fairly certain Winchester's cheating. Yet he's not pressing Zeke for real answers -- or even asking sensible questions.
For instance, question one, which maybe Zeke could have predicted: "Sammy says that piece-of-shit Corvair's probably yours. You really drive that thing? Or you just push it down the highway?"
Zeke had scowled, and Winchester hooted at him, "I knew it! It's auto envy, dude. That's why you're going around stealing other people's real cars."
Question two was even weirder. "So you're Jewish?"
Zeke had no idea where that came from. "Catholic. Why?"
"Really." Winchester had frowned. "Like, mass and priests and Hail Marys?"
"Yeah." Zeke glared at him. "You got a problem with that?"
"No, it's just -- never mind. I'll ask Sam about it when he gets back."
And question three, which wasn't even a question: "So you're like some kind of zombie terminator hunter assassin dude. I'm here to tell you, that is awesome. I just wanted to say that."
Winchester looks about the same age Zeke was when he died, but he acts like he's a teenager. Zeke's wondering if maybe he's some sort of card hustling idiot savant. Then Winchester starts rambling, which is even more distracting.
"Call," he says, tossing twigs, "so we figured, not satanists, everyone always says that, it's like they've got 'em hardwired in the brain or something, and -- full house, aces high, this is mine -- though, y'know, that's what the omens were pointing at, a demon--"
"Wait, you came up here looking for a demon," Zeke says, just to clarify, as he tosses his cards out of the circle.
"Well, yeah, we figured it was one in particular," Winchester admits, gathering up their cards. "Not you," he adds. "But it turns out it was something else entirely. That combination monster, spirit possession deal. We were pretty sure about it by then, so we'd switched over to that. But then we got the reading in that diner, which was a mistake, by the way, but--"
"Diner," Zeke prompts. Winchester means yesterday morning.
"Yeah, the EMF went nuclear the minute we walked in the door. Sam still had it in his pocket from the campground, see, we were the ones who found those two out there, made the call, and the switch is broken on that one, so it don't turn off properly. Sam's been nagging me to fix that, but when have I had the time? I am not kidding here. So what I can't figure out is why he keeps grabbing that one, like he's trying to rub it in or--"
"What is an EMF?" Zeke interrupts.
"Hey. I just won this hand," Dean points out.
Zeke throws up his hands. "What?"
"But I will magnanimously give you that one for free," he says, spreading his hands. "Electric and magnetic frequencies," he says, rolling back to sort a small box from his dufflebag. He holds it up for Zeke to see. It's palm-sized box, with a few switches, like a resistance tester for a battery; the needle's frantically beating itself against one side of the dial in its window. "See? Takes a reading of ambient EMF . . . uh, like a Geiger counter. You know what those are?"
Zeke shrugs. The Cold War's still a current event for him, in a way.
"Right. So all of you guys give off EMF to some degree, but you . . . well, check it out." He flicks a switch, the needle relaxes. He thumbs two side switches; the needle immediately swings back to life and plants itself at the far end along with a soft, unbroken squeal.
Zeke frowns. "Meaning what?"
"Meaning you're one badass low-band generator. Sammy says he's seen you spike the high-bands though." He eyes Zeke thoughtfully. "You could be hell on electronics if that's true. Wonder you don't wipe yourself out, dude." He flicks it off, tosses it back to the bag. "We had the heads up, so we knew you were gonna hit us some time, and we were keeping an eye out. Once we torched old Ethan, everything left had to be you."
Zeke's irritated. If he really can be tracked that way, it's a liability.
"So," Winchester continues, "now back to me. Simple question. Why're you after Sam? What's the deal here? I mean, way you were surveilling us, we even considered maybe you were one of Gordon's old pals, carrying some artifact that lit up the meter. But then Castiel pops up and he says no, we got some sort of demon zombie thing on our asses. Didn't say anything else that was real useful along that line though, which is just freakin' typical." He huffs. "Well, beyond you being a seal and hands off."
Zeke rubs his temple. If Winchester's trying to baffle him with bullshit, it's going really well. "I'm here for both of you," he tells him. "As for why -- that should be pretty damned obvious. Other than that, I have no idea what the hell anything you just said means.""How about you clear up your end," Dean says levelly. "What's so obvious?"
"You've got to go back," Zeke states. "That's why I'm here."
"Go back where?"
"Where do you think?" Zeke snaps. The twosome denial act is ticking him off.
Winchester blinks and stares at him, looking kind of gray. "That," he says, "is not going to happen."
"Yeah," Zeke points out, "that's what they all said."
Winchester watches him for a while, expressionless now. Then he collects all his cards, bands them together, and says, "We're done here." He pulls another flask out of his pocket. Zeke's bracing for another faceful of water, but this time Winchester unscrews the cap and takes a swig. "I'd offer," he says, "but I don't really feel like sharing with you."
"Fine with me," Zeke says. "Don't get much of a buzz from it anyway." He glances at his watch. "This hour, I'd be a lot more interested in coffee."
"Coffee," Winchester repeats. "Coffee I can do." He moves over to one of the duffels and starts to set up a little camping stove. He's going to heat water, Zeke realizes. Zeke's more perplexed than ever now.
So Winchester waits for his watched pot to boil. He says, not sounding so friendly now, "Here's the thing, dude. I'm willing to play ball with Cas only so far. I do not like demons. That is an understatement. Standard procedure is to waste your evil asses on sight. And after that just now --" he points a finger at Zeke, "well, let's say I'm really inclined to go with the SOP." He looks directly at Zeke; Zeke sees he's finally serious. "Me and Sam, we're real inventive -- believe that we'd figure out what works on you. So you better know that the only reason you're still alive and kicking is on Cas's say so. Just so we're clear."
"Cas being who?" Zeke asks.
"Cas being the rep of our corporate sponsor at this moment. The guy who gave us the goods to make that special, limited edition devil's trap you're parked in."
"So who's this 'corporate sponsor' of yours?" Zeke asks. Ash isn't the only one who wants Zeke out of the picture; so one of his higher level targets has finally found some contractors who can do it. Perfect end to Zeke's perfect downward spiral.
"Castiel," Dean says, "is an angel. Specifically, the one who hauled my ass out of the pit. Where Sam never was, I might add."
"That's not possible," states Zeke. But he's floored by the suggestion that an angel might . . . No. He knows it's not possible.
"Sure. You just keep telling yourself that," Dean says, shrugging.
Angels wouldn't turn on Zeke like this. But even as he's thinking that, Zeke's finding that he's not as confident about it as he wants to be.
22. View from a devil's trap
Zeke's lying back, examining the ceiling cracks for the millionth time, and contemplating what he's going to do to both Winchesters when he gets out of this circle -- he tests the air with a foot -- which might be a while yet, but he's starting to feel optimistic again -- when there's a sharp rap on the wall outside. Sounded like a thrown rock. Winchester hears it, too, and he's up and flashing a light out of the nearest window in an instant.
So the brother's back on the scene at last, Zeke concludes. Still dark outside. He checks his watch, and it's 7:00 in the morning. He notes Dean's flask vanishing into the duffle; if Zeke were one of those couple therapists Max kept recommending, he'd have something to say about that. But Zeke's not. Winchester'll find hell a great dryout tank.
Sam's stomping in the door, shrugging off the backpack.
"Donuts, Sam," Dean says, "I have need. Tell me you got 'em."
"Gimme a second to get in the room," Sam says, unzipping the pack and pulling out a white deli bag. Dean snatches it immediately and starts rooting through it.
"You know the way to my heart," he says. Then he glances at Zeke. "You want?"
Zeke shrugs. Might as well, he figures.
Winchester tosses a glazed donut into the circle; Zeke snags it before hits the floor. The brother's staring at him, looking upset. Maybe that 'seal' Winchester mentioned was the circus kind, and Zeke was supposed to catch it in his mouth.
"How long has he been using that arm, Dean?"
"'Bout half an hour after," Dean says through a mouthful of donut. Sam's frowning. Zeke wonders if that's his default expression. Zeke doesn't get why he's so surprised, but it's not his problem.
"That's too fast," Sam says.
"Tell me about it," Dean grumbles.
"Yeah, okay, worry about that later," Sam says, dragging a hand through his hair. "I had to use the Gonzales card to buy some archive access," he says, and Dean nods. "I also called--"
"Ixnay in front of the emon-day, Am-say," Dean interrupts him.
"Like that, is it?" Sam says.
"Beyond like that. Corner," Dean indicates the fireplace across the room, and both stalk over, out of Zeke's earshot but where they both can keep an eye on him. He lies back and watches them mutter and shuffle papers between them for a while. He drinks his coffee. He eats his donut. He can be patient when he has to be.
Then they're coming back. Zeke sets aside the coffee. "We finally getting this over with?" he asks.
"Yeah, well, you could have saved everyone time by just telling us what we wanted to know," Dean says. Both of them settle down on the floor, a few feet from the circle. "But, hey, no problem, Sam here can work around you. He's totally into that."
The Sam in question is ignoring them both, setting out a few neat piles of papers. Zeke sees he was right in his guess about who the folders in their room belonged to. Sam pulls Zeke's gun from the back of his waistband and lays it on top of one of the piles. Seeing it that close makes Zeke's palm itch to reach for it. He knows how futile that would be, so he restrains himself. He's finding it hard to tear his gaze away though.
"Your car's still out on the road," Sam says. He adds, in mild reproof, "There's no registration in it. That's pretty illegal."
"I think he's aware, Sam."
"I think he's not interested in a law lecture from the fake FBI," Zeke adds.
"Uh, right," Sam says, blinking. He's clearly in some sort of paperwork headspace that's lagging a beat behind real life, but Dean's snickering. "Anyways, you registered as Ezekiel Stone at the motel. That's also the name Castiel gave us, so you apparently don't use an alias. Which is pretty useful."
"Glad I could help," Zeke says, dry as dust.
"Nothing to learn from your motel room except you like mint-flavored toothpaste. None of the usual travel gear, which is rather odd. Also," here he looks up, "I do know that you went through ours."
"Sam's a bit anal," Dean says. "He's gonna notice Goldilocks came calling."
Zeke shrugs. He doesn't know what they were expecting from someone hunting them, if not that.
"But that's fine," Sam says, paging through one of his paper piles. "We expected you might do that. In fact, we were counting on it if you didn't follow us. We needed you here for this devil's trap. We did consider setting one up in the motel room, but we figured the further we were away from people, the safer it would be. Then we--"
"Info dump, Sam," Dean murmurs, prodding him with an elbow.
"Oh, sure," he blinks again. "I was just . . . right." He smooths his papers into a neat sheaf. "So you're Ezekiel Stone. A basic Internet search didn't turn up much. There were a few hits on the cemetery and genealogical sites. But it narrowed it down a lot when I got my hands on this." He's tapping his finger on Zeke's gun, and Zeke's finding it hard to look away again. Sam knows it; he's doing it on purpose, and he's seriously pissing Zeke off.
"This looks like a Beretta 9-millimeter, the 92 series, semi-automatic, 15-round magazine with the release reconfigured for a left-handed user. This particular variation was manufactured in the 1980s, and it was used by the U.S. military."
"Sammy, c'mon," Dean says, rolling his eyes. Zeke supposes they all know this part.
"I'm getting to that, Dean," he says. "It was also adopted by some U.S. police units." He glances at Zeke, "I called a friend of ours and asked him to make some calls. They looked up the serial number on this. It was listed as decommissioned and destroyed in 1983. But I think it was buried with the officer who'd used it. What do you think?"
Zeke's not going to react to any of this. They've already got him trapped. He's not going to give them the satisfaction rattling him on top of it. So they know who he is; he doesn't think they can use the information in any damaging way.
"Let's see," he continues, "date of birth, date of death, survived by his wife, Rosalyn Stone -- she's probably still alive, by the way, but I didn't have time to look into that--" Zeke flinches; it's involuntary, and Sam notices. If this is yet more karmic payback for beating up the brainy kids when he was young, it's backfiring. Zeke's even less sorry now. "I printed out some of the articles. This one's on your funeral. You had a lot of commendations, but here's something really interesting that came out during the trial of the guy who shot you." Sam looks up levelly. "You were under investigation with internal affairs. Seems there were already a few questions, and then there'd been this suspicious death, a drug overdose, that they thought might be related to you. Because the person who died was -- Do I keep going?"
"No point," Zeke says. He smiles. "Already heard the punchline." Zeke's having some warm, comforting thoughts about killing them both now. Winchester's pretty relentless, but it's not like Zeke hasn't been in interrogation rooms like this. He's just on the wrong side of the table this time.
"Yeah. I guess you have. So we know you're Ezekiel Stone, and we know who you were. But none of that tells us why you're here now, or why you're gunning for us," Sam says. "I can make a few educated guesses. Or you could fill us in on that yourself."
"I've already said more than enough on that subject," Zeke points out, irritated. "You two are living in some weird fantasy here. That's got nothing to do with me." Max would probably say they're "in denial" or something. Zeke's only cure for that involves bullets. They can get their firsthand answers in hell after Zeke finds his way out of this circle.
"All right, then." Sam glances at his brother -- and Zeke's pleased to see some of his satisfied certainty falls away. "I also, uh, talked to Ruby."
Dean starts. "Sam," is all he says.
"I know, okay, Dean? But it turned out she -- uh, she's met him."
"Well gosh. Funny how unsurprising I find that," he retorts. "And the reason you waited until now to mention this?"
"Well, I, uh, just thought if he told us himself, then I wouldn't have to--"
So sorry to disappoint, Zeke thinks rancorously. It's a relief they're fighting with each other again; Zeke's ready for a break. (Ruby?) Zeke frowns, running the name through his murky memory. Has to be someone recent, if she's someone they know, but -- he's got it now. That blonde in the alley. Too many have gotten away from him over the past year; the initial (bad) impression she'd made got trammeled by the herd.
"I had to, Dean, all right?" Zeke thinks the younger's a little spoiled; big brother keeps unconsciously deferring to him, backing off when he should hold steady. Zeke's not sure if this is useful to him yet. "So do you want to know what she told me or not?" Sam's finishing off this argument.
"Fine, all right," Dean snarls. "Can we stop airing our laundry in front of the damn demon? Let's hear it." Zeke's struck again by that us versus not-us theme -- they're delusional or something close.
"She said that, well, first there was a pretty large escape from hell, back in the mid-nineties," Sam says. "I verified this with Bobby, too, by the way. It wasn't anything on the scale of Wyoming, but probably at least a hundred."
Here's something Zeke didn't know. These two couldn't have been part of the release last year, but they not only seem to know more about it than Zeke, they have a better idea of how many were involved. Zeke makes a mental note to pry more out of one of them about this before he kills him.
"Anyways, this guy, Zeke here, shows up a few years later and starts hunting down the escapees," Sam's saying. "He's different from them in a lot of ways. No one's really sure why that is. Ruby doesn't know who's controlling him, either. According to her there's a lot of speculation about it."
"No comment," Zeke says. He's happy to know there are things about him they can't find out. Not that he's sure about the answer either, but unlike them, Zeke doesn't really care.
"Is it Lilith?" Sam says to Zeke, and his tone goes oddly gentle. "I'm seriously asking that. If it's Lilith, this whole discussion is over. So I think you'd better say one way or the other -- with her at least. Or we could have a problem on our hands."
"Sam . . ." Dean says, sounding strained.
Zeke's a little intrigued by this turn of events. But there's nothing here he can use. "Never heard of her," he concedes.
Sam lets out a breath -- and so does Dean, he notices. "Okay. I'm going to trust you that far," Sam says. "If you'd said you were hers, we'd just skip straight to the killing-you part. Castiel ought to know better."
Dean shoots Sam a look of alarm, giving Zeke more evidence for which brother's really running the show here.
"Anyways," Sam says, "she said he's like some sort of boogeyman for the demons now. Some of them don't even believe in him. She wasn't sure either until he showed up looking for her."
"Yeah? Obviously she walked away from that one," Dean snaps. "Why's he still walking around?"
"She didn't tell me that part. What she did say was that she figured out how to fix the Colt from this," Sam says. He's picking up Zeke's gun again, and it's killing Zeke that he's even touching it.
"You're shitting me," Dean says.
Sam shakes his head. "When I told her we had it, she got pretty excited, said we could--"
"No," Zeke says. It just comes out. He regrets it instantly when Sam looks at him over the gun cradled in his hand, gives him that satisfied smile again. He knows exactly what this is doing to Zeke, and Zeke hates him. A lot. Then he's setting it down; Zeke's eyes can't help tracking the movement again.
"I'm not going to," Sam says. "'Cause that's the thing. She told me that you do one thing -- and one thing only. You send demons back to hell. So if you're after us, you must think we're demons."
"You can call yourselves whatever you want," Zeke says. "If being 'demons' gives you a thrill, makes no difference to me -- you end up in the same place." They're both gaping at him now. Zeke's tired of this suddenly. "Christ, what already?"
Now they're looking at each other, and doing their freakish ESP again, and Zeke has had it. He stands up and starts putting some serious shoulder into breaking this damn circle. One way or another, he's getting out.
"Woah, woah," Dean says, leaping to his feet, too. "Hold up, Hoss. Why do you think we're demons? We're not."
"Find yourself a psychiatrist in hell," Zeke says. "I hear they've got plenty."
Now it's Sam, "Wait, that's not--"
"I was sent after you," Zeke says, indicating Dean. "But I know damn well you both died in Colorado."
"Are you kidding?" Sam says. "You were sent after Dean?"
"Yup," Zeke says, kicking the air. "He's going down. And so are you," he says, grinning. "I'm letting you jump the line, free of charge."
"We faked our deaths," Sam says. "We were having a few legal issues, so it was just easier."
"The Most Wanted list is a 'few legal issues'? Zeke says, incredulous.
"All that was a misunderstanding," Sam protests.
"Sure," Zeke says, "never heard that one before." But he's got to admit it's novel applied to a lengthy rap sheet like theirs.
"Look, dude, you're not actually a cop anymore, all right?" Dean says. "None of that's your business. The point here is that the only day-tripper here was me. Not Sam. We straight on that?"
Zeke's skeptical. He eyes the circle on the floor.
"Sam's got a few things going on, yeah. But that's tied up with that yellow-eyed demon, and that is none of your business either."
Zeke's snort clearly ticks them both off. "What's with the yellow eyes obsession these days?"
"What do you mean?" Sam says. He's looking at Zeke narrowly. "You've met other people who've talked about him?"
"Him who?" Zeke shakes his head. "That Afraimian guy a few years back was--"
"Uh." Dean makes a strangled noise. They both go still. "Wouldn't be Bert Afraimian?"
Zeke shrugs. "Yeah, I guess." They seem to know him. Just like Zeke thought. All these fruitcakes are baked in the same oven or something.
They exchange another of their looks; Zeke waits out the latest session of Vulcan mindshare or whatever it is.
"Our dad," Dean says grudgingly. "That's one of his aliases."
Aliases? Sounds to Zeke like they came by their criminal careers honestly. So to speak. "Tall guy with dark hair?" Zeke says. "Big black truck?" He doesn't add 'Loonytunes?' Zeke's tactful that way. The guy's kids have him stuck in a trap.
They're both nodding.
"Yeah, well." Zeke sighs. This one costs him nothing, he doesn't think. "Had a job in Vermont, and he walked in. Decided he was going to finish it before I could. I disagreed with that decision." Zeke decides to stick with the tact for now. "We had kind of a falling out."
They both stare at him. Then, as if on a cue, both huff out a laugh, and they're both bumping shoulders and huffing some more.
"Care to share?" Zeke says drily.
"It's just," Sam says, wiping at an eye, "you really did meet our dad."
"Yeah?" he says. Private joke of some kind, Zeke's forced to assume.
"You get around, don't you?" Dean comments. "For a mysterious boogeyman, you're pretty damn sociable."
"I never said I was a mysterious anything," Zeke points out. "If you're so fascinated by my every sneeze, why don't you talk to him? Considering what happened, he'd probably remember me."
"I don't hold with Ouija boards," Dean says curtly. The hilarity is over, and Zeke doesn't offer his condolences. Considering the way their dad was charging around that mountain, it was only a matter of time.
"Y'know what?" Dean says suddenly. "Screw this. This is how it is. I told you -- we're not supposed to kill you or send you back to hell or whatever. But we're not going to let you run around taking potshots at our asses, either. So we need to come to an agreement here."
"No deal," Zeke says. Simple enough.
"No, wait, listen," Sam insists. "I mean, do you have any say at all over what you do? Or are you just, I don't know, like some kind of machine? You have to follow a specific instruction set?"
"Terminator," Dean mutters.
"You really want to know?" Zeke asks. "Fine. You got it." He shoves up his sleeve, lets them take a good look. "One hundred and thirteen of these. One goes down, the next comes up. One of them's you," he looks at Dean. "One might be him, or maybe he'll come up later. Not up to me."
Sam's staring at his arm, fascinated. "I've seen something like those before, at Bobby's house. He has this book . . . which isn't here, so it doesn't matter," he trails off, disgruntled.
"So those just pop up on their own?" Dean says.
"Yup." Zeke shoves his sleeve back down. "So no, it's not up to me. What else would you gentlemen like to know?"
"Okay, shit," Dean says. "Let's think about this . . ."
"Nothing to think about," Zeke says again. This is getting old.
"Dean, did you tell him about--"
"Didn't believe it."
"What we're saying here -- this isn't your usual thing," Sam says. He's pretty persistent; Zeke figures that follows from not getting his own way for a change. "You're . . . well, you're dead. We're not. You must have seen our pictures in that database if you know about our criminal records. We don't look any different, do we? These are our bodies. I mean, do we look rotted to you?"
It's a point, Zeke has to admit. Souls are naturally attracted to the closest match for their former appearances, but this is too exact. "So you're, what, pretending you weren't in hell?"
"Me. I was," Dean says. "Not Sammy, me." He's rubbing his mouth again, like he's really missing that flask he tucked away. "I was there for . . . four months. Give or take a few decades." He grins at Zeke, no humor there. "You know how it is."
Zeke does. He did fifteen years. But this is just another instance of the older one trying to draw him away from the younger, like back in the woods. "Looks like you got yourselves out all right," he points out.
"Just me -- and no, I didn't escape," Dean insists. "I don't know how the ones who get out do it. I do not know that. Believe me, if I'd known, I'd have gone for it." He snaps his fingers, and his brother's looking grim -- and at anything but him. "I'm only here because I got hauled out and dumped back in my body by an angel. And, uh, he healed it up before he did. He didn't bother to dig me out though. Had to do that myself."
Zeke's also been there, done that. He's not sharing self-disinterment stories. "So why would this 'angel' do that for you?" he asks instead.
"I don't know. Believe me, I want to know. He hasn't been real . . . forthcoming on that," Dean says, looking uncomfortable. Then he looks directly at Zeke. "Pretty cagey bastards, aren't they?"
Zeke returns the look levelly. He doesn't tell him what he's really asking.
"Castiel, he's that angel," Sam says, "he said you're one of the seals, that we can't . . . do anything to you."
"What, like Good Housekeeping?" Zeke says. "I have no clue what the hell that means."
"You don't?" Dean asks. "Really?"
"Yeah. Really." Zeke scratches his cheek. "Gimme a break here."
"Seals are," Sam starts to say. "Okay, look. There are these demons who're trying to start the Apocalypse. It's like in the Bible except, well, except different."
"Different, huh." Ash has been working her own variation on the end-of-the-world theme for years now; Zeke can't say it's a surprise to hear that others are trying to horn in on her action. Probably pisses her off, though.
"Anyways," Sam is saying, "they want to free Lucifer by breaking these seals. You're one of them."
"Sure," Zeke says, humoring him. "So you don't think I'd know something like that?"
"That's just it. You wouldn't necessarily," Sam insists. "I mean, I don't think it's you, I think it's what you are. Or maybe what you do." He leans over and picks up some more of his papers. "See, Castiel called you one of the beasts, the Lawless Man."
Zeke gives Sam a narrow look. "I love the guy already."
"Cas is real tactful, yeah," Dean says, rolling his eyes.
"So that's also been associated with the son of perdition and the man of sin, and I also started thinking more about what it is that you actually do." He's paging through his papers. "What I'm thinking is that you're like the Wandering Jew legends--"
"He's a Catholic, Sammy," Dean chimes in. Sam looks up at him, startled. "What?" Dean protests. "I asked."
"Dean, it's not . . . it's not literal," Sam says, looking pained. "It's a . . . okay, for instance, you've also got the Flying Dutchman and all kinds of similar legends. They're people who wander the earth atoning for some sort of sin. Sometimes they have a task they have to complete before they can rest, or whatever." Sam turns the pained look on Zeke. "Does any of this sound familiar?"
"Not really," Zeke says. But maybe it's starting to make an unpleasant, convoluted sort of sense.
"So maybe there's some reason you hunt demons?" Sam says. "There's an end point? Or like a reward at the end?"
Zeke shrugs. He doesn't want to talk about this. Especially not with these two.
"So let's say that's all true. We're still back to the problem of Dean," Sam says. "Are you sure Dean's the one you're after? That there's not some other demon in this area?"
"What's with this 'other'?" Dean mutters.
Sam waves that off, impatiently. "I mean, why him and why now?"
"No," Zeke says, "it's him." There are damn few coincidences in his life. Winchesters in the same town he's been sent to, in the same damn diner he's sitting in, the newspaper . . . it's too much. But he's wondering himself why he's after Dean Winchester. With Zeke's current success rate -- with Zeke's present situation as case in point -- he figures there was about a 50/50 chance of Winchester would take him out instead.
"You guys," Zeke says. He's having a sudden flash of dire insight. "What the hell is it you do for a living, anyway? I mean, besides trashing parks, robbing banks, and killing people?"
"Us?" Sam says. He looks at Dean. "We don't do any of that, I told you."
"We hunt demons," Dean says. "Ghosts, monsters, whatever. Mainly demons these days, but, well normally we're open for anything."
"That's an actual job?" Zeke says dubiously.
"Well, uh, it's kind of a family business," Sam says. "You met our dad, right? Our parents, and -- well, our grandparents. It's a thing."
They've probably been taking out Ash's operatives, too; she'd send him flowers if he got rid of them -- and that's when Zeke gets it. That conversation in the diner. Performance review. Zeke has to sit down. Now.
He flops back and stares hard at his favorite ceiling in the world now. "You're my fucking replacement."
The silence that follows stretches out a little while. "Uh," says Dean. "What?"
"It's a win-win," Zeke says, laughing. Nothing's funny here, but he can't help it. He's been working to send himself back to hell for days now. "I take you out. You take me out. Either way, the job's yours."
"What job?" Sam says.
"Mine." Zeke rubs his eyes. "I send your brother there back to hell, he's gonna want out. So say someone offers him a really good deal on a passport. Gets him out of hell. All he has to do is just go back to what he'd already been doing all along -- starting with me." Zeke laughs again. "But, hey, if it goes the other way, if he takes me out first here . . . Then it's just a matter of time before he gets himself killed. You guys don't look like you lead the safest lifestyle. Then the same deal would apply."
"You made a deal to do this?" Sam says. He doesn't sound like he believes anyone would. Zeke guesses that answers the question of whether he'd spent any time in warmer climes.
"Who with?" Dean says.
"Classified," Zeke says. He has a pretty good idea, but it's not a question he can answer. They don't need to know that. "Doesn't matter. You'd do it, wouldn't you?" He says this to Dean, and props himself up to see that answer.
"Depends," Dean says carefully, looking back.
Zeke smiles. "Yeah. That's part of the offer."
Dean doesn't ask what Zeke means, so he figures they're on the same wavelength. "Then yeah," Dean says. "Hell yeah."
"S'what I figured," Zeke says, picking himself up, dusting off his coat. "Lemme out."
Dean's already scratching at one of the symbols when Sam says, panicked, "Dean, what are you--"
"He's not coming after us, Sam. It's all right."
"He hasn't said -- how do you know that?"
"Fine, I'll spell it out," Zeke tells him. "He's off the hook. It's going to be a long time -- a very long time -- before I run out of people who're ahead of him in line. Believe me." He spares Sam a glance. "Same applies to you, if you were wondering."
"Leave it, Sammy." Dean's on symbol number three, and Zeke can feel the pressure lifting. He's sure he could break this thing without those symbols, whatever they are. Good to know, but not something they should know. Zeke waits it out.
"Give the nice demon his gun back," Dean adds.
Sam looks a little mutinous at that. Zeke guesses he can't really hold that against him; it's a nice piece. But they have plenty in their own arsenal -- including that Ruby's knife. Zeke didn't get a good look at it after Winchester had hacked his arm, but now he's sure that's what did it. Zeke moves her back up a few notches on his personal hit list.
In the meantime, Zeke needs to decide what he's going to do about this latest employee motivation technique. He honestly does not know.
The last symbol's gone, the trap's up, Zeke has his gun again, and he's headed straight out the door, but Winchester puts himself between Zeke and his latest goal. That's not a very good idea, particularly with the mood Zeke's in right now.
Zeke's about to demonstrate that in no uncertain terms when Winchester says, "Sammy, I'll be back in a few. Just want to make sure he finds that path. You start cleaning up." Zeke's not allowed a say in this, he gathers.
Because he's not stupid, Sam looks alarmed. "Dean, I don't think you should--"
"It's fine, it's fine," Dean says. "He's got a vested interest in my healthy hide now."
Before Sam -- or Zeke for that matter -- can protest again, Winchester's dragging Zeke out the door.
"I don't need an escort, thanks," Zeke points out. He reclaims his arm.
"Sure, I know," Dean says easily. "Want a word."
"Don't know which way you got here, but the actual path's down this way," he says instead, taking the lead. "Avoids the boggy parts." Zeke sighs. He has to go this way, so he follows along behind.
Once they hit the start of the denser trees, Winchester pulls up. "Okay, this should be good," he says, looking back toward the house. "Here's the thing. Like I said, I hate demons. That is nonnegotiable. In fact, you want to move Ruby back up your list with a bullet, I, for one, vote Yea. And you know what? That applies to you, too." He frowns. "But that's not just a demon thing -- I also think you're kind of an asshole."
"It's mutual," Zeke says. Because it is. "This rant going somewhere?"
"Yeah. Yeah, it is," Winchester says, rubbing the back of his neck. "This is between you, me, and . . . that tree right there. Not for Sammy consumption, comprende?" He walks over and leans on his tree.
Zeke shrugs. He can't imagine a situation where he'd ever want to sit down for another chat with Sam Winchester.
"Okay, good," he nods. "Sammy doesn't really get it, or maybe he doesn't want to get it, which I'd completely understand. An angel pulled me out, but he didn't save my soul. I gotta do that part myself." He gives Zeke a sideways look. "Actually, I don't know that you're going to get this either. But I'll throw it out there, and you can do whatever you want with it."
"And what's that?"
"I'm going to tell you how to break that seal of yours."
23. View from a path in the woods
Of all the things he'd expected Winchester to say, that was nowhere on the page. Zeke stares at him. Winchester's leaning on his tree buddy now, weighing whatever's coming next.
"Thought your whole idea here was that not happening," Zeke says.
"Two things," Winchester says. "First, you met my dad. He was real good at what we do -- no, he was the best." Zeke's not in any position to argue. So maybe he was. "He'd have known something wasn't right with you. Hell, I figured it out the moment I saw you -- in a heat wave, dude, you take off the layers."
Zeke snorts. "So fashion consultant's the family sideline?"
"Funny. My point is that he'd have known. But he let you walk away, and I trust his judgment over anyone's. And you let him walk away, which also kind of figures in this."
"He wasn't the soul I was tracking down," Zeke states, "no reason to bother with him." He's not trying to be rude (much). But Zeke figures if this is some sort of weird obligation system Winchester's calculating, the guy should have the facts straight.
"Yeah, I get that. I'm just bringing it up as part of what Sammy'd call my 'process' here." He makes little finger quotes. It sounds suspiciously Max-like; Zeke wonders if Sam Winchester did any time in California. "The other thing is," Winchester's saying, "I did not miss that look on your face when I told you an angel'd handed you over to us on a platter."
Zeke finds a plant and focuses on that. It's a pretty fascinating plant. "I don't think this is any of your business," he says calmly. "In fact, I think we're just about--"
"Hold up," Winchester cuts in. "I don't need to know, okay? Not my business is right. But I saw that exact same look on . . . someone else's face. I'm aware of the signs. They don't care all that much about hurt feelings or who gets flattened for their cause. You with me?"
"Yeah," Zeke decides. "I guess I am."
"All right then," he says. He takes a breath. "Sam in there was dead. I sold my soul to a demon to bring him back to life. Demon collected, I died. That's why I was in hell."
Zeke blinks. The other one was dead? Winchester drops one bombshell after another. "So you lied to me."
"Didn't lie. Sam's looking pretty lively, isn't he? That's 'cause he is. I paid for that. And you know how." Zeke acknowledges that with a curt nod. "I knew at the time it was a mistake," Winchester continues, "I knew. And you can believe I know that now for certain. And if I could back up, redo it all, knowing everything I know now . . ."
Zeke has a strange feeling he does know where this is going. That he needs to not hear this. But he's still listening.
"Knowing everything I know now, I'd just do it again," Winchester says. "Sam, he means a lot to me. He's not just my brother, he's my job. Protecting Sammy is my one real job in life. I don't know if you can get that. But I'll lay odds that you do, going by what you just asked me in there. So I went to hell for Sam. Guess I'll go again if I have to."
"I don't want to hear any of this," Zeke says. He means that. He's not moving though.
"I know you don't." Winchester's just looking at him with this unreadable expression. "I know why, too. Me and Sam, we lay a lot of ghosts. Dead spirits hang on to the world, they won't let go for whatever reason; so we force their grip. Like Ethan, back there in the campground. We make 'em move on in spite of themselves. Damned souls are a whole different thing. We fasten ourselves down, and nothing can force our grip. We hang on and we can't let go. In time that gets ingrained, too late to change."
"We?" Zeke says.
"Absolutely, dude. I know what my problem is, and I'm not interested in making a change. How about you?"
"I don't have a--" Zeke cuts himself off this time.
"Yeah, whatever," Winchester says finally. "I figured this was wasted air, but there it is. So here's what I think. The holder of your job lets go, the seal breaks, the end. Castiel would probably drop me back in the pit for telling you that, but I figure it's your choice, not his. Not mine." Then he huffs to himself. "Though I guess, considering where I'm at right now, it'd be in my own best interests if the job stays available."
"I don't," Zeke says, "I don't even know what to do with that."
"Then don't do anything," Winchester says. He pushes himself off the tree, and gives Zeke a bright, insincere smile. "Hey, take it easy. Let's not do this again sometime." He walks back toward the house, rubbing his eyes and muttering, "Hate sitting up with friggin' demons."
The View from the Summit
24. A conversation in a bar
"What'll it be?" the bartender asks when Zeke plants himself at the bar. Of the three sides, Zeke has this one all to himself. He's glad; scuzzy doesn't begin to cover the other patrons. This is one of those trashed establishments where rednecks, bikers, truckers, and other assorted low-lifes mingle and periodically break each other's heads for entertainment.
Zeke places $36.27 on the bar and slides it across. "Meaning of life," he says, "on the rocks."
"But how on earth would it apply to you?" the bartender asks him. "Someone's moody this evening."
"It's a bar, you're a bartender. Listening to sob stories comes with the territory."
"I do find the sobbing appealing, it's true," the bartender admits, looking pleased. "Also, the wailing, the gnashing of teeth, the gibbering in fear."
"You'd really replace me," Zeke says. "Just like that."
"Just like that. What, did you think ours was a sentimental journey, Mr. Stone?" he says lightly. "I've told you enough times. The job needs to be done. If you're not taking care of it, you must be replaced."
"So what that angel's been saying to me. Was it all a lie?"
"What?" The bartender looks startled. "Angels don't lie, Mr. Stone. Everything he says is the truth." He grins, sharp. "Everything I tell you is a lie."
"Don't do that." Zeke grimaces, and he grumbles, "I hate those puzzles."
"Yes, I know you do."
"So you know everything about me. Why am I even bothering to have this conversation?"
"Not everything, Detective," he says. He's polishing a glass with his dishtowel, and he has a sleepy, oddly satisfied look. "Your redemption is at hand. You're finally glimpsing the door, and I wonder if you'll step through?"
Zeke shouldn't have been surprised that he knew. He rubs his chin, wonders if he can go through with this. The bartender sets down the glass, fills it with a few fingers of whiskey, then discreetly adds a drop from a small, slender bottle labeled "Triple XXX Jalapeño Red Devil Sauce." He offers it to Zeke.
"You putting that in all the drinks?"
"And yet I'm told nothing seems to taste right tonight." He frowns. "It's like a curse."
"Seems kind of petty," Zeke points out. He takes a sip; it's just as awful as advertised.
"Because it is 'kind of petty,' as you put it, Detective." He contemplates his hot sauce. "The devil is in the details. The auto parked just over the dividing line, the dripping faucet unmended, the neighbor with the loud television, the commuter with the excess of perfume, the mole disrupting the perfect lawn, the workplace rumors. The build up of minor annoyances, and the accumulation of resentment." He sighs, happily. "As lovely in their subtle way as those operatic gestures like pogroms, Mr. Stone."
Zeke tips his glass. "So with you, it's misery loves company? That's all it is?"
"A far more profound thought than you believe, Mr. Stone. What is hell but the expression of that? The ultimate negation of 'love thy neighbor.'" He chuckles.
"Ultimate negation. You're saying we don't love anything," Zeke says. "We just want."
"Love, want, what's the difference in the end? We can never have, Mr. Stone. The damned have no capacity to move beyond that."
But those are lies, too. "That's not true, is it? The 'abandon all hope' shtick isn't a jeer at the losers. It's the directions for walking back out, isn't it?" Zeke guesses he's only glimpsing this particular door because he's so close to it, for the first time since he died. The number of names tattooed on to him didn't matter; they'd never mattered. It was all about how he used his time outside of hell. "This has been my second chance at life all along."
The bartender adds a little more whiskey to Zeke's glass. "Very good, Mr. Stone."
Zeke watches him bustling around behind the bar, mixing more drinks, drawing more beers, doctoring them all in turn. But Zeke doesn't just want Ros. She's not just his obsession. He loves her. He knows the difference. And because he knows the difference, he can make a choice.
Zeke flags down the bartender as he's going on break. "Three conditions," he says.
"You're in no position to make demands, Detective."
"I'm not," Zeke admits, "if you're turning down this offer."
He grins. "Let's hear them."
"First, take Winchester off me. You don't need him."
"Someone else may well deal with him in future," he says.
"Nothing to do with me."
"True. And your lack of altruism is a salutary sign, Mr. Stone."
Zeke ignores that. "Second, you take my name off me."
This earns him a laugh. "You're full of surprises this evening, Detective. I wondered when you'd figure that out."
"You never let go of what belongs to you. You said it enough times. I just wasn't applying it to myself. So, sure, I'm an idiot. There wasn't any way to get to redemption from there."
"You can be an idiot, Ezekiel," he agrees, almost fondly. "But you make up for it in entertainment value."
"So, uh." Zeke pauses. The third one is the most difficult for him, but it's the most important one. It comes out in an embarrassing croak. "I want Ros to be safe. I want her never to be bothered by Ash or anyone else trying to get at me. I just want her to live her normal life, and go where she needs to go at the end." He looks away. "I want her to be safe from me, too. Keep me away from her."
"But you'd never see the fair Rosalyn again, Mr. Stone. You'd never know where she is, or how she's living -- or with whom she's living. And when she dies, you won't know when or how. That's what you want."
Zeke nods. "Yes."
"You know what you're asking, then?"
"Yes." Winchester had shoved it in his face so that Zeke couldn't avoid seeing it any longer. If he surrenders Ros, he can free himself from hell. He won't be tying himself down any longer; he can move on, have the redemption he's been working for all this time. Zeke would break a seal by doing it; and he'd nudge his boss closer to being capable of a hell of a lot worse than tying shoelaces together.
But, in the end, Zeke really only cares about one thing. Ash was right; he's just like the rest of them.
Zeke couldn't see it before, but he can see it now. For him, it's not just wanting to be with Ros. Above all he wants her to be happy. Zeke's not willing to give up Ros; he's not willing to stop protecting her. Her safety meant more to him than his own soul then, and it still does now. He damned himself for her; he accepts that he's selling away whatever's left for her now. "Three conditions," he says again.
"Done," the bartenders tells him. "You're rather cheap, aren't you, Mr. Stone?"
"Yeah? What's it say about you that you're buying from the bargain bin?" While he laughs at that, Zeke takes a final swig of his godawful whiskey. He wishes once again that he could get drunk; he really thinks he deserves it for what he's about to do.
"All yours," Zeke says, setting down his glass. "I belong to you. I work for you. I do your bidding. I'm forfeiting my redemption."
"Turn around, Ezekiel."
Zeke looks up, sees the bartender's no longer standing across the bar in front of him. Zeke turns on his barstool, and he grasps Zeke's coat, nudging himself in between Zeke's legs. He places a hand on Zeke's hip, grips. Zeke hisses as a tattoo there and the skin underneath it twist into a new shape. "That's two," the bartender murmurs.
"We won't be amending that old contract," he tells Zeke, "I'm writing you a new one." He's pushed aside Zeke's coat, and now he's peeling back Zeke's layers, down to his chest. Zeke hears the buzz of the bar rising as the other patrons start to pick up on the dubious action going down by the bar, but Zeke knows better than to protest. He just grips the barstool underneath him; he feels like a rabbit in front of a semi.
Because Zeke's remembering the first time, back in hell. Back when he hadn't had a body left, not exactly. Something repulsive had found him there, in the dark; it had somehow homed in on him, latched onto him, out of everything and everyone else, and Zeke had been . . . scared shitless. But a decade or so later, he'd gotten over it. This can't be worse than that, Zeke assures himself.
Then he's wordlessly sliding one hand into Zeke's shirt, and the other's winding around the back of Zeke's neck. His hand clamps on Zeke's nape, a vise holding him still, drawing him in. He's stronger than Zeke, and this really is it. It's the step off the roof the building; Zeke can't change his mind now, he can't pull back. He's committed.
"And I will put my spirit within you, Ezekiel, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will keep my judgments, and do them." His mouth closes over Zeke's, forces his lips open, and his tongue slides into Zeke's mouth, and his fingernails dig into Zeke's chest, through his chest. Zeke can't help it: he's struggling to pull back, but the edges of his body are already crumbling, something essential's being gouged out, his insides stitched back together in some misshapen way, and Zeke's
down. He's on the floor. Zeke's the face on the barroom floor. Zeke wants to laugh about that, but he doesn't have a throat yet. He can hear a metallic clicking, unnaturally loud.
Then booming, obnoxious dance pop. "We're no strangers to looove," it yodels, "you know the rules, and so do I!" It's the jukebox. Zeke's sure that whatever it's playing right now wasn't a selection before.
"My break is over, Mr. Stone. Enjoy."
Zeke wheezes a bit, trying to work his lungs, his throat. He's just died all over again; this is like the cemetery in New York. He's truly sorry he revived in time to hear the entire song. But Zeke thinks he can move if he keeps at it. Now he's hearing the low roar of offended bar customers and breaking glass as well. If he wasn't hurting so damned bad, Zeke knows this would be hilarious. Two men kissing and a bouncy pop tune are enough to touch off a bar brawl, but a dead guy on the floor doesn't even merit a 911 call. These are the witnesses for Zeke's final damnation. Perfect.
Zeke flops over on his back on the sticky floor and fumbles at the dampness on his face. Sweat. He can't remember the last time he'd sweated; he probably smells like one of those hot springs.
"Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down," the jukebox tells the room, "never gonna run around and desert you!"
After a few failed attempts, Zeke's up on his knees, dragging himself back to the barstool. He mostly destroyed the one he'd sitting on before, so he nudges it aside for the next. Zeke drapes himself on the bar to watch the flying fists and furniture. He's one of those cartoon characters who was pitched off a cliff then flattened under a steamroller. He'll puff back out to size in a moment. He's pretty sure. Maybe.
A bottle of beer appears on the bar in front of his eyes. He's about to thank God for small favors, when he remembers God had left the building long before Zeke showed up. Naturally it's the reconstituted horse pee brand and it's warm, but Zeke's fresh out of complaints just now. He wraps a shaking hand around it and pours it down his throat. Better. Each swallow helps. Zeke coughs a bit, clears his throat.
So he's going to survive, he decides.
The bartender grips Zeke's chin and raises it, studying him with a impartial air. He rubs his thumb over Zeke's lower lip. "You'll do," he pronounces, releasing him. He flicks a towel back over his shoulder and goes back to filling drink orders for the glaring waitress. Zeke leans to the side as a bottle flies past his head.
Zeke drinks and flexes a few overtaxed muscles. So that was both the same and worse than the first time. Zeke forgot about that moment when he was pulled under by it, engulfed by something vast, black, and starving. He doesn't have words for it. Insane, evil, terrifying. Zeke doesn't know what to call it, or really what it even is; nothing he can begin to understand. Even worse is when it really notices him; when it's aware of him. That part's already fading again, and he's pretty grateful. Zeke doesn't think he can function if he remembers that thing's touched him. That he works for it.
That some of it's inside him. Zeke fights an urge to throw up, drowns it under a few more pulls of his brew.
When the bartender strolls back to Zeke's lonely side of the counter, Zeke asks him, "So what's changed?"
"Changed? What did you expect, Detective? You have a job. Go and do it."
Not exactly the answer he was looking for. "So same job title as before?"
"Well, let's see," he purses his lips, puts on a show of pondering. "How about 'official emissary'? Does that sound self-important enough for you, Mr. Stone? Would you like business cards?"
"You know what I mean."
"You're upgraded to a tiny, bloated tick clinging to my backside, Ezekiel," he says, patting his hand. "Congratulations."
"That come with a raise?"
"Well, until such time as I decide to pluck you off, of course."
Zeke sighs. "So much for job security."
"Complacency is the enemy of efficiency, Detective," he says sententiously.
Still, Zeke has to push this. "How 'bout a new car?"
"Allowance, car? Not even hell wants a whining teenager, Mr. Stone," he retorts. "Yet I take it that you intend to be as sulky and uncooperative as ever."
"Probably," Zeke admits. He's sort of a failure as a proper minion. This new deal is still bugging him though. He feels like something is different. He doesn't even know what he's expecting though. "I don't get it."
"You've secured the fair Rosalyn's pension plan and your own, Mr. Stone. You've traded your soul and redemption for eternal despair. All for a rag and a bone and a hank of hair. That's not enough for you?"
"Guess you're right."
"I invariably am," he points out. "Not that this has any impact on whether you listen, I've noticed. The other benefit, one you'll appreciate immensely, I'm sure, is that you'll no longer be bothered by angels fluttering about exhorting you to have faith and be a better person."
"No, Ezekiel. They no longer have to encourage you to hope, to dangle the prospect of your widow before your yearning eyes. You've given them what they wanted, an unbreakable seal. They'll be moving on to guard other ones."
Zeke swallows. "What?"
"You didn't realize?" He smiles. "You weren't that important to the grand scheme of things. Sixty-six need to be broken, but there are over six hundred to choose from, as I recall. So they'll fail in the end. You needn't concern yourself, Ezekiel -- ah, but then, you weren't really concerned on the world's behalf, were you? That's not why you surrendered all that you are to me."
Which was nothing but the truth, but Ros was . . . no, he'll find her again. It's just a matter of time. The whole end-of-the-world business had seemed like it might be important, too, but now he's realizing that it's pretty minor. It's nice to have some clarity for a change. "So you're going to be released eventually." Zeke's throat feels dry. He takes another drink.
"I suppose so." He shrugs. "The arguments over it provide a great deal of amusement, if nothing else."
Zeke remembers the blonde in the alley muttering over convenience, and Ash's readiness to help at times. "You've been using me to stir them up."
"You've a genuine talent for irritation, Mr. Stone. It would be a crime not to put that to use."
"So you what, just sit back and judge for mayhem, creativity, and the dismount?" Zeke waves. "You don't care whether you're sprung or not?"
"Why would I? You know what I want, Detective. You've seen it," he says, leaning an elbow on the bar. His expression smooths out, and Zeke blinks at the uncomfortable reminder of the hungry thing in the dark. "This won't obtain it for me."
"Huh." Zeke takes a pull on his drink. "That bites."
"The nature of hell," he says, "summed up in your inimitable manner, Mr. Stone. And joy like mine is meant to be shared. You'll return my lambs to the slaughter, Ezekiel." He smiles, teeth gleaming and sharp. "All of them."
Which reminds Zeke of something else that really matters right now. Zeke pushes himself off his stool, rooting through his pocket. "Mouth tastes like a chemistry set," he mutters. "Need to brush my teeth."
"Your steadfast dedication to dental hygiene in the face of Armageddon itself is truly one of your more eccentric qualities, Mr. Stone," the bartender observes, turning away.
"My mom raised me right." Well, except for the whole going to hell thing, she had. But Zeke doesn't believe anyone would want a side order of tooth decay with their doom.
After he's bounced the bikers off the walls who'd followed him for some gaybashing, Zeke washes off their blood, brushes his teeth, and wonders. He checks out his chest in the smeared mirror. One of the tattoos beside Ash's is gone now, a small blank area under the hair. He's still marked somehow, though; he can feel the sensation deeper, imbedded inside him.
So Ash really had known all along. She'd seen Zeke's name written on him when she'd seen her own.
When Zeke exits by way of the front door, a different guy's come on shift to sling the drinks at the bar.
25. A payphone at midnight
Zeke's had the number since Fraker gave it to him years ago, one he's never used. He's been saving it for a special occasion, and he guesses this is as close as he'll get. He pours out his collection of quarters and starts chugging them into the payphone slot.
She picks up on the first ring and waits, silent.
"I made the deal." So Zeke's mortal enemy is the only creature Zeke has to share his news with. But he's open to owning that issue, too. Here he is, on the phone.
She sighs, a long slow exhalation into the receiver. She's probably in bed, he thinks. She's smoothing her hair out of her eyes, an unconscious gesture of hers. Pale hair, pale shoulders. He remembers. But he also remembers what she looks like underneath that. A few moments tick by until she says, in a practical tone, "So that's it, then. I always figured you were the one who'd get free."
"Nah." He shrugs, though she can't see it. "You were right; I'm just like everyone else. You were right about a lot of stuff." It doesn't hurt to admit, now that Ros is beyond her reach. But not beyond his. "Thanks for that much."
"You're welcome," she says drily.
"But you're wrong about a lot of things, too."
"And you don't feel like clearing up what those are."
"Nope." Zeke shifts, restless. "Not a damn thing has changed, by the way. You're going back to hell, Ash. I'm sending you there."
"You'll try," she agrees, "but you'll fail."
"Yeah, well, it's a plan. I got a lot of time to work out the kinks."
"A very, very long time, Zeke -- unless others' plans intervene."
"Yeah, been hearing about those. 'Night, Ash."
"Goodbye, Ezekiel." As usual, she hangs up on him first.
26. A library in a small town
"Thing is, I'm really terrible with the computers," Zeke explains to the librarian. She's in her sixties, and the gray sweater doesn't suit her. She's got a tired expression, like she's been here too long today; Zeke's another idiot who shouldn't be allowed near the shiny machines. She'd be right about that. "I just need some help. I'm trying to look up my, uh," he swallows, "one of my old junior high teachers. She'd be in her . . . sixties now. Retired, maybe. Her name's Rosalyn Stone." He tries for a sincere smile; now she's probably thinking he can't be trusted with a pencil. "Or it used to be, maybe?"
"I'm just a weekend volunteer, so you might want to come back during the week when the regular librarian's here," she says. "But how about I show you how to use a search engine, and we can go from there?"
"That'd be great." Zeke nods. "I'd appreciate it."
"So you're looking for an old teacher?" she says, getting up. "I used to teach."
"Yeah?" Zeke says. He can't say he's really interested, but he tries to look friendly. "Small world."
The library guy misshelving books nearby begins to laugh to himself. Zeke ignores him. He's had plenty of practice.