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Her Tracks Are On the Land

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Cover art by [info]tripoli8. Podfic read by [info]circadienne.

 

Topeka, 2006

Karen's email opens slowly while she fetches her coffee. By the time she sits back down behind her desk, turning the monitor to cut the glare from the window, the screen is full of bolded subject lines. It's the usual, one third spam, one third mailing-list posts that get automatically filtered into a folder for later, and a final thirty or so individual messages that she has to get through before the staff meeting at ten.

Meeting notice, email forward from Penny, policy question from Lizbeth, Google Alert - "Dean Winchester" - Google News Alert for "Dean Winchester" ALLEGED SERIAL KILLER SHOT St. Louis Post-Dispatch

What? She stabs at her mouse; it takes two attempts to open the message, and she almost knocks the mouse off her desk trying to click on the link. It opens to the St. Louis paper.

"Police believe that the man found dead of a gunshot wound in a home in Lafayette Square is tied to a series of violent killings in the greater metropolitan area since November of last year, including the brutal torture and slaying of Emily Davis and Lindsay Wu. Police have identified the dead man as Dean Winchester, once of Kansas. Police investigators have not determined..."

"Oh, my god."

It takes an hour to get through to the detective in charge of the case. When he comes on the line, he's cranky, brief, and demanding. Neither of them get what they want from the conversation. No, she can't identify Dean Winchester, but her stomach turns over when Detective Chase says he's got a Kansas driver's license. No, she has no idea where his "accomplices" are. No, the police have no other information on Dean: they made the identification based on his drivers' license, which was expired anyway.

"We'll call you if we learn anything else, Mrs. Pierson. I promise."

As if the cops in St. Louis have any interest in finding her one remaining nephew. Karen hasn't ever even held Sammy; he was three four-by-six color snapshots and a muffled voice wailing on the one cassette tape Mary mailed that last summer.

"Karen? You okay?" Lizbeth hovers in the door, her arms full of manila folders topped by a wobbly coffee mug.

Karen swallows, scrubs at her face with the napkin from yesterday's bagel sandwich. "Yeah, I... I have to go to St. Louis. I... my nephew's dead, they think."

"Oh, my god, I'm so sorry!" Lizbeth's round face crumples with sympathy; Karen stifles an inappropriate laugh. The boy she's spent twenty years searching for, in memory of her dead sister, turned out to be a serial killer. How's that for a kick in the pants?

*

Mali, 1984

The letter came in a flat, thin envelope, travel-stained and wrinkled. Karen picked it up and turned it over, frowning; usually Mary sent fat envelopes made of sturdy brown paper, stuffed with Dean's latest drawing and the news from home. She always sent them airmail, so they cost a lot and had a crazy assortment of multi-colored stamps on them. Dean helped her pick the stamps out, Karen figured.

This letter just had a couple of stamps on it, and no return address. But Karen recognized the thin, shaky penmanship. The postmark, which she had to tilt sideways and squint to read, was from December, two months ago.

She thanked the postmaster and walked back out into the sun, pulling her sunglasses down and over her eyes as she stepped down onto the dirt road. A horn honked and a truck rattled past, kicking up a cloud of dust and scattering a dozen scrawny chickens to the side of the road. Karen looked at the writing on the envelope and, without opening it, tucked it into her backpack.

She opened it later, seated on the rickety wooden chair next to the kerosene lamp, bugs throwing themselves at the screens. The remains of the dinner she bought in the market on the way home sat on the table, oil congealing in the wooden bowl. Her knife was greasy: she wiped it against a rag before using it to slice open the envelope.

There wasn't a letter in the envelope, after all, just a slip of newspaper, the edges uneven where he'd folded and torn it out. C'mon, Dad, she thought, unfolding the clipping and spreading it out on the table. He couldn't even be bothered to send a note with it.

It was from the Lawrence Journal-World, dated November 4. Three months ago. "Mother of Two Dies in Unexplained Fire", said the headline. "Mary Winchester, 28, died Wednesday night in a fire that consumed--"

What?

Karen turned the clipping over. On the back was part of an advertisement for Ed's Tires, and half of an editorial about off-leash dogs. This couldn't be what it said. She would have heard.

"--marshall's office has yet to determine the cause of the blaze. John Winchester, 29, was able to carry the couple's two sons, four and six months, to safety, but fire department officials say that they were forced to restrain him from re-entering the house. Winchester, a mechanic, has lived in the Maple Lane residence for three years, since shortly after the birth of their older son."

What?

Karen read the article all the way to the end this time. Then went back to the top and reread it. It was quiet here on the edge of the bush, the only sound the rustle of the wind in the scrub and the insects chirping and throwing themselves against the screen door. Her neighbors had all gone to bed except for Fanta, who Karen could hear singing softly to the new baby, only two months old.

It was eighteen months since Karen arrived here, not quite bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Her term of service was up in six months, but she'd been thinking of extending it, if the Ministry of Agriculture approved. She looked around at the sparsely furnished room, the bright coverlet on the bed and the pots on the wall blurring. She wouldn't be staying.

*

St. Louis, 2006

In contradiction of all the standard movie conventions, it's a sunny spring day when they lay Mary's oldest to rest. Karen can't let the state bury him, not when he is nearly all she has left of Mary; but she can't bring herself to pay for more than the minimum.

She makes them open the coffin for her at the funeral home first; she needs to see him. The funeral director, an obsequious little man named Bauer, lifts the lid and then backs away to give her time with "the departed." Karen draws an unsteady breath, then forces herself forward to look into the box.

It's a cheap coffin, lined with a dull green material that's probably polyester. The green doesn't do much for the complexion of the young man lying there in an off-the-rack black suit and dull yellow tie. He's not blond like his mother, but his hair, short as it is, looks lighter than John's was. Straight nose, firm jaw: he might have been attractive, but it's hard to tell with the way his face has slackened in death.

She can't see little Dean, Mary's boy, in this body: it's just a corpse, could be anyone. As a toddler, Dean was a bundle of energy, a tow-headed tornado. But sweet: Karen remembers reading him to sleep more than once, and the way his warm and heavy little body felt as she carried him to bed. He would always wake up when she put him down, putting his face up for a kiss good-night. She'd so wanted to see him grow up, to tell him about her adventures, and even take him on some--the wild aunt, swirling into town with a fantastic tan and stories to share. Yeah, that worked out.

What happened to the little boy who drew pictures on his mother's letters for her? Where is his father, and what did John do to him, how did he raise him, to make him kill those women so viciously, with no provocation? She's so angry, but--she owes Dean this much, at least, as his mother's sister. He's her family.

She swallows, steps back and motions to the funeral director. "Let's get this over with."

God damn John Winchester, anyway.

There are four people at the gravesite as she walks down the hill from the car, a little unstable in her heels. The minister, Detective Chase--she wonders why--that Bauer guy from the funeral home, and a young blonde girl who looks barely twenty.

The minister rattles through the service as though paid in words per minute, and then there's an awkward silence. Karen can't think of anything to say. The guy from the funeral home approaches her and offers her some platitudes; Detective Chase shakes her hand silently; the minister disappears.

It's warmer here than at home, spring has come earlier, and there are flowers in the grass between the graves, edging the paths and drives. It's so pretty, so inappropriate a resting place for her serial-killer nephew.

"I'm sorry," says a soft voice, and Karen looks up to see the blonde girl. She's wearing a simple dark suit, car keys dangling from her hand. The scarf wrapped around her neck doesn't quite match the suit, as if it's a last-minute addition to her ensemble. Her lower lip is swollen and scabbed. "Were you close?"

Karen shakes her head. "Close? No. I..." She stares at the girl. "Who are you?"

"Rebecca Warren. Becky." The girl offers her hand. "I'm one of Sam's friends."

Staring, Karen doesn't even touch the girl's hand. "Sam's--oh, my god, you know Sammy. Where is he?" Sammy was here? Why--did Sammy know what his brother was?

Becky looks aside, suddenly shifty. "He's gone, they had to go..."

"They?" Karen repeats. "Is he--he's with his father?"

"No," Becky says. "Can I ask, how did you know Dean?" She glances casually up the hill, at the figures of the minister, the detective, and the funeral director climbing steadily up towards the cars.

"He's my nephew," Karen says. She draws a breath to continue, but can't think of anything else to say. There really isn't anything to say; he's her nephew, and that's all she knows of him now. "How do you know Sammy--Sam?" she finally says.

"He lived on my floor freshman year." When Karen frowns, puzzled, Becky explains, "In my dorm. He goes--well, went--to Stanford with me."

Karen blinks, startled. Little Dean became a serial killer and Sammy goes to Stanford?

*

Lawrence, 1984

Nobody knew where John went. Two months after Mary died--before Karen even knew her sister was dead--John sold the station wagon, called an auctioneer to clear out the house, and gave the keys to the place to his father-in-law.

"No, nothing," said Mike Guenther, leaning against the steel desk in the auto-shop office, his green shirt grimy at the end of the day. "Haven't heard a word."

"But it's March," Karen said, baffled. "He didn't even send a change of address?"

Guenther nodded to his left, where a stack of mail was overflowing a metal basket. "That's all his; I been picking it up from the house cause I don't know what else to do with it. Katie returns the letters for Mary, but..." He trailed off, shrugging.

"Jesus," said Karen. "What got into him?"

There was a big smear of grease on Guenther's thumb: he transferred it to his neck as he scratched thoughtfully. "John got weird there, after the fire. Swore he saw ... stuff. Crazy stuff. I don't know, I wouldn't..." he hesitated.

Karen raised her eyebrows. "Wouldn't what?"

"Well, you're family, aren't you. More than me or Katie, anyway." Guenther's face cleared, the problem solved. "He was drinking too much, ranting about the stuff he saw the night of the fire. It was crazy, and the kids--they were having it hard. The baby wasn't eating and Dean wasn't talking. I swear, I was this far from calling welfare, he just wasn't looking out for them right. He had a duty to his family."

"And then?"

"And then he left. Dumped all his booze first, though, and the next day when I came home, he was gone. Took the kids, and the car, and just left. Haven't heard from him since."

Where do you go with an infant and a kindergartener in a rehabbed old Chevy? Karen stared at Guenther, hoping for answers, but all he could give her was a shrug and an invitation home for Katie's legendary pot roast. She passed.

It was Tuesday and she'd been in Lawrence since Saturday and still nothing made sense. She went back to her father's apartment--her furniture was still in storage and she didn't know what to do with it yet--and stared into the refrigerator.

It held beer, milk, and juice, butter, eight different condiments (including two kinds of mustard), two bottles of salad dressing, and three containers of leftovers. After nearly two years in Mali, it made her anxious just looking at it all, and she closed the door firmly.

There were two little boys out there, somewhere. Her father couldn't help; he barely knew who she was most days. Karen would have to find them.

*

St. Louis, 2006

The coffee in her cup has long gone cold; Karen stirs it absently with one of the little wooden stirrers, her attention on Becky. "I don't understand. If you're one of the women he attacked, why were you at the cemetery?" Dean Winchester nearly killed this tiny thing, her glossy hair shining in the sunlight through the cafe's window. When they sat down, Becky unwrapped the scarf to reveal bruises on her throat, purpling as they heal.

"I wanted to make sure he was dead," Becky says, but she's staring down at her latte, and her voice sounds muffled. She's lying about something.

"But where is Sam? And their father?" Karen remembers Dean being the apple of John's eye: he followed his father everywhere, and John loved the boy back, fiercely and brightly. She can't imagine any reason why John wouldn't be here to bury his oldest.

Becky flushes, her gaze flickering up at Karen and then down again, to the muffin she's disassembling on its napkin. "Why do you care? You said you don't even know them." Her voice is challenging, shaky.

Her eyebrows going up, Karen sits back in her chair. After a moment, she collects herself. "I carried Dean home from the hospital, because Mary was too sore and John had to drive. When I was in Africa, he drew pictures on Mary's letters to me." She stops there, feeling a rising anger: why should she have to justify herself to this girl?

But maybe she does: this girl is a victim. "I'm sorry," she adds after a moment. "I lost track of them after their mother died, and--things changed. I don't know how Dean became the kind of person who would attack you. I don't know--"

"He didn't," says Becky, and she's gone pale, her voice shaky, but she meets Karen's eyes. "It wasn't him."

What? Karen saw the police reports; Detective Chase was sympathetic but thorough. "I don't understand. Who attacked you?"

Becky tucks a lock of hair behind her ear before dropping her hands back to her mug. She looks away, shaking her head, and then back at Karen. "I don't know. Someone else, who looked like him. But I--" she hesitates, picking her way through the words, as if they're a minefield. "First I thought it was Dean, because he looked like him. But later, I was with Dean when that guy was killed. Dean wasn't the one who attacked me: he saved me!" She licks her lips nervously, her eyes wide and liquid. There's a passion in her words: she really needs Karen to believe her, to believe this... story.

The coffee in Karen's mug is cold; she grimaces and puts it down, staring at Becky. "Why didn't you tell the police this?"

Becky flushes. "What was I going to say? The dead guy who attacked me isn't who you think it is--that guy's still alive. They'd never believe me!" She sounds fully aware of the unlikely nature of her story. "Besides, I didn't want to get them in trouble."

"So," Karen suggests, "you're saying Dean--Sam's brother, Dean--is still alive."

"Yes. I saw him and Sam leave together, three days ago." There isn't an ounce of hesitation in the girl's voice. After a moment, her face softens, and she asks, "You want to see a picture?"

"Of Dean?" Karen's got a pretty good idea of what Dean looks like: she's just buried him. Becky's assertions notwithstanding. Perhaps the girl's on medication?

Becky smiles for the first time and retrieves a cell phone from her pocket. "No, of Sam." She pokes at a few buttons and then turns the phone around so Karen can see. It's a picture of a couple: a dark young man with hair in his eyes and a blonde girl with masses of curls reaching to her shoulders. The sun through the cafe windows makes it hard to see details, but Karen's pretty sure she sees dimples on the young man. She doesn't see much resemblance to his brother; but she can see John in his coloring.

"Oh. Who's the girl?"

The smile goes away. "Jessica. She died. That's why Sam left school."

"Where'd he go?"

Becky's coffee cup is empty, but she keeps turning it, her hands moving and moving. Whatever happened to her that day, she's not over it yet. Karen wonders if she's getting therapy. "I don't know. I think he's just ... driving around with his brother, in that big black car of his." Again, there's some hesitation in her voice.

Big black car. "You're kidding."

"What?" Becky's surprise, at least, seems entirely genuine.

"The car--it's an old Chevy four-door that gets, like, twelve miles to the gallon?" Jesus: it must cost a fortune to keep that damn thing on the road these days. Karen can't believe--but maybe she can. She always wondered if John had a sentimental streak in there, buried under the Marine. Christ: they're still driving Dad's car. "So what were they doing here, anyway?"

"They came to help out--well, that's what Sam said. My brother was arrested for killing his girlfriend, and ..." Her gaze goes unfocused, and she rubs her hands up her arms. "But it wasn't him, it was that guy," and she lifts her chin towards the parking lot.

Karen stares for a moment before she understands. "Wait, the guy who did it was ... Dean?"

"No! That's what I've been saying! It was the guy who looked like Dean."

"Despite the fact I just buried him."

"Well, you buried someone. Just--it wasn't Dean Winchester. It wasn't your nephew."

*

Lawrence, 1984

Dad wasn't able to look after himself, not anymore. Mary'd had a woman coming in three times a week, but she stopped coming in January when Dad forgot to pay her. Karen couldn't afford to hire anyone, and she couldn't bring herself to ask Uncle Jack for help; she got an administrative job at the university--answering phones and filing in the financial aid office--and bought two sets of sheets for the fold-out couch in Dad's den.

On her lunches (cold tuna sandwiches and no-brand diet ginger ale), she sat at her desk and called nursery schools in Oklahoma, and then the Dakotas, then Texas. Twenty minutes with the Lawrence Police Department was enough to learn that nobody there would help her: I'm sorry, ma'am, but he's their father. It's not illegal for him to move them away. Even if they thought he might have been responsible for the fire himself--an unspoken allegation that put Karen's back up and made her voice sharper than it needed to be. John would never have killed Mary; not a million years.

In September the property tax bill came due, and that's when Karen realized John wasn't ever coming back. Dad was still together enough to sign the paperwork; Karen put the house up for rent and when a young family took it--he was a researcher at the university--she invested the proceeds. The names on the account were Karen Harrison, Dean Winchester, and Samuel Winchester.

The second of November was breezy and clear. The renters were to move in on the fifth. Karen pulled the Scirocco into the driveway: the catalytic converter rattled consumptively when she stopped the car. The house was empty, cleared out by the auctioneers and the cleaners hired by the real estate management firm. John had gotten most of the repairs done before he disappeared, and Karen had scraped together enough to finish it up before listing the house for rent. The door creaked when she opened it, her footprints echoing as she walked through. Karen had only been here a few times when Mary was alive, and now there was nothing left of her here, nothing left of the family she had been building. It was just plain white walls, mottled linoleum, and bourgeois beige carpet. Since the repairs were done, Karen couldn't even tell which room had been the nursery where her sister died.

There was a car in the street when she left, someone staring up at her as Karen locked the door. Karen peered back at them as she went down the stairs, but it was no one she knew, just a black woman driving slowly, checking the house numbers as if looking for an address.

*

Topeka, 2006

The story Becky told her is unbelievable; so, reluctantly, Karen decides not to believe it. Little Dean, who so loved the green wooden elephant she'd sent him from Africa, became a serial killer, and is dead. Not just a killer, either: a torturer. Detective Chase isn't happy about sending her the reports, but at least he's smart enough not to include any pictures. What she reads is... more than enough.

Dean is dead; and better so.

But baby Sammy's still alive. Alive, and smart enough to get into Stanford! Mary would be so proud. Sammy�"okay, Sam--studying physics, or philosophy, carrying a backpack to class and pulling all-nighters. He's like Karen herself, that way: the only one in his family to go to college. She wonders what John said about that, although she's sure he must be proud. Stanford.

Becky gave her both a cell number and a Stanford email address for Sam; unfortunately the cell number has been disconnected, and there is no reply to the carefully-worded email Karen sends. She suspects she's been spam-filtered, and tries again a few weeks later: this time the message bounces. No such user at stanford.edu. She doesn't know how else to get in touch; it's not like she can post a note in the classifieds.

She'll have to find him the hard way. However, thanks to Becky, Karen has a place to start.

After all, there can't be that many 1967 Chevrolet Impalas still on the road, right?

Later, she'll kick herself for not asking more about Jessica, and how she died. Not that it really makes a difference in the long run.

*

Topeka, 1988

"I'm sorry, ma'am, I can't take your money anymore." Rynders pushed the folder across the desk to Karen, who just stared at her.

"I--what?"

Rynders sighed and looked at her phone, as if willing it to ring. "Ms. Harrison--" Her dark hair was caught up in a messy bun, curling dark tendrils splaying out in every direction.

"Pierson," corrected Karen. "I got married last month." She twisted the ring on her finger. Gavin knew about the boys, knew she was looking, but not that she hired Rynders & Associates to find them. Or that she'd spent over ten thousand dollars on this in the last four years. She should tell him, she should--and every time she started to, she stopped.

She changed her name because her father was dead and thus couldn't care, and Uncle Jack had boys: there would always be Harrisons. But Gavin was the only man left in his family, and he cared so much about it. What Karen could do for her family, for the Harrisons, was find Dean and little Sammy.

"Congratulations," said Rynders, dryly, and Karen could tell that Rynders would never have changed her name. She wanted to grind her teeth at the presumption, and instead forced a smile.

"But I don't understand--"

With a shake of her head, Rynders pushed the folder at her again. "We're out of leads, Ms. Pierson. Your brother-in-law's gone underground, and he's taken those boys with him. We've run every search we know, alerted police departments in every state, gone through the credit agencies, schools, hospitals. The closest we got was Pennsylvania, and that was two years ago. For all we know, he's taken them out of the country."

"Oh, my god." Karen pictured little Dean, those green eyes wide, on some empty road in the Alberta plains; or Sammy, ragged and unidentifiable, in a school yard in Europe somewhere. Never knowing their family, taken god-knows-where by a father who'd--what? lost his mind, maybe?--when his wife died.

Not for the first time, Karen wondered what John saw that night, that made him abandon everything he knew, all the pieces of his life he left behind when he ran. None of the investigators were able to make any sense of the fire: not from the evidence, and not from the nonsense John blurted in the first few days afterwards.

But Rynders couldn't help her. Okay. Karen took a deep breath. "Okay. I'm sorry, you're right. But if you know of anyone--" Rynders was shaking her head. "I see. Well. Well, thank you. I appreciate..."

Karen fumbled the envelope into her purse, fingernails picking at the copper clasp holding it closed. Rynders gave her a smile of great sympathy. "I'm sorry we couldn't be of any more help, Ms. Pierson. But if I think of anything, I'll be sure to let you know."

I'm sure. Thank you. You've been very kind. Yes, yes, I'm sure, something will come up. We just have to be patient.

*

Topeka, 2007

She likes to be the first into the office, likes working the early shift from 7 to 4 and catching a little daylight on the way home. It's harder in the winter, the days are so short, the mornings so dark, so it's closer to 7:20 one January morning when she pulls out her keys and unlocks the sticky bolt on the main door.

Juggling her laptop bag, nonfat latte from Todd the Coffee Guy, and her lunch bag, she doesn't notice them until they're right next to her.

"Mrs. Pierson?"

She drops her cup; the lid comes off and there's coffee everywhere, including over the shoes and pants-legs of the two official-looking young men. "Oh! Oh, god, I'm sorry. Let me--" She pushes the door open and ushers them inside, dumps her stuff on Lizbeth's desk and goes looking for the napkins.

Lizbeth has cleverly secreted the napkins in the cabinet under the coffee-maker, with the paper plates and cups they (bad environmentalists that they are) use for office parties. Karen takes a handful and turns back; they're both looking at her kind of sourly. "Napkin?" she offers.

"Thank you," says the white one, and dabs at his shoes.

The black one ignores the handful of napkins and unbuttons his coat, pulling out a slim wallet and flipping it open to reveal some sort of identification. "Mrs. Pierson, I'm Special Agent Henricksen and this is Special Agent Reid. We're here to talk to you about your nephews."

"My nephews." Plural. They're a bit behind the times. "I only have one nephew." Who she still hasn't found, damn it.

Henricksen shakes his head. "Your nephew Dean is very much alive."

What? "But I thought--in St. Louis--" They are both shaking their heads. "Becky was right?" she blurts.

Henricksen frowns. "Becky? Oh, Rebecca Warren. What did she tell you?"

"She said that she saw Dean, afterwards. That he saved her. I thought she was confused. I mean, the police had the body, and--and everything. It all matched up."

Reid smiles patronizingly, and looks about to say something when the door swings open again; it's Pete, the intern who does their mapping and website work. "Oh, sorry, 'scuse me," he says, kicking the door shut as he maneuvers his way to his desk, a box of donuts in one hand. "Can I... um." He stares at Karen, who sighs.

"Why don't we go into my office," she suggests, and shrugs out of her coat and scarf. "Pete, can you take my calls? I don't know how long I'm going to be."

"Sure thing," he says, faintly, and watches with unabashed curiosity as the two FBI agents follow her into her small, cluttered, and rather musty office.

There's a stack of reports on the one visitor's chair: Karen piles them on the floor and lets the agents figure out who gets it, while she seats herself behind her desk. "Okay," she says at last, surprised at how unsurprised she is; maybe her subconscious mind is more flexible than she thinks. "You're telling me I buried someone I was told was my nephew last year, but who... wasn't?"

"Dean faked his own death," says Henricksen, the name rolling off his tongue with a surprising familiarity. As if he knows Dean, better than Karen could. Which wouldn't be hard, after all; but it still unsettles her. "That shook us off his tail for a while, but he's gone back to his old ways now, and popped back into sight in Maryland."

"His old ways?" Now the shock is over--she puts aside the question of how--she's beginning to wonder why the FBI is at her doorstep. If that wasn't Dean buried in St. Louis, then Becky is right and that also wasn't Dean who attacked her or killed those other two women. So, why the FBI visit?

"Mrs. Pierson, how much do you know about your nephews?" Henricksen looks like he's trying to be sympathetic. It doesn't sit well on his face.

She looks from one to the other of them, a soft alarm beginning to ring in the back of her mind. "Not much; my sister's husband took them away after she died. I haven't seen either of them, or John, in over twenty years." No need to mention the private investigators or the internet searches or the list of classic car shops on her laptop; twice a week she sets aside an hour for some calls. She's up to Illinois already.

Henricksen gets that sour look on his face again. "Well, their father is another story entirely. Let's just say that Sam and Dean weren't exactly raised to be Boy Scouts."

Huh. John Winchester thought his wife's little sister was a hippie and a flake, even if he hid it well: he was a straight arrow's straight arrow. The man didn't even cheat on his taxes; no way would he teach his sons to defy the law. Karen keeps her face innocently curious, nonetheless. "What do you mean, exactly?"

"Winchester's known associates include gunrunners, con artists, frauds of various types, anti-government militants. He's tied to crime scenes in a dozen states, mostly involving property crimes, arson, and grave desecrations. But we'd really like to talk to him about some suspicious deaths in Louisiana and Montana." Henricksen reads this all out like he's the voice of God, passing judgment from on high.

Karen swallows, baffled. Outside, she hears Pete greet Lizbeth and the burp of the coffee pot next to her office door. The phone rings and Pete picks it up. Finally, she says, "Grave desecrations?"

Reid smiles: it makes her want to slap him. "He likes to dig up bodies and burn them. We don't know why; but it looks like Dean has taken it up as well."

"But why?" Karen's glad she's sitting down. When Rynders told her about all the moving, the name-changes, she'd speculated about loan sharks or some trouble associated with John's family. Maybe even witness protection. But nothing like this.

Lips pursed judiciously, Henricksen shakes his head. "We don't know. The mentally ill can construct elaborate fantasies to support their delusions, which might explain the father's behavior. But--"

"But not the son's," adds Reid, then shuts his mouth when Henricksen looks at him.

"And now we know Dean's progressed to murder," continues Henricksen. "It's likely he learned that from his father as well."

So according to the FBI, John is a murderer, and so is Dean. They dig up and burn corpses, and burgle people, and traffic in guns. Topeka isn't that far from Oklahoma City; Karen knows the threat of home-grown terrorism isn't meaningless. But what do grave desecrations and the dead man in St. Louis have to do with gun-runners, militia types and white supremacists?

Karen didn't know John well; she does know that Mary would never have married him if he were the man Henricksen is describing. Hell, he didn't even keep his service weapon in the house: he locked it away in the garage after Dean was born. And Becky swore that Dean and Sam saved her life. So. Either John Winchester became entirely unrecognizable after Mary's death, and raised his sons to be amoral sociopaths, or the FBI is wrong.

Karen knows what she prefers to believe.

"What about Sam?" she asks, suddenly. "Where does he fit into all of this?"

"Sam?" Reid repeats, frowning. "Sam's just along for the ride."

"We don't have anything on Sam," Henricksen amends smoothly. "He could be completely clean: at least he was while he was in California." But he gives Karen a meaningful look. "But do you know how Sam's girlfriend died, Mrs. Pierson? His brother was there, that night..."

Karen pushes back from the desk, the sticky wheel on her chair making her jerk and shudder. "What, you're saying Dean killed his brother's girlfriend? Why?" Is there a crime in the lower 48 that the FBI won't pin on the Winchesters?

Shrugging, Henricksen pushes himself upright. "We don't know, Mrs. Pierson. That's why we want to talk to them so much. Perhaps Dean can explain it for us. Perhaps it's all just a big misunderstanding." But his eyes are too bright, too hungry: he wants more than just to talk. Karen's seen eyes like these before; she worked for CPS for ten years before her failures began to overwhelm her successes. She knows what a dedicated cop looks like, and what someone obsessed with destruction looks like, too.

"Perhaps," repeats Reid, opening the office door.

"You'll tell us if either of your nephews contacts you, Mrs. Pierson?" Henricksen presses his card into her hand, looking at her earnestly. "Call me day or night."

"I will," she says, equally earnestly. "I will."

*

Topeka, 1991

Gavin met her at the hospital. When he came into the room, Karen turned her head away, unable to weep, her mind cottony from the painkillers. "I'm not doing this again." Gavin squeezed her hand and didn't let go all night.

Third time's the charm, he had said.

For years, her nightmares contained nothing but the dull grey-green tiles of a hospital ceiling.

*

Topeka, 2007

Another Google Alert: Google Alert - "Dean Winchester" - Google News Alert for "Dean Winchester" BANK ROBBERS ESCAPE, TWO DEAD Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Jesus. She reads the article in appalled silence, following links to "related stories", even tracks down a copy of the official statement by Special Agent Henricksen. None of it makes any sense: they didn't even get any money!

There's no question that it's Dean, though: or no more question than there was in St. Louis. The face on the newspaper website, grey and blurred as it is, looks like the young man she buried over a year ago. It's odd, though, that they haven't identified one of the victims yet: everyone in a bank would have identification with them, right?

It's a bitter grey day: snow blows by her window, obscuring the car parts store across the street. Karen wraps her arms around herself and stares at the young guy struggling with something, his head buried in the engine of his El Camino. For all she knows, he could be one of her nephews: they got away again, after all.

For all she knows. That's the question, isn't it? What is she doing, and for what? Is she really willing to stick her neck out, risk her peaceful life, her career, for two young men she's never met? Just because they're family?

What does she know, herself? That Mary's John wasn't a violent lunatic. That Dean was a sweet little kid, with a lot of energy and no meanness in him. That John loved him as much as Mary did. That Sammy was six months old when his mother died, and wouldn't even remember her.

Other than that? She has nothing.

So she calls Becky Warren; she still has the girl's cell number from when they met last year.

"Tell me about Sam."

"What do you want to know?" Becky sounds sleepy; Karen glances at the clock and realizes it's only 6 AM in California. Whatever.

"What's he like?" Is he a bank robber? Worse, is he a murderer?

There's a rustle, a muffled conversation, and a long pause: Karen imagines Becky rolling out of bed and going into the kitchen. When she hears the tink of a coffee cup on a counter, she knows she guessed right. "Sam's great," says Becky, her voice still groggy. "Smart, cute, funny. He was one of my best friends in college, and I'm really bummed he didn't finish his degree. He should be in law school by now."

Plenty of murderers are smart, cute, and funny. "How far was he from his degree?"

"One semester," says the girl. "Jess died in October--not last October, the one before that. Um, 2005. He was supposed to graduate in May 06 with the rest of us."

"Jess was his girlfriend? How'd she die?" The FBI said something about this, but Karen hadn't taken it in.

"Fire in his apartment building. Sam was wrecked, really destroyed. He took off about a week later, with his brother." Becky still sounds choked up about it.

She died in a fire? Oh, god. That's just too horrible a coincidence: no wonder the boy left town. "Becky, did Sam talk about his father much? His childhood?"

Becky's response is quick and definite. "No, never."

Karen's eyes widen. "Not at all?"

"Practically never. If you pushed him, he'd make some joke about his dad being an alcoholic, and about how they moved a lot. But that's about it." The puzzlement in Becky's voice sounds like it's long-standing. Well, yeah: Karen remembers Gavin telling the story about his uncle and the mule for at least two years. Not talking about home or family at all is pretty unusual.

Karen chews her lip for a moment, wishing she had another cup of coffee, but she is supposed to be cutting back. "So if someone told you that Sam and his brother robbed a bank and killed two people, what would you say?"

"It's not true."

"You're that sure?"

"Absolutely." There's no hesitation in Becky's voice. Karen ponders asking others of Sam's friends, but she can't risk the FBI finding out she's doing whatever it is she's doing. What it is that she's doing, she's not really ready to decide.

"Why?"

"Because Sam drove across the country to help Zach when Emily was murdered. Sam and Dean saved my life and got Zach out of jail. Why would he rob a bank? He's supposed to be in law school." Becky hesitates, and then continues, her voice suspicious. "Wait, why are you asking this?"

Karen sighs, turning uneasily in her chair. The screensaver on her computer spins around and around, like her thoughts. "Someone who looks an awful lot like Dean held up a bank in Milwaukee on Tuesday. Three people died. And both of their fingerprints are all over the bank."

There's a shocked silence. It stretches out long enough that Karen gets worried. She opens her mouth, and then Becky says shakily, "It's not true. Or--I don't know, maybe it's not what it looks like. Maybe they were forced to do it, someone held a gun on them or something. I just--they saved my life, Ms. Pierson. They're not--that."

Karen sighs. "Thanks. I think. Listen, I don't... don't tell anyone we talked, would you? I don't want you to get into any trouble."

"What are you going to do?"

The wind outside has whipped up; the boy working on his car drops the hood and hustles around to the driver's door, stamping his feet and slapping his hands together against the cold. As Karen watches, the car starts with a rumble she can hear inside her office, and drives away, skidding a bit on the icy pavement.

She swivels back around on her chair, and stops halfway to look at the filing cabinet next to her desk. Pinned to the front with a magnet from Frank's Auto Body is the last photo Mary sent her in Mali, the edges browning with age. Mary and John sit on their front stoop, with Dean dangling like a monkey over his father's shoulder, and Sammy gaping cheerfully at something out of frame. It's over-exposed and off-center, and it's the only picture Karen has of all four of them.

It doesn't really matter whether Becky's right, whether they're bank robbers and murderers. They're Mary's sons. They're all that is left of Mary, of her green eyes and tall strength, of her silly sense of humor and fondness for chocolate-chocolate chip cookies.

"I'm going to help them, if I can."

*

Topeka, 1993

"What is it, honey?" Gavin asked from the doorway.

Karen stared out the window, sheets half-folded in her hands. Ten years ago she was in a field in Mali, advising farmers on new hybrid grains and choking down malaria pills every morning, while her sister was dying. Here and now, it was raining, and looked to rain all week, turning the brown leaves into mud in the yard. Little Sammy was ten, somewhere. He was too old for his second cousins to babysit him: Ryan and Jason were in college, and Melissa was in Kuwait. Melissa might remember Dean; Karen was pretty sure the boys wouldn't.

"Nothing. Just tired, I guess." Gavin didn't like hearing about Mary; he was all about letting the past be. As if it were something you could wash off and leave behind. Some kind of stain.

Karen was pretty sure that wasn't how it worked.

*

Topeka, 2007

"You want me to do what?"

Matunde Johnson sits back in his chair, looking baffled. Karen hopes he's not easily confused; but she figures someone who spent five years working for the Douglas County Public Defender's office probably is pretty sharp.

"I want you to represent my nephews." She tightens her grip on her purse, where she's tucked the cashier's check for $10,000. She rented out the house on Maple Lane for seven years, and then sold it with the court's permission, rolling the proceeds over into the same trust fund for the boys. Other than the burial in St. Louis, this is the first time she's touched the money. She doesn't think Mary or John would mind.

"But you said you don't know where they are."

Karen shrugs. "I don't. But I know the FBI is after them, and thinks they're murderers. Why should I wait to hire representation until after they're captured?"

Johnson nods at that, but still looks dubious. "If it's the FBI, well, I don't know. I don't handle a lot of federal cases."

"I understand." She does. But she also understands that Johnson represented the Flannery boy and Gilbert Hernandez, and both of those young men went free. She wants that kind of dedication in the service of Mary's sons, and she's prepared to pay for it. "I was hoping you could look into the FBI's case? I already have a detective on retainer to do the legwork for you."

Rynders is still in business, and since the rise of the internet has expanded into surveillance and security-related work. She's pleased to see Karen again, and her calm competence is reassuring: Karen is, after all, taking on the FBI. She must be crazy.

With the results of Karen's relatively shallow investigative work to start from, Rynders and Johnson may be able to poke some holes in the FBI's logic. Even Karen can see some of the weaknesses: What was the mess of rotting flesh in Becky Warren's bathroom? Why is the third victim in Milwaukee still unidentified? How could Sam have killed both Nate Mulligan and Madison Hutchins, if he was in West Texas when Mulligan was killed?

Karen's no longer wondering why the FBI isn't asking those questions: Henricksen clearly isn't interested in the answers.

"But they haven't even been captured yet. We don't even know where they are!" Johnson looks slightly incredulous.

Karen leans over and puts the envelope with the cashier's check on the blotter. "Why wait?"

*

Topeka, 1997

The call came on a grey and rainy day in early March: there'd been a stupid accident on the Kansas Turnpike. Something mundane and prosaic. Like Gavin.

I wanted children, she thought, sitting alone in the small house with yellow shutters. I wanted not to be alone. She was supposed to be healthier, supposed to move on.

Two months later, she took all the photographs he was in and burned them in the backyard. The smoke curled skyward in lazy spirals, filling the air with the stench of toxic chemicals. She buried the ash in the garden. It actually did make her feel better.

*

Topeka, 2007

Looking for lost Winchesters is slow work, especially since Karen, in a fit of paranoia about the FBI, buys a throwaway cell phone to use. And classic car shops, especially the ones in the hinterlands, aren't that great about keeping records.

It gets so she can rattle off the story about her daddy's old car, and how her brother-in-law sold it after her sister died, and she's trying to track it down, all while checking her email and reviewing a draft report by Stefan.

So she's not really prepared for it when she gets a hit.

"Sixty-seven Impala? You know, that sounds familiar. Gimme a second here."

There's a long pause, one Karen's grown used to over the last several months. She pulls up Outlook and begins drafting an email to Frank at NRDC, the phone tucked in between her shoulder and her ear. She really needs to get a headset, she thinks.

There's a rustle on the line and Tony comes back. (They're all Tony, she decided a while ago.) "Yeah, here we are, ma'am. You got a pen?"

She grabs for her notepad. "I'm ready."

"Singer Salvage, 605-555-5831. Guy name of Bobby came in, a year ago, maybe longer, bought out everything I had in stock. Even took some Chevelle parts, too."

Karen blinks. "Over a year ago, and you remembered it?"

He coughs, and she can practically see the shrug of heavy shoulders, the grease stains on his green shirt. The papers he's holding will be smudged, the ashtray on the counter overflowing. "I love them old cars, and you don't see many of 'em."

"Okay," she says. "Well, thanks, I appreciate it."

"No problem, ma'am. Good luck finding your dad's car."

Her meeting's in twenty-three minutes. She has time for another call, another dead end. The phone rings a long time, but doesn't go to voice mail. Karen's just about to hang up when it's picked up. "Singer Salvage," says a man with a weary drawl. Jeans and a baseball cap, she decides. One of the ones with the American flag on it.

"Hi, I'm looking for Bobby."

"That's me. What can I do for you, ma'am?" His cadence picks up: she's a potential customer, after all.

"Well, it's kind of a long story," she says. "I got your name from Tony at Rapid City Motors, he said you'd done some work on a sixty-seven Impala a while back."

There's a brief pause. "He's wrong."

"I'm sorry?"

"I'd remember working on one of them. Tony's got me mixed up with somebody else. Guy's got shit for records, anyway." He's speaking fast, firmly. As if there's no possibility she could be right.

Huh. Karen chews on her lip. Most salvage guys are lucky to remember what they had for breakfast that morning, she has learned. Maybe a little truth is in order. "Well, if that's true, maybe you could help me figure out who to call. See, I'm looking for my sister's car, it disappeared about twenty-three years ago."

There's a sharp in-take of breath, but he says nothing for several seconds. "What's your name, ma'am?"

"I was born Karen Harrison, I'm from Lawrence, Kansas," she replies. He knows something. She swallows, trying to fight back the hope rising, unreasonably. He doesn't say anything, and she adds, suddenly desperate, "Tell me something, anything, please. I've been looking a very long time."

There's a sound on the other end, a choking noise. "I can't... Ma'am, I have to go. It's--not a good time."

"Call me back, please," she says, terrified he's just going to hang up. "Here's my number--" She gives him her cell number, and then she's listening to a dial tone. She's not even sure he wrote it down.

"Ready to go?" Lizbeth pops in the door; they have to head across town for a meeting.

Karen puts the phone down and closes the spreadsheet. "Yes, let's go."

She calls Singer Salvage twice a week for the next month, and then stops. Nobody ever picks up.

*

Lawrence, 1982

"Did you remember your tape player?" Mary followed Karen down the hallway, stuffing Dean's arms into his winter coat. He came happily, despite the pre-dawn chill of an early spring day.

"Yes, I remembered my tape player." Karen squatted and heaved the pack onto her back: it was immense, two years' worth of clothes, toiletries, and necessities in 2500 cubic inches of bright green nylon. "God," she groaned as she staggered under the load.

Mary held Dean back from the awkward load as Karen turned, cautiously. "And your tapes?"

Karen heaved an annoyed sigh. "And my tapes!" It had taken her three weeks to whittle down her must-have music collection to six carefully-constructed mix tapes. Six! She wasn't going to survive.

"God forbid you run out of your screechy music while you're in Africa, after all." But Mary grinned, and pulled a paper bag off the shelf, tossing the package to Karen. "I think you forgot one."

Karen fumbled it, nearly dropping it, then ripped the bag open. "Oh, my god! Oh my god, you bitch, I can't believe you got this! How'd you even know!" The Ramones posed in the open door of a graffiti-covered subway car, looking sexy and dangerous.

Mary swung Dean up into her arms and led the way out of the house. The Chevy's trunk was open, waiting for Karen's pack. It was dark, the air crisp and damp. "Well, I'm not dumb, you freak. And I heard you on the phone with Carolyn a couple weeks ago, going on about it."

It took a few minutes to strap Dean into the car-seat; he really wanted to be up front with his mother and aunt. "No! Want the car!"

"You're in the car, sweetheart," groaned Mary, tugging the straps on the car-seat to make sure they were secure. "You sure you got everything?" she asked Karen again.

Karen tilted over sideways and deposited the pack in the back of the Chevy, slamming the trunk. "Yes, I got everything! Can we go?" She was freezing: March in Lawrence was still cold, but she saw no reason to bring a coat to Mali; it was easier just to be cold on the way.

"Tickets?" Mary slid into the front seat and turned on the ignition. The car rumbled to life.

The tickets crinkled happily in the rear pocket of Karen's jeans. "Got 'em." It was weird, to have one-way tickets. As if she were never coming back. Africa. God. It was finally happening. One more hour to the airport in Kansas City, and then she'd be gone. When she came back, everything would be different. She would be different.

She looked up to see Mary watching her, smiling. "What?" Karen said defensively.

Mary shrugged. "Nothing," she said, and turned on the radio. Willie Nelson's voice, tinny and hollow, spilled from the speakers and Karen groaned. "Shut up," Mary said mildly. "You know the rules."

Karen slumped against the window as Mary pulled out of the driveway. Dark houses passed them, slowly at first, then faster as they turned onto Delaware. "You didn't need to do this," she said, after the song ended and the DJ started talking about corn prices. "I could have taken the bus."

"Uh, huh," replied Mary, and didn't look at her. "Like I was gonna let you do that."

"Car ride!" shouted Dean, and Karen laughed.

"Okay, then." She turned around and poked Dean in the stomach: he gave a great whoop of joy. "Car ride it is."

*

Topeka, 2008

It's spring again. Days like this, bright and full of promise, Karen walks to work, taking advantage of the weather before summer arrives with its fierce and miserable humidity. It's not a bad walk, about a mile and a half, just enough to give her some exercise before she spends the day on her ass in front of a computer.

In the building next to her office is a coffee shop where she stops for a green tea--coffee gives her stomach-aches now--and a bran muffin. She tucks the muffin into her bag and rolls her eyes: when did she become this person? This middle-aged woman eating bran willingly, walking to work in her sensible shoes and windbreaker?

She had such plans, once.

As she steps onto the sidewalk, a car passes by: a midnight-black Chevy, paint and chrome glossy with care. She notices, the way she's noticed every Impala on the street for the last twenty years. As she watches, standing on the sidewalk, it pulls into the lot between the coffee shop and her office building.

Three people detour around her, heading into the coffee shop. But Karen's stuck where she is, staring at the car, where two tall men have climbed out; both dark-haired, wearing jeans and jackets. They're very tall, and the mug shots Rynders showed her said that Sam was six-foot-five.

It's been months since there's been anything on the web about the Winchesters. Bobby Singer never called her back. Henricksen hasn't called her, either. She never did find out what happened to John; not even the FBI seem to know where he is.

Holding her tea carefully so it won't spill, Karen starts to walk across the parking lot. The taller of the two men sees her coming and stops short, touching the other on the shoulder.

The shorter one stares at her, brow furrowed, as she approaches. Karen zig-zags through a row of cars and comes to a stop about ten feet away, standing next to a looming SUV. She feels very short.

She swallows. The sun is in her eyes, but that really does look like the picture of Dean on the FBI website. "Are you--" she hesitates. "I think you're looking for me."

They stare at her. What do they see? A mid-sized woman, shorter than their mother, with a cap of buttery curls, flyaway in the spring breeze; dressed in practical khaki pants and a turtleneck from Lands' End. Nothing special.

Sam--it must be Sam--is impossibly tall: far taller than even his father, who wasn't a short man. He smiles tentatively, politely. Dean, his face bruised and scratched on one side, as if he's been in a fight, is still frowning. Both of them have grass-stains on their jeans, dirt on their jackets; they look like they haven't slept in days.

They all hesitate, caught there in the moment: a still life that could yet shatter, sending them all away again. Finally Dean rolls his eyes and nudges at Sam, shouldering him forward, muttering, "You're the one who wanted to come, dumbass. "

Sam swivels his head to glare at Dean--and it's the angle of his jaw, the cheekbones of all things, that make Karen catch her breath. Just like that, she sees Mary. He shoves his brother back, both of them at ease with one another, a family history written in loving abuse and comfortable proximity. He's simultaneously an adult in a parking lot and a six-year-old fighting with his brother over the last of the ice cream.

With a sheepish shrug, Sam looks back at Karen, and finally smiles: the grin reveals his father's dimples, and her breath catches in her chest. "I guess we are, ma'am--" He spreads his hands in a helpless gesture; Dean snorts.

"Oh," Karen says, grinning stupidly in the sunlight, feeling soppy tears spilling down her face. Sam and Dean blur in front of her, wobbling like the air over an August highway. "I'm--oh, god, I can't believe it. I'm your mother's little sister."

END


Notes: Many thanks to Vehemently and Vanzetti for letting me bend their ears about this story.