A hand-woven rug hung between Agent Winchester and seven chairs from the Department of Defense. The eldest of the seven pointed to a black shape in the corner of the rug with his pen. "A marine brought this home from her last tour in Afghanistan, " he said, looking over his glasses, "Care to enlighten us?"
Sam folded his hands, mindful of the news cameras. "Afghani village women weave all kinds of combat vehicles into their tapestries, possibly it's a helicopter."
The old man's glasses slid to the end of his nose, and he tapped a series of black dots below the mysterious figure. "And what do you make of these?"
"I'm not a textile expert. Depending on the direction they could be shells or strafing or ground-to-air missiles." he babbled, tossing out their favorite toys like chum to circling sharks. The old man didn't bite.
"That's interesting," he said, with a vague nod, "Because they look like footprints to me."
Sam was silent, and the man continued. "Six months ago your department requested funding to send a team of scientists into an unpopulated mountain pass less than ten miles from where this rug was made. They never returned. We'd love to hear your theories."
"My department is working on extracting the team."
One of the chairs opened a case file to the black and white mugshot of Sam's brother, less polished but with the chiseled intensity of a survivalist. "The gunman you sent with them has no prior record of government service. Why choose him over thousands of other more qualified candidates?"
"I trust him."
"And you don't trust your own people?"
"Of course not. They all work for spies."
The cameramen laughed, and stopped beneath the committee's level gaze. "Why were none of the other teammates photographed?"
Sam had practiced this one while shaving in the mirror. "Without the proper security clearance, I cannot divulge details pertaining to an ongoing investigation."
"Alright. What kind of scientific observation could they possibly make in the desert?"
"I'm not at liberty to say. You would have to ask them."
The old man laid down his pen and walked across the room and covered Sam's microphone with his hand. His lips stretched over yellow teeth as if exposing a piece of his skull. "You talk a big game son. But you don't game."
Sam locked eyes with him, knowing if he didn't give up something the DoD would throttle his office with so much red tape it would take eighteen months to sign off on a roll of toilet paper. He waited until the old man was back in his chair and sipped some water and chose his half-truths carefully. "Is the committee familiar with Project Pale Fire?"
When no one answered, Sam said, "Two years ago the Russians deployed a mobile clinic that could enter combat zones via remote control and, according to my sources, far outstrips our American droid medics."
"What sources? Do you have anything concrete you can present to the committee?"
Sam shuddered. He had kept a few of the original photos on his laptop, and burned the really bad ones in his kitchen sink. News cameras zoomed in on his computer screen where two pictures of the same Russian soldier lay side by side. The one on the left was covered in burns, his eyes two broken egg yolks in his head. The other was completely restored. The time stamps between the photos were ten minutes apart.
Sam looked round as the room broke into excited whispers. "The clinic experienced engine failure during a covert mission, and Russia has yet to claim it as their own. My team was sent in to document as much of the technology as possible for the purposes of reverse engineering, since the structure is too big and in too precarious a position to be airlifted out."
The committee members wrote messages to one another on notepads, the rug and its' monstrous footsteps forgotten. "What's your next step, Agent Winchester?"
A small corner of the gunman's mugshot peeked out from the folder, and Sam massaged his throat, afraid his voice would crack. "After so many weeks of radio silence, I have to assume the first team is either captured or... I've already drawn up a proposal to dispatch a second team for intelligence gathering and the retrieval of all, if any, survivors."
A consensus was quickly reached. "The Department of Defense is happy to furnish with any personnel you might require for this venture."
Sam smiled through the follow-up questions, failing to mention that he'd already tapped a man for the job, not that it would have mattered. None of the people in that room would last two weeks.
The scientist leaned against the doorframe, spreadsheet trailing behind him like a security blanket, hair stuck up like dandelions on a man-shaped stone. Holmes turned in his chair. "I'm waiting for someone, may I help you?"
He said something else, but it was a bouillabaisse of American slang and engineering jargon, and Holmes noted the man wore paper slippers. The man smiled, no teeth and dark gums.
"I'm sorry, I can't understand you."
"It's alright, Mister Holmes," said Sam, gently prying the scientist from the doorknob, "I see you've met Doctor Howard. Research doing well?"
Howard turned his hollow gaze upward. "Hey."
"Yes, yes," said Sam, patting his shoulder soothingly, "Better get those papers to the lab."
Howard bobbed his head and puttered off, spreadsheet sliding across the carpet long after he turned the corner.
Sam had inherited his office from an ex-NASA wonk, and was continually gifted with the second-hand detritus of the International Space Station. Beneath a row of dog portraits, Holmes watched a 3-D printer sweep layers of plastic dust on the replica of a murder victim's skull. It was incomplete, but he knew the fracture patterns of a tire iron. Holmes considered telling Sam as much when he took one look at the agent's long hair and decided it would be more fun convincing Sam it had been a suicide.
Sam studied the skull, his features up-lit in green. "Amazing what technology can do. What can you tell from this model?"
Holmes didn't have to look at it a second time. "Male, late thirties, Tunisian judging by the earholes but more likely French third generation immigrant. The killer knew him well enough that the blow to the front came as a surprise, before the victim turned away and took the remaining damage across the neck."
"And the killer?"
Holmes rubbed his dry hands together. "Now, the victim has the calcium deposits of an athlete, so the other man would have to exceptionally strong, and the tidy aggregate of the blows says he's a fast runner. It says he never allowed his victim to be out of reach."
Sam loomed over him, fingertips touching the desk. "Does it say how tall he is?"
Holmes narrowed his eyes. "I thought Americans only killed for money."
"That's not true. Some of us will do it for the look on your face."
"I'm looking at you right now, is that supposed to make me clutch my pearls?"
"Did you read my report on the Pale Fire expedition?"
"Enough to know it's fiction."
Sam sat down, the 3-D printer whirring behind him. "It's not. It's worse."
Holmes pulled out the report and stabbed an empty picture frame with his finger. "There's no record of any of the scientists you have listed here."
A soft rustling noise approached them from the hallway, and Sam ducked his head in faint embarrassment. "You must understand..."
He didn't need to finish the sentence. Scientists didn't retire here. Repositories of all the classified knowledge that got passed around on handwritten notes and then denied during press conferences, they quickly became a security risk in the civilian world, and once outdated were often sent to third world field assignments where even Depression-era technology looks like witchcraft. And the ones who didn't volunteer for the field, too frail or far gone...
Holmes followed the old woman shuffling down the hallway in her labcoat, a thick bandage not entirely concealing the third ear growing out of her wrist. "How long have you been 'volunteering' federal employees as test subjects?"
A fugitive smile lifted the corner of Sam's mouth. "That's classified."
"So you bought your team of Igors a one-way ticket to the Sandbox to clean house?"
"It's not like that. Our latest research has had...unforeseen side effects, and Pale Fire presented a real solution for the test subjects, for everybody."
"But you didn't kill a useful informant for the sake of science," said Holmes, pointing at the printer, "Why is there a plastic skull in your office?"
Sam glanced at the dog portraits while thinking of an answer. Another NASA gift, each portrait depicted a dog fired into space by the Russians to test space capsules later used by men. He'd had a running conversation with those portraits in the past three months.
Sam lifted the skull from the printer but avoided gazing into it's eye sockets, not wanting his grief boiled down to bad theater. "He was the last person to see my brother's body. But he wouldn't tell me where."
Holmes said nothing and gathered up the report to keep his hands busy, though the paper felt heavier now. "What would you have me do?"
"Just bring me his bones. He should be buried here," he said, turning away to signal the meeting was over, "He should come home."
The wind never let up in this part of the country. Holmes listened to sand sizzle against the innkeep's window, the distant houses appearing and disappearing in the white-out like an Arabian fairy tale.
Holmes rested his feet on a bloody sack, disguised as a farmhand, claiming his boss had paid him to take infected chickens out to the desert to be burned. Whenever locals asked what the chickens had, he began coughing violently, and they found excuses to be elsewhere.
The innkeep patted him on the shoulder. "You sleeping here tonight?"
In truth Sam had supplied him with little cash and a Pashto dictionary so outdated Holmes had fed it to his donkey, and he wondered if the Department of Defense was that strapped for resources or if they didn't expect him to come home alive. For answer, two stealth bombers cut across the sky, and finishing his tea he asked the innkeep how much a motorbike sold for and rode off into the desert.
The storm was even worse further out. By the time he came within a mile of the team's last known coordinates he could barely see his hand in front of his face, and he walked the bike with his head bowed into the wind. He encountered neither road nor track nor any other sign of life.
Thrusting his hand into the sack, he ruminated on the underutilization of bees for sniffing out criminals, their incalculable skill for memorizing a new scent and then seeking it out en masse. He wondered what kind of honey a prison would produce. Or a morgue. He'd have to experiment when he got home.
The first chicken opened under his thumbs, the cylinder of a microscope secreted within. He'd hated to kill them, but border guards were no joke and he couldn't operate without a lab, and using his cloak as a makeshift tent he screwed bloody parts together and began taking soil samples. Washington has a signature mix of loam and plastic and coffee found nowhere else, to the trained eyed at least, and after many painstaking hours he was able to estimate the direction the team had taken.
The landscape changed, flat lakebed giving way to scrubland and eventually to a series of caves that pockmarked the mountains, some bottomless, some only a waist-deep, giving the overall impression that Holmes was walking across a giant bath sponge. It was by one of these caves that he noticed a clump of mud a foot off the ground, as if someone had scraped their boot on the side of the wall before entering. He clicked on his flashlight and waved it around inside.
A shot struck the ground between his feet. He pulled his canteen from an inner pocket and shook it invitingly. "I've got apple juice. I had to carry it a long way, I wait any longer I'll have to toss it."
The silence stretched, and eventually Holmes got a whispered reply and ducked his head past the lip of the cave.
Dean Winchester faced the entrance seated against a row of steel drums, a rebel cache of water and ammunition in preparation for the next Russian invasion. His right leg was bandaged and splinted with a length of driftwood. In the corner, a scarecrow had been fashioned out of old clothes with a charcoal face drawn on the wall above the collar. Holmes wondered if he'd interrupted something.
"What happened to your leg?"
Dean adjusted the grip on his gun, though clearly relieved to hear English again. "I fell."
"I was pushed."
Holmes nodded and passed him the canteen. He would have offered some small fraction of the pharmacy he had sewn into his jacket, but he wanted the man coherent for questioning. "Your brother sent me. Someone reported you dead."
Dean took a small sip, tested his stomach, then went for more. "Dead how?"
"They found your body in the desert not far from here."
"Was I naked?"
Holmes narrowed his eyes, but Dean shook his head. "Never mind. Get me back to town and I can call in a ride to the embassy."
Holmes glanced at the barrel of the gun. "I was ordered to bring back all survivors. You had four others in your care."
Dean's lip curled, and Holmes guessed where he'd gotten the injury. He turned to the scarecrow instead. "Who's your friend?"
"It helps me think."
He waited for Dean to lash out or drop his eyes in embarrassment. But to him the scarecrow was as equally necessary as the gun, perhaps more so. "Him."
Holmes nodded. "Did 'he' recommend you sleep in a cave when there's a clinic within crawling distance?"
"Is that what they told you?" said Dean, his voice flat, "Is that what they've been telling everyone?"
Dean tipped back his head and began to laugh at his own personal joke. It was a nice laugh, and utterly chilled Holmes to the marrow. Dropping the gun, Dean propped up his elbow and leaned his cheek against the back of his hand, closing his eyes and talking to someone other than Holmes.
"I'm so tired. We can't stay here."
Holmes pressed Dean's hand to drink more, and he did.
"I told them they wouldn't find a cure. They could barely walk on two legs by the time we got there..."
'They' must have been the scientists. Dean trailed off, listening to some inner dialogue as though the hand he leaned against were a telephone, and started talking again in fits.
"No one could read the machine's instructions. I don't think it's even a real language. We did all kinds of trials with the equipment we recognized, but they just got sicker and then we found that tape recording..."
"They kept playing it over and over again. This sound. Thum. Thum. And then screaming. Thum Thum..."
"I told them to turn it off, but they'd stopped talking to me by then. They wanted to see what else that thing could do..."
"I cut the engine while they were sleeping. Or whatever they do up in that room. They were so mad when I didn't fix it, their hands..."
He spread out his fingers, looking down as if to confirm he still had them. "They can't operate anything anymore. They can't even fit through the hatchway. They're too screwed up."
His eyes rested on the scarecrow, as if it had been about to speak before his gaze froze it in place. Holmes imagined Sam Winchester in his dreary Washington office, equally hobbled by pain and sleeplessness, filling in the gaps of this conversation with his dog portraits.
Holmes dug in. "How do I get inside the machine?"
Dean noticed him again. "Did you hear that?"
Dean pointed the gun over Holmes' head, but this time he curled in to make himself small. For a moment his hand flicked out to the scarecrow protectively. "He's out there. I can hear him at night."
Holmes strained his ears, and indeed he caught a low moan that rose and fell at intervals, too regular to be an echo from a neighboring cave. After a while it stopped and Dean lowered his gun and was himself again.
"I can help you get home," said Holmes carefully, "But a lot of important people with important warrants for your arrest are banking on photos of whatever miracle technology is hiding out there."
Dean smirked. "I thought I was a dead man. Dead men don't serve time."
"That's just paperwork. That's one number changed," said Holmes, holding his hands as if typing at a keyboard, "Clickety clack, bring the man back."
Holmes watched a progression of ugly ideas on Dean's face, then breathed out as Dean replaced his gun in his side holster. "They don't move much during the day. You get one hour in there to take pictures, then we're out. You do anything to compromise this plan, we will a) find you and b) fuck up your shit."
"This isn't your brother," said Holmes disgustedly, standing up and kicking the scarecrow apart with one kick, "Your brother's thousands of miles away. No one else is coming to help you."
Dean shook his head without taking his eyes off Holmes. "You're wrong."
And faster than Holmes would have credited him for, Dean touched him in five different places, lightly, as it pulling off pocket lint from his shoulders and headscarf, and suddenly Holmes kicked himself for not recognizing the innkeep for an informant. Dean swelled with pride. Five bugs, each no bigger than a pinhead but capable of locating a penny flipped into the Grand Canyon, lay in the palm of his hand.
He brushed his hands together. "Don't fuck with my little brother."