Roger Carlton turned out to be more of a giant than what he had seemed in the small framed picture they'd seen in the house. It'd taken some cajoling and smooth talking to get in to see the body, but the coroner's assistant had eventually let them back. When he'd pulled the body out of the metal hideaways, neither had been expecting the utter size of him. He'd bulked up since the picture was taken. If that was even possible.
The coroner's assistant stood by quietly as Sam bent down to look at the markings around Roger's neck. The ligature marks were horrendous. Deep purplish pink bruises and indents obviously made by a rope. Sam looked up at the young assistant, noticing the way he was looking at the body with an almost fearful expression. He was nervous. Sam smiled. They were in luck, he was new. Must be a grad student. He stood up and sighed for show.
"So, the cause of death was ruled a hanging?" Sam asked, giving the young man a stern look. He got the reaction he'd hoped for as the man shifted on his feet, eyes widening a fraction.
"Well, hanging was actually the method," the assistant said. "The cause of death was cardiac arrest. It's...typical of hanging. They asphyxiate from a closed airway so he was probably unconscious but the real cause of death is um...the closing of the carotid arteries which causes the heart to stop. It's how most short hanging victims die."
"Short hanging?" Sam asked.
The assistant smiled nervously. "I ah...I studied Historical Criminal Justice in school. We had an entire chapter on capital punishment." Sam quirked an eyebrow and the man let out a small chuckle, realizing he was rambling. "Um, a short hanging is one where there's little to no drop. It could be the victim is tied and then pulled up or, like most suicides, they could be standing on a chair or a desk and they simply step off. A uh, long-drop hanging is when the victim is dropped from a distance and usually the C.O.D is a cervical fracture, um, breaking of the neck." He spoke quickly and anxiously. Sam could tell he was excited to be sharing his knowledge with reputable sources. He felt slightly guilty for tricking the guy into thinking they were reputable.
Dean snorted softly. "You like studying that sort of thing?" Sam recognized the almost insulting tone in his brother's voice, but apparently the assistant didn't pick up on it.
"Oh yes," he agreed readily. "It's all very interesting to me."
"Huh," was the response from Dean as he walked around Sam and leaned down to look at Roger's hands, having caught sight of something there, though he watched the coroner's assistant for a second, appraising him with piqued curiosity.
Sam came to the man's rescue, bringing them both back from the verge of a conversation that would probably hurt some feelings. "So, all of the victims, they all died the same way? A short hanging?"
"Yes," the assistant nodded. "Clear indications of short hangings were found on all of the bodies."
"Even the dude in the car?" Dean asked, obviously still in disbelief. Sam turned to glare at him, giving him a 'be nice' look. Dean promptly ignored the look and raised his eyebrows in an almost challenging manner to the coroner's assistant.
Sam gave the guy brownie points for not even flinching. "Warren Carmichael. Yes. Even he has all the indications. It's not our job to make assumptions, but if you want my honest opinion, I'd say he was moved, even though lividity doesn't show any sign of it. It would just be impossible for these marks to show up on him in a car unless the rope somehow magically went through the roof." Glancing at his brother, Sam could tell Dean was guessing the same thing he was, the coroner's assistant had probably just told them what really happened. "And you know, we're not even sure it was a rope that they were hung with anyway."
"Really?" Sam asked, looking back down at Roger's neck. "They look like rope marks."
"Yes I know," the assistant agreed and reached down to finger the ligature marks. "But we can't make a solid conclusion due to the lack of transference."
Dean straightened up, glancing at his brother quickly before smiling oddly. He had no idea what the man was talking about. "Of course you would need some kind of transference to tell what kind of weapon was used." Sam rolled his eyes but kept his mouth shut. Dean was the king of bullshitting. The assistant didn't seem to catch on.
"Yeah, it's very strange. Usually we find fibers or scrapings." Sam watched as the light clicked on in his brother's head. Could be a spirit using phantom rope. "But there was nothing. Not even dirt."
"Yeah that's weird," Dean muttered, but he changed gears so quickly Sam nor the assistant had time to dwell on his lack of surprise. He pointed to Roger's hands. "What are these marks?" he asked, referring to the abrasions and cuts littering Roger's massive hands. Some were deep, some were just nicks. They looked fairly fresh.
The coroner's assistant leaned over to look at them. "Defensive wounds. From a knife."
"What?" Sam and Dean asked at the same time. Defensive wounds? That didn't make any sense. If it was a spirit with a rope hanging its victims, why would they have defensive wounds from a knife attack on their hands? "Do all of them have these?" Sam asked.
"No, just a couple," he answered. "It's actually really strange. Defensive wounds, but no stab wounds. It makes you wonder how they go from fighting off a knife brandishing attacker to just letting themselves be hung. Good luck to you guys figuring out what happened."
"Yeah," Dean echoed, unamused.
Their conversation was cut off as the door to the morgue suddenly swung open. Sam and Dean both whirled, instincts causing them both to tense and prepare for a fight, but the woman standing in the doorway was far from the noose-totting ghost they'd been expecting. Though the look on her face probably had enough potency to be just as frightening. She was a typical coroner, middle aged, graying hair, dark rimmed glasses. The only thing she was missing was a cane and a limp. Sam guessed this was Dr. Lashinger, the coroner in charge.
"What's going on here?" she barked, eyes lowering as she spotted the Winchesters. "Mr. Harper I thought I told you no one was to come in here?" Dr. Lashinger strode over to Roger Carlton and quickly covered the body with the white sheet again, leaving a hand on it as she turned to stare at Sam and Dean. "Who are you? Let me see some credentials. How did you even get back here?" She asked the questions rapidly, the last one aimed back at Harper, her assistant. The man looked fearful of his life. Sam didn't blame him. This was going to be tricky.
"Dr. Lashinger," Sam acknowledged and held out his hand. "I'm Dr. Cass and this is Dr. Novak." She didn't take his hand. He withdrew it, kept the smile. "We were called in from the coroner's office in Augusta to help with the case."
The frown she gave him almost made him falter. It was one of those appraising looks, like a mother gives to a child whom she knows is lying. No Mom, I didn't do anything wrong, don't call the feds.
"They don't think I can handle it on my own." It wasn't a question. Sam glanced at Dean, unsure how to respond. Dean just gave a small shrug as the coroner carried on. "Typical chauvinistic assholes. Agent Reed sent you, didn't he?" She didn't give either of them time to respond. "Damn that man. I told him I could handle this on my own. Harper, go get these gentlemen some smocks. You didn't bring any of your supplies, did you?"
Sam, a little taken aback by the woman's scattered mumblings, let Dean do the talking. "We were told you would be supplying us with what we needed."
"Of course you were," she grumbled before turning to glare at Harper, who hadn't moved. The man seemed to snap to attention and scurried off. She watched him until the door closed behind him and then turned back to Sam, eyes still cold. "How much did Mr. Harper tell you?"
"He basically covered everything," Sam said, glancing at Dean again. It was time to go. They got everything they needed here. No use playing along anymore. Besides, their cover wasn't really the best. All Dr. Lashinger had to do was make a single phone call to find out they weren't who they said they were. He opened his mouth to announce they were leaving, but the coroner beat him to it.
"Nine bodies," she said, uncovering Roger's face once more. She put a gloved hand to the ligature marks on his neck. "This guy's good, whoever he is. That's a lot of work for one person. If we were back in Texas, the state would already have a chair light up for him."
Dean snorted and Sam spoke up when he saw the glare Lashinger shot him. "How do you know it's the same person? Your assistant said that some of the victims had defensive wounds and some didn't. Maybe there are two. The original killer and a copy cat." The defensive wounds were still bothering Sam. When spirits attacked, they usually did so in the same fashion every time. So maybe it wasn't a spirit? A demon maybe? But demon's usually didn't use weapons. They just sort of...ripped.
"Killer left a calling card," Dr. Lashinger broke into Sam's thoughts.
"A calling card?" Dean asked, interested.
Dr. Lashinger nodded. "Yes," she paused, looking between both of them as if they should know what she was talking about. Sam guessed they probably should know, if they were who they said they were. "The marks on their forehead?" She gave a shake of her head.
"Oh, right," Dean chirped. "They had the uh...the um..." he pointed at his forehead, pretending to be at a loss for the word.
"The crosses," Dr. Lashinger nodded.
"Yeah," Dean pointed a finger at her with fake appreciation.
Dr. Lashinger sighed. "As much as I hate the idiots the FBI sent to help us with this, I have to admit that they are thorough in their containment of information. We never told the press about the marks. The public doesn't know except for the few people who found the poor bastards. No, it's the same guy all right. Vicious son of a bitch. Hanging's not a fun way to go. Not the quickest either. You know a few years ago they revived a man who'd been hung for thirty minutes? Could you imagine? Of course he was unconscious, but still. Thirty minutes of just hanging there, only to end up brain dead. He never woke up." Dr. Lashinger's eyes took on a distant look and Sam was suddenly hit with that apprehensive feeling in the pit of his stomach like he'd felt at the Carlton house. His hand flew up and he bent slightly at the waist, grimacing.
Dean noticed the movement and while Sam was still gathering his wits about him, he took initiative. "Thanks Doc for the help," Dean said, grabbing Sam's arm and starting to walk towards the door, pulling his little brother along with him. "We're gonna go get settled at the hotel, go over more paperwork, you know how it is. Stiffs have more paperwork than Jesus these days."
"Sure," Dr. Lashinger said with a shrug, her nose upturned. "There's nothing to do here anyway except to wait for the next body to roll in." Sam had gathered himself enough to recognize half hearted laugh his brother gave as being a combination of both admiration and appraisal of people he deemed nutty. Dr. Lashinger was a borderline nut. In Dean's book anyway. "Hey, is there a number I can get a hold of you guys at?" she called after them.
"We'll leave it at the front desk," Dean called back before ushering Sam out the front door and down towards the Impala. Sam shrugged off Dean's steadying hand, long since not needing it. Though Dean wasn't so easily brushed off. "Sammy?" he questioned, eyes searching Sam for any sign of distress.
"I'm fine, Dean," Sam took a deep breath to prove it before heading towards the passenger side door.
Dean remained where he was, but his head followed Sam. "You sure?" he asked. "Because you had that gasy look on your face again."
"Yeah, Dean," Sam sighed, irritated. "It's just...I got that weird feeling again. It was stronger this time."
"Maybe you just gotta take a crap?" Dean offered with a shrug of his shoulders.
Sam didn't grace his brother with an answer. He merely glared before throwing open the door and climbing inside. Dean stayed where he was for a moment, watching the coroner's office as if it would grow teeth and devour them any second. But after a moment, he followed his brother and climbed into the Impala as well. He started the car and looked over at Sam, who sat almost pouting. "So this feeling..."
"I don't know how to explain it," Sam snapped, not looking over at him. "I just feel like something bad's gonna happen."
"There's no visions or anything, right?" Sam shook his head and finally looked at his brother. "Then we're fine. Until you start day dreaming again, we're not going to worry about it."
"I don't know," Sam interjected. "I've never felt like this before. I don't know." He leaned his head against the window and sighed. How could he explain a feeling he didn't even understand himself? It was like a panicked feeling, but not as intense. It was foreboding, but at the same time, he couldn't do anything but accept it. It was like his gut knew of a fate that was bound to happen but wasn't informing his brain to the matter. There was a detachment there that Sam wasn't understanding.
They sat quietly for a moment with the car running, Sam lost in his thoughts, Dean trying to understand what was going on with his brother. After a few minutes, Dean let out a long, dramatic sigh, earning Sam's attention. "Well look," he started, leaning against the door and turning himself so he was facing Sam as best he could. "It's getting late, I'm tired, you're tired, we got a lot done today why don't we just go back to the motel and pick up in the morning."
"I don't need your pity, Dean," Sam said, watching as his brother guffawed and held a hand to his chest.
"Pity?" he exclaimed, falsely shocked. "I don't pity you Sammy, no matter how pitiful you are. I'm dog tired, man. It's hard charming your way into important places all day."
It was Sam's turn to let out an incredulous laugh. "Charm? Dean, so far today, you've managed to piss off two coroners and freak out an old lady. Real charming."
"Hey," Dean barked, switching the car into gear and heading towards the motel. "That lady coroner was totally checking me out."
"Man, she's like forty years old," Sam laughed as he realized what his brother was doing. Dean did it every time he thought Sam was even remotely upset or at ill ease. He'd get them off topic, makes jokes, laugh, and get Sam's mind off of whatever was bugging him. Most of the time Sam appreciated it, he even instigated a few of their off topic banters. But lately he'd just been getting annoyed with them. Annoyed because his brother always took it upon himself to make light of situations, to look out for everyone but himself, to make sure everyone else was happy when Sam wasn't sure whether Dean was ever happy or not. And dammit if this banter was the only way Sam knew how to make him laugh.
Dean gave a sly grin and leaned back in his chair. "Older women are more experienced, Sammy."
"Dean, she's married," Sam played along. For now. Until Dean got out of this funk he was in, which Sam hoped would be soon.
"Dude, how do you know that?" Dean asked, looking at Sam's head and raising his eyebrows.
Sam merely rolled his eyes and held up his hand, pointing to his ring finger. "She had a wedding band, dork."
"Huh," Dean gave, chewing the side of his lip. Then he grinned again. "Well I guess I've stopped looking for that sort of stuff. Broadens the playing field."
Sam shook his head and looked back out the front window. "You're a sick man, Dean."