"So what have we got?" Dean asked.
Sam turned the laptop around on the bedside table so Dean could see the screen from where he was sitting. "Asheville, North Carolina. Janet Macalvie, a nature photographer, vanished on a hike in the Pisgah National Forest one week ago."
"Uh-huh." Dean took another bite of his cold pepperoni pizza -- breakfast of champions, left over from the previous night's dinner of champions -- and washed it down with a gulp of coffee. "And we care because..."
"When I say vanished, I really mean vanished. According to the friend she was hiking with, Janet disappeared behind a tree and never appeared again. And get this -- the friend says she heard horses, and 'a musical noise, like bells' right around the same time. Except they were nowhere near the riding trails, and there were no hoof prints or any other kind of mark in the area."
Okay, so that was suitably weird. Dean leaned over to get a better look at the laptop. Sam's browsing had pulled up the website for the Asheville Citizen-Times. "Seattle woman lost on nature hike," the lead headline announced. The picture below showed a smiling young woman, blonde and cheerleader-pretty, wearing a Duke University t-shirt.
"That's Janet? She's kinda hot."
Sam rolled his eyes and pulled the laptop back onto his lap. "So what do you think, phantom coach? Headless horseman?"
"Could be either." Dean frowned. "Except that they usually manifest in towns or on open roads. What the hell would a phantom coach be doing in the middle of a national forest? And what's the deal with the bells?"
Sam shrugged. "Won't know until we get there."
Asheville was a tourist town at the height of tourist season, and accommodations were hard to come by. They were turned away at three motels and two bed-and-breakfasts before lucking out at a place called Bon Paul and Sharky's Hostel, which had a cancellation. Twenty bucks a night got them each a bunk, a set of linens, and access to the kitchen. They had to share the room with two fishermen from Atlanta and two amateur botanists from Charleston, which Dean was kind of annoyed about at first. But the annoyance turned to badly suppressed hilarity when the botanists -- a pair of feisty old ladies in matching sweater sets -- instantly zoomed in on Sam as the focus for all their pent-up maternal instincts. Sam was too skinny; they pressed homemade granola bars and little bags of trail mix on him. He needed a haircut; they lectured him for ten minutes. His clothes were a mess; would he like them to sew up that torn cuff on his jacket? It would only take a minute. Sam endured the fussing for about half an hour before bolting outside. Dean followed, snickering.
"That's it," Sam hissed as soon as they were out of earshot, "we're leaving. We can sleep in the car."
"Aw, come on, Sammy." Dean attempted to muss Sam's hair, and got his arm knocked aside with slightly more force than usual. "I always knew those Bambi eyes of yours were irresistible to women. If you play your cards right, they might take you home with them. Bake you pies. Knit you little booties."
"You're an asshole, you know that? And why aren't they fussing over you? Your clothes are a bigger mess than mine."
"It's my air of manly self-sufficiency. Hey, you think you could give them my blue flannel shirt and say it's yours? The left sleeve is totally coming off."
"Manly self-sufficiency, huh?"
"Sewing isn't manly."
"But walking around with your sleeve half-off is?"
"Sure. It's rugged."
"You mean ragged."
"Right. So is research manly enough for you? 'Cause there's the library."
The Asheville public library had newspaper records on microfiche going back to the 1920s. Dean left Sam digging through those while he sorted through the more recent info on Janet Macalvie's disappearance. Most of it was vague and pointless: police and park rangers still searching, volunteer rescue teams going out, foul play not ruled out but not particularly suspected either. The only useful info he turned up was a name and picture for Janet's hiking buddy -- Catherine Taylor, from Greensboro. Dean photocopied the picture and went to find Sam in the microfiche section.
"Any luck, research boy?"
"Some." Sam leaned back in his chair and held up the pad where he'd been making notes. "Six unsolved disappearances before this one, going back to 1927, all in the same area of the forest. Four women, two men. Three of the cases had no witnesses, but the other three all had people who reported hearing horses and either bells or music around the time of the disappearance. No one's ever seen anything, though, and there's never any physical evidence of horses at the sites."
"Any pattern? To the victims, to the dates, to the witnesses?"
Sam shook his head. "None that I can see. I mean, they were all under thirty-five and pretty good-looking, but other than that, nothing. Different backgrounds, different ethnicities. Some locals, some visitors."
"All right." Dean pulled up a chair and sat down. "So who was the first?"
"Give me a minute." Sam leafed through his notes, frowning. "Margaret Benning. She and her mother were sort of the local medicine women, made up herbal remedies and stuff to sell in town. Went into the woods to gather plants one afternoon and never came back."
"Okay." Dean took the pad from Sam and glanced through it, searching for inspiration in the list of names and dates. "So Margaret and her mother were witches of a sort. Maybe they called something up."
"Maybe." Sam looked dubious. "But what? I really don't think we're dealing with a phantom horseman here, Dean. The signs are all wrong."
"I know." Dean sighed and held up the clipping he'd photocopied. "How about we go see if Catherine Taylor is still in town?"
Catherine Taylor was still in Asheville, staying at a bed-and-breakfast downtown. She was cute in a geeky sort of way, with frizzy brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses, and she wore a silver stud in her nose. They found her on the front porch of the bed-and-breakfast, sitting in a wicker chair with one bandaged ankle elevated on a table. A pair of crutches was propped up against the wall behind her. She frowned in obvious confusion at the IDs Dean and Sam presented to her.
"Janet's family hired us." Dean gave her his best "professional tough guy" smile. "They're worried that the local authorities might not be doing enough."
"Ain't that the truth." Catherine scowled angrily. "You'd think they'd all be out in the woods searching, but they wasted three days questioning me, as if I had Janet stowed in the trunk of my car or something. And then they said, 'don't leave town.'" She sniffled and turned away from Sam and Dean for a few moments, blinking rapidly. "Janet's probably lying dead somewhere, and the best they can do is tell me not to leave town. As if I'd--" She sniffled again, more loudly this time, took off her glasses and rubbed at her eyes with the back of one hand.
Dean cleared his throat, shuffled his feet, and cast a quick, desperate glance in Sam's direction. He never really knew how to deal when people started crying. Life was so much easier when they just threw punches or tried to arrest him. Come on, bro, give me some backup here.
"We're very sorry, ma'am." Sam dug a small package of Kleenex from his pocket, peeled a couple of tissues off the top and handed them to Catherine. "It must've been very difficult for you." He paused while she blew her nose and put her glasses back on. "But we're here to do all we can for Janet. If you just talk to us now, we won't have to bother you again."
He met Catherine's watery gaze with his sincere eyes and his kind smile, and Dean could see her pulling herself together, taking a deep breath and resolving to try and be helpful, because how could anyone not try and be helpful to such a nice young man? One day, Dean thought, he would figure out a way to bottle what Sam had, and then all the Winchesters would retire rich.
"There's a nice cafe next door," Catherine said in a voice that only wobbled a little. "Why don't we talk there?"
They sat outside, at a small cast iron table with a huge striped umbrella over it. Sam and Dean ordered sodas and sandwiches, while Catherine got an iced tea and an enormous chocolate cupcake with about an inch of frosting on top. She picked at it listlessly as she told them her story.
"Janet and I were roommates at Duke for four years. Best friends. When we graduated last year, I went back to Greensboro and she got a job in Seattle. She traveled a lot, taking pictures, but we kept in touch. Two weeks ago, she called me up to say she was coming to Pisgah, and would I like to go hiking. So I drove down here to meet her, and we were having a great time, and then..." She stopped, and looked for a moment as if she might start crying again before taking a long sip of her iced tea and composing herself. "I'm sorry. It's been a rough week."
"We understand," Sam said. Dean made what he hoped was a comforting noise.
"What happened on your last hike?" he asked. "The one where Janet disappeared."
Catherine shook her head, looking helpless. "Nothing weird, really. We were following one of the trails near Looking Glass Falls. Janet saw some birds."
"Birds?" Dean repeated blankly. He couldn't imagine what birds might have to do with anything.
"She said they were unusual. Wanted to take pictures of them. So we left the marked trail -- I know we weren't supposed to, but Janet had a compass, and she's always been really good about finding her way. It was -- is -- her job, after all. Going to unmarked places in the wild and taking pictures. We've gone off the trails before, and it was never a problem..." Catherine hunched her shoulders and stared down on her clasped hands on top of the table. "Maybe I should've stopped her, I don't know..."
"It wasn't your fault," Sam said gently. Catherine gave him a small, grateful smile.
"We found a little clearing with a stream running through it," she continued. "The birds Janet wanted were in a tree above the stream. She got a couple of shots with a telephoto lens before they flew off. It was about one in the afternoon by then, so we stayed in the clearing and had ourselves a picnic lunch and then..." She frowned again and shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "We fell asleep."
"You fell asleep?" Sam blinked at Catherine with a startled expression that, Dean suspected, matched his own. "Both of you?"
"Yeah, it was strange." Catherine shrugged. "I mean, it was a hot day and all, but we hadn't hiked all that far, or eaten all that much. Don't know why we were so tired, but I nearly put my jaw out from all the yawning, and I could see Janet was nodding off too. I was about to suggest we head back, when I just kind of... keeled over."
Well. That was weird. Dean could name a depressingly large number of creatures that put their victims to sleep, usually with the intent of sucking the sleeper's soul out, but none of them were likely to attack in broad daylight in a sunlit forest clearing. Besides, soul eaters generally left the body behind, in some form or another, yet no physical trace of Janet Macalvie has been found after more than a week. Dean stared at the remains of his sandwich and tried to think, but the sight of roast beef and lettuce on whole wheat offered no inspiration.
"Oookay," he muttered, thinking out loud, "so you had your lunch, and you took your nap, and then you woke up because... you heard horses?"
Catherine's face turned pink and her mouth compressed into a thin, hard line. "I'm not making that up!" she snapped. "I really did hear them, and now everyone thinks I'm crazy!"
"We know you're not crazy," Sam said quickly. "We're just trying to get a clear picture of what happened. You're the only witness, so anything you could tell us would be very helpful."
"Right. Of course." Catherine closed her eyes for a moment and took a couple of slow breaths. "I woke up because I heard a noise, but I wasn't sure what it was at first. And I saw Janet -- she was across the stream from me, on the far edge of the clearing. I think she was watching something."
"Could you see what it was?" Dean asked. "Did she seem frightened?"
Catherine shook her head. "I don't know. She had her back to me. I started to call out to her, and that's when I heard the horses."
"And the bells?"
"Yes. It sounded so pretty. I thought maybe that's what Janet was looking at. I wanted to see too. Then she stepped behind a tree, and I couldn't see her anymore. And I heard her scream." She closed her eyes again and shivered a little. "I ran to her, but I slipped in the stream and twisted my ankle. By the time I got over there, she was gone. And she left her camera, lying there in the grass. She never went anywhere without that camera..."
"We're sorry," Dean muttered as Sam handed over yet another tissue. Catherine pushed her glasses up to her forehead and dabbed at her eyes.
"I wish I could be more helpful," she said, "but I really didn't see anything. I know what I heard, though."
"What happened to Janet's camera?" Dean asked.
Catherine frowned. "The police still have it. They developed the film. And you know what they said? There were no pictures of birds anywhere on the roll. Nothing but trees and sky. They think I made that part up, too. They think I made everything up."
"We know you didn't." Sam dug through his backpack, coming up with a trail map he spread out on the table in front of Catherine. "Just one last thing and then we'll leave you alone, all right? Can you mark on here where you think that clearing was?"