Warnings: Violence toward children. Dean finds some messed-up sex. Not a particularly happy tale.
A/N: I've never been to Colorado, and am not an expert on the local landscape or cultures. Though I tried to research as much as possible using Teh Intarwebs, travel books, and James D. Doss's mystery novels, inaccuracies may ensue. I apologize for any inadvertent travesties. If anyone happens to notice errors – typos or factual – please let me know!
Title taken from Charles Bowden's essay of the same name (Harper's Magazine, August 1998: 43-54).
The only soap in the girl's bathroom was some fruity body wash, mango-berry surprise or some shit. Dean Winchester was just glad she slept through his shower, didn't stir when he slipped out the door.
Another prairie dawn, another flat town. A light frost glittered in the grass, on rooftops and windshields. Cold wind whipped through the bare limbs of a few scrawny maple trees, clattering the branches like bones, carrying the scents of fried diner food and highway exhaust. Dean sucked in a lungful of crisp air, squinted at the smeared palette of the sky, comparing silhouetted roadside signs to get his bearings. He crunched through the sad strip of apartment-house grass; the bootprints he left would fade before noon.
Home this week was the Starlite Motor Lodge. Though most of the neon had burned out long ago, the peaks of the star-shaped sign guided Dean's way. He cut through side streets and empty parking lots, the vague memory of stumbling the same route the night before skulking around in a Jack Daniels haze. He remembered the girl's face, her tipsy laugh, the way her chest flushed from alcohol and arousal. Could not for the life of him recall her name.
Thankfully, last night's destination was within walking distance of the main drag and the motel. The Impala was still parked in front of room eleven. At least he'd had sense enough not to drive anywhere.
He knew Sam would be pissed. Bar hookups were one thing; ditching your brother without explanation and spending the night with said hookup was another. There'd been too much weirdness, too many close calls the last few months, to take off like that without checking in. Maybe a peace offering was in order.
Dean crossed the four-lane state route, stepped into the dry forced air of the gas station Stop-N-Rob. The place smelled of microwaved food and cigarette smoke, like a breakfast burrito in an ashtray. Rows of screaming buy-me-bright colors made the ache behind his eyes pound just a little bit harder.
It was early enough that the coffee was still fresh, the donuts not too picked-over. He packed a variety into a to-go box: cream- and jelly-filled, plain glazed, blueberry, bear claws. Poured two coffees: one black, one pansy hazelnut. At the counter, he added a couple of newspapers to the pile, local and regional, then paid up and tried to figure out how to balance the whole mess.
Back at the room, he set the coffee down long enough to let himself in. Sam's bed was empty, the shower running. Dean settled at the room's small table with the newspapers and a cherry-filled donut. By the time Sam emerged from the bathroom, followed by a roiling cloud of steam, Dean's fingers were covered in newsprint and sticky glaze. "Hey," he said.
"Hey." Sam took one last swipe at his hair with his towel, then started pulling on his clothes. If the hard set to his jaw hadn't given away his anger, his too-neutral tone would have done the job. "Good time last night?" Less a question than a dig.
Dean shrugged, washed down his last bite with the bitter Kwik-E-Mart brew. "Think I found us a case."
Sam pulled on his button-down, struggling a bit as the cuff snagged on his cast. "Yeah?"
Dean folded the paper back, pushed it across the table. Tapped the headline: Search for Durango boy heads into third day.
Sam pulled out the second chair to sit across from Dean. He pried the lid off his coffee, gave it a suspicious sniff before he drank. Scanned the article. "Huh. No sign of forced entry. No witnesses. No evidence of an intruder. Does sound pretty weird."
Dean realized he'd been tensed for a fight, half expecting Sam to question his hunch. He looked down at his coffee. "Less than a day's drive."
Sam nodded, took a big bite of a crumbling bear claw. "Let's check it out."
"Soon as you finish up, we'll get a move on." Dean wiped his sticky hands on his jeans, stood to start packing. If they made check-out time, the Visa card of Kerry King would be spared the charge for an extra night.
Flat farmlands to the peaks of the Rockies in less than a day. Sam found the change jarring, surreal, but no more so than the rest of their lives.
He leaned forward, perched on the edge of a hard floral-print couch, a fine china teacup looking absurdly small cradled in one hand. He shifted his right hand, encumbered by that clunky cast, trying to figure out a less-awkward position. "Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Mrs. Crawford," he said. "I know this is hard for you, but – "
Framed by a big bay window, the dark-haired woman hunched in the matching wing chair looked as slight and pale as her china. "No, that's all right. I'll talk to anyone necessary, as many times as necessary, if it will help find Ethan."
Mindy Crawford's eight-year-old son had disappeared three nights earlier, vanished from his bedroom sometime between the end of the Broncos game and 6:30 the next morning, when Mindy had gone to wake him for school. There was no sign of a break-in. The alarm system had not been tripped. The family's golden retriever had not whimpered, growled, or barked.
Of course, Sam suspected this dog – Bailey, according to its embroidered collar – would likely try to lick an intruder to death. Currently, the dog had wedged its snout under Dean's hand, nosing him each time he stopped scratching its ears. At least it wasn't humping any legs – dog hair would be a bitch to get out of their good suits.
Sam cleared his throat, tried to get back on track. "Mrs. Crawford, do you recall any strange things happening in the last few weeks?"
"You mean like hang-up phone calls or strange cars driving past? I've been racking my brain ever since the detectives asked, and I can't think of a thing. No custody disputes, no creepy soccer coaches . . ."
Dean shoved the dog's snout away from his crotch, making a valiant effort to look serious. "What about anything odd around the house? Lights flickering? Maybe weird noises . . . even smells?"
Mindy Crawford frowned, scrunched up her pert face. "No, nothing like that."
Sam set his cup down in its matching saucer. "Would it be possible for us to see Ethan's room?"
The kid was into sports the way only a young boy can be, his room decorated in posters and pennants: Broncos, Avalanche, Rockies. A hockey stick leaned in one corner; a soccer ball peeked out from under the bed. Sam made a perfunctory search of the closet and dresser drawers, already left rifled by the local cops, or maybe just the housekeeping skills of an eight-year-old boy.
Dean swept the room for EMF, picking up minor blips – probably just the house's wiring, the boy's computer. He stooped to examine the windowsill.
"Anything?" Sam asked.
"Not yet." Dean studied the latch, then slid the window open, scanned the area outside. A crisp breeze fanned the curtains. "Dude, there's no trees or drainpipes – no way for anyone to get up or down."
Sam joined him at the window, took in the view. To the east were rows of identical suburban homes. To the west, a treeline of tall pines edged up to the immaculately trimmed backyard, apparently the end of the subdivision: beyond, he could see nothing but trees till the horizon was cut off by the mountains.
Sam glanced toward the doorway, making sure Mrs. Crawford was out of earshot. He kept his voice low. "I don't know if this is our kind of thing, Dean. The woods are so close – lot of things can happen to a kid out there."
"Maybe." Dean shut and latched the window. "Still. Something about it just doesn't add up." He rubbed at his forehead, at the thin line of a scar that was now only visible in just the right light. Probably didn't even realize he was doing it.
Sam shoved away the memories that tried to crowd in. Turned to leave, so Dean wouldn't see anything in his face. "Guess we can hit the library," he said. "Do a little more digging. Make sure."
Back downstairs, they found Mindy Crawford taking out her frustrations on the evening's dinner, pounding chicken with a mallet. Her eyes were red-rimmed, her smile too tight. They thanked her for her time, assured her they'd be doing everything they could.
She nodded, wiped at her nose with the back of one yellow-gloved hand. "I just can't imagine what could have happened. Ethan's such a good boy. The police think he wandered off into the woods, but he knows better than that, especially since that other boy went missing."
Sam shot a glance over at Dean. "What other boy?" he asked.
Dean pulled the Impala to the curb and threw it in park. The house just ahead and to the right was an aging Cape Cod, white paint gone gray, green shutters faded and peeling. The small yard was dead and brown but for a few hardy weeds; a battered Nerf football lay forgotten under a scraggly bush.
Nine-year-old Jake Heffron had been missing for six weeks, give or take a few days. No one was really sure, because his mother and stepfather had been too busy cooking and using meth to notice he was gone. It was a neighbor, an elderly woman Jake sometimes helped with cleaning and errands, who finally called the police. With the parents in jail and the boy's siblings in foster care, the empty house made for an easy B&E.
That was the only bright side to the situation.
Sam kept watch while Dean picked the lock, a cheap-ass thing that took about ten seconds to crack. Inside, the place still had that cat-piss smell peculiar to meth-making operations. The cramped rooms were littered with the detritus of the occupants' lives, wrinkled clothing, broken dishes, beer cans, toys, tabloid magazines: clearly the result of the cops' search, though Dean had the sneaking suspicion these folks were no great shakes when it came to housekeeping in the first place. He kicked aside a TV tray and an empty popcorn tin, headed down the short hall while Sam took the living room and kitchen.
Two bedrooms for a family of six, the parents – though Dean used the term loosely – and four kids; the exact configuration of steps and halves, he couldn't recall. The younger two kids, ages three and five, had shared the back bedroom. No real beds; the mattresses were set on the scarred hardwood floor. Dean swept the small room for EMF, peered into the closet, examined the window. Nothing unusual.
Across the hall, the parents' bedroom had been more thoroughly tossed, the mattress and box springs slit open, dresser drawers emptied onto the floor. Amidst the scattered contents of the woman's underwear drawer were a couple of day-glo dildoes, a pair of handcuffs, an economy-size bottle of Astroglide.
Dean crossed the hall to the attic stairs, footfalls kept to the outer edge of the steps out of long habit. The two older children, Jake and his eleven-year-old brother, had shared the attic. Like the kids' room downstairs, twin mattresses lay on the floor, covered by rumpled dinosaur-print sheets. Books and toys were scattered in one corner; the drawers of a multicolored plastic dresser had been rummaged through.
Dean stooped under the eaves, moved to the center of the room to stand at full height. The EMF meter stayed silent, the only activity slight blips that could easily be explained by the house's wiring. He knelt by the low window, looked out into the backyard. In the center of a circle of worn grass, a limp chain was tethered to a metal stake. Dean was willing to bet there'd been no embroidered collars for this family's dog.
Like the Crawford house, there was no sign of anything hinky. No scratches at the windowsill, no spoor of sulfur. Dean stood, brushed dust and cat hair from his knees.
Sam met him at the bottom of the stairs. "Anything?"
Dean shook his head. "You?"
They stepped out into blinding sunshine. Dean locked and closed the door behind him, wiped the doorknob for prints, discreetly tucking the handkerchief away as they headed down the front walk.
A neighbor getting out of his car across the street gave them the fish-eye, seemed to hesitate, then finally trotted toward them. Sam and Dean stopped on the sidewalk, halfway back to the Impala, put on the disinterested air of G-men.
The man wore a rent-a-cop's uniform – from a distance, it looked real enough, but up close, the patch on his sleeve read POWERS SECURITY SERVICES. Tanned face, Republican hair: short and neat. Fit enough looking guy, maybe an inch or two shorter than Dean. Not built, but not fat – the kind of guy who might do a lot of hiking on weekends.
"Hello there," the guy said with a smile, pale eyes squinted against the sun. "I suppose you fellas are here about the Heffrons. You, uh, county or state?"
"Bureau," Dean said. He and Sam flashed their fake badges, perfectly synchronized.
"Oh!" The guy's eyes went wide. "Wow. I didn't realize the case merited that kind of attention."
Dean took the lead, a hard tone for the man's man. "We're investigating the possibility that the Heffron boy's disappearance may be connected to another case."
"You mean that boy from the suburbs?"
Sam's turn: silent heavy. "We're not at liberty to say."
"Oh, right, of course." The man nodded as if the non-answer had confirmed a suspicion.
Dean put his hands on his hips, raked the guy up and down with cop's eyes. "So tell me, Mr . . ."
"Chesley. Grant Chesley." He held out a hand that both brothers ignored.
"So tell me, Mr. Chesley," Dean said, "what do you think happened to that boy?"
"Well, that's what I wanted to talk to you about," Chesley said. "I know the sheriff says that Jake probably ran away, or wandered off into the woods. But personally, I think there's some kind of animal on the loose, something they're not telling us about. Mountain lion, bear, I don't know. But there've been a lot of pets missing in the neighborhood. Big dogs, some of 'em. It's not too much of a stretch to think something like that would go for a kid."
Sam asked, "Have you seen or heard any signs of an animal like that? Strange noises or tracks, pets acting funny?"
"Well, now that you mention it, I did hear something rattling around in the trash cans last week. Thought it was just a raccoon, but . . ." He shrugged. "Who knows?"
Dean watched the man, kept his face flat. "What about people?"
"How do you mean?"
"Well, you're probably an observant guy." Dean nodded toward the security company's logo. A little bit of flattery never hurt. "You seen any creepy guys hanging around? Strange cars cruising the neighborhood?"
Chesley frowned. "Nothing really comes to mind. I mean, this is a pretty quiet place. When we found out the Heffrons were making meth, right under our noses – well, it came as quite a shock. Guess it just goes to show you never really know anybody."
"Guess not." Dean faked a smile. "So if we have any more questions for you – "
"You know where to find me." Chesley gestured toward his house, jogged back across the street.
They watched as the man let himself into his house. Then Sam said, "Well, what do you think? Should we keep digging, or is this one a bust?"
Dean stood with his hands on his hips, stared out at the brush and dark pines that encroached on the Heffrons' yard. Plenty of things didn't sit right, but was this just a sad situation, or was it a legitimate hunt? He turned back to Sam. "Let's talk to the old lady."
Betty Sands lived in a little bungalow two doors down, better kept than most houses on the block. Summer was hanging on in her yard, a few plants still flowering. Sam and Dean found the woman tending the rose bushes that lined the driveway, snipping spent blooms with a small pair of shears. "Help you boys with something?" she asked, a slight southern lilt to her speech.
Their fake Bureau I.D.s were met with a raised eyebrow and a frown. Dean felt like a revenuer who'd just walked into a speakeasy. No bullshit, then. "We'd like to ask you some questions about Jake Heffron," he said.
The hard look didn't soften. "You mean someone's finally decided to pay attention?"
Sam put on his serious face, or as Dean thought of it, his constipated face. "We're trying to determine whether Jake's disappearance might be connected to another case."
Dark eyes glittered in her tanned face. " 'Bout time. It only took four children going missing for you fellas to do something."
Dean's hands went cold; his face felt numb. "Four?"
She must have heard something honest in his tone. She slipped the shears into a sheath on her belt, wiped her hands on her apron. Gestured direction with a nod of her head. The brothers followed her into the backyard.
They sat on wicker chairs under an arbor flanked by bird feeders, a few sunset-colored climbing roses still blooming overhead. Betty Sands served sugar cookies and lemonade but didn't lose the suspicious gaze. "The police and the newspapers don't want to talk about it," she began, "but when four children have disappeared from this town in less than six months, there's something very wrong going on.
"The first one was a Ute boy, twelve years old, I believe. The police said he ran away, even though his mother insisted none of his things were gone. Then there was a little Mexican boy, just turned seven. His parents are illegal, so they were afraid to report him missing. Some of us down at the church got together a search party, and eventually the authorities got involved. Sheriff Roberts figured the boy wandered off into the woods – happens now and then. Kids, or even drunk grown-ups." A wry smile framed the last two words. "Sometimes they turn up safe, sometimes not. But no one ever found a trace of that boy."
She paused, looked from Dean to Sam and back again, as if gauging their intent. "When Jake didn't come around for a few days, I thought at first it was just more of the usual. His good-for-nothing mother was on a bender, and Jake was looking after the young ones. Or maybe his older stepbrother had beat the tar out of him again – that Curtis has always been a mean little bastard.
"But the closer it got to Halloween, I knew something was wrong." She nodded toward a vegetable patch, mostly cleared now except for a few bright orange pumpkins still on the vine. "Jake helped me plant those back in the spring. I've never seen a boy so excited as when those pumpkins started to grow. He came to check on 'em almost every day, picked the bugs off 'em, babied 'em through the heat of summer. He was gonna surprise his little sisters with 'em."
Bumblebees buzzed in the roses overhead. Dean leaned into the dappled sunlight but still felt a chill. He stared down at his untouched lemonade. Beads of condensation slipped down the glass, trailed cold and wet over his fingers.
Sam gave his knee a slight nudge – Hey, pay attention – but words wouldn't come. Another beat of awkward silence, then Sam cleared his throat, took the lead. "So what do you think happened to Jake?"
"Honestly?" Betty sighed, shook her head. "I suppose it's possible he went into the woods and had some kind of accident, or met up with a mountain lion – though I doubt he'd wander off by himself. He'd just gone on one of those nature hikes the Y puts on, tells kids about the dangers of the forest. It could be that his so-called parents did something to him. Could be a stranger took him. All I know is that he didn't leave on his own."
"Your neighbor across the street, Mr. Chesley, thought an animal might be responsible. Said there've been a lot of pets going missing as well."
"That's true. The Perssons' Airedale disappeared a couple of months ago. Think the Fintons lost a cat, too. I haven't heard of anyone finding strange tracks or anything, but there are plenty of nasty things out there in the woods."
Sam peppered her with a few more questions, the same kind of things they'd asked Chesley – any weird noises, any neighborhood perverts? – but didn't get anything new.
Betty Sands escorted them back to her driveway, pulled her shears, but didn't get back to the job. "I just can't abide bad things happening to a sweet boy like Jake," she said, "when all the evil in the world passes right on by that little shit Curtis." She sighed, shook her head. "Damn shame."
Dark bar, déjà vu. A haze of cigarette smoke haloed dim lights; the room echoed with the hum of conversation, the sharp crack of a cueball breaking a rack. Creedence played on the jukebox, "Tombstone Shadow." Across the booth, Dean's fingers drummed along on the tabletop.
Sam closed the laptop, pushed it aside while the waitress covered their table with sandwiches and beer, onion rings, cheese fries. He was starving, tucked into his turkey club right away, eyes still straying to the newspaper articles he'd printed out that afternoon.
It took a whole cycle of SportsCenter on the overhead TV for him to notice Dean had spent more time with his beer than with his food. The bacon cheeseburger on Dean's plate wasn't even half gone.
While Dean's gaze was fixed on a TV trivia game somewhere over Sam's shoulder, Sam took the opportunity to study his brother unnoticed. Too pale, too thin. There was a tension in Dean's shoulders, in his clenched jaw: wound just a little too tight. While Sam watched, he looked down at the table, rubbed at that faint scar again.
Sam leaned back in his chair, took a long pull from his beer, Dean's pain a reminder of his own abysmal failure at playing normal. Normal people talked about their feelings. Didn't keep everything bottled up till the inevitable explosion. At school, he'd been the sensitive guy, everybody's friend, the shoulder to cry on. Always willing to listen. Always full of good advice.
What a fucking joke. All that time, he'd kept his real self hidden from the people he called friends. Played a role. And when it really counted, when Dean had finally opened up, Sam had only been able to listen in numb silence, too much of a fraud to offer a shred of comfort – not a touch, not a word. He'd sat like a lump on the Impala's warm hood, staring unseeing at the sun-dappled road and pine-covered mountains, till Dean scrubbed a hand over his face, slid back behind the wheel without another word.
So, yeah, way to go, Sam, he told himself. Carrying on the proud tradition of Dean giving someone his trust only to get stomped on yet again. The worst thing about it was he had no idea how to fix things. He could spout platitudes with the best of 'em, but as often as Dean played dumb, he was anything but, would see right through it. There were no words that could make things better, and Dean would likely rather deck him than hug him. Though Sam was loath to admit it, it seemed he'd have to fall back on that other time-honored Winchester tradition: avoiding the subject.
"So what do you think?" Sam said. "We looking for a mountain lion here, or something far more sinister?"
He cursed himself for the snark that shaped his tone, but Dean didn't seem to notice, just glanced up blearily, fatigue written in the shadows beneath his eyes. "I dunno, man. You get anything from the police reports?"
Sam shuffled through his papers till he found the printouts from the hacked cop-shop network. He passed them across to Dean. "Take a look. Things do look pretty funky. No evidence of abduction in any of the cases, no animal tracks near the kids' homes, and no real proof that any of them left on their own. The only problem is there's no evidence of anything else, either."
"That," Dean said, eyes fixed on the reports, "and cops who don't give a shit unless it's a white kid from the suburbs."
Damn, where had that come from? Sam's eyebrows shot up, but he steered around the comment. "Well, at any rate, they've got no idea what they're looking for, supernatural or otherwise. Maybe we should try to eliminate some possibilities, go from there."
Dean nodded, drummed his fingers on the table. "I don't think any of these kids ran away."
Sam had to agree, but played devil's advocate. "Even the oldest one? What makes you so sure?"
"Look at this town, Sam. It's too small. There's not exactly a place for runaways to go. Even if they decided to try a bigger city, most kids that young wouldn't have any idea how to get there."
"Town this size, nobody'd sell to a kid, not these days."
"Doubtful. A year or two older, it'd be a real possibility, but . . ." Dean frowned into his beer. "Besides, kids that young, from a place like this, do not know what it takes to live on the streets. They'd start out with a bindle slung over their shoulder straight out of Tom & Jerry, and come crawling back about six hours later."
God. Sam hadn't thought about that, either.
Didn't much want to.
That brought to mind some other unpleasant possibilities. "What about the parents?" Sam asked. "Think it could be abuse gone bad?"
Dean cocked an eyebrow. "Four families?"
"Maybe the parents were possessed?"
"We would have found something – EMF, sulfur."
"Garden variety pedophile?"
Dean rubbed a hand across his mouth, pushed his plate away. "Possible."
Sam waited for elaboration that didn't come. The waitress swung by to drop off two more beers and clear their plates. Dean didn't even ask for a go-box for the cheese fries. Sam felt a twinge of worry in his gut. Tried to push it away. "So where do you think we should start?"
Dean shrugged, took a long pull from his new beer. "Local legends, I guess. Something in the woods seems like the most plausible choice."
"I already checked Dad's journal; he didn't have anything on the area."
Silence. Dean picked at the label on his bottle.
Great. Another forbidden subject. Now that Sam thought about it, he couldn't recall Dean even touching the journal since . . .
He scrubbed his good hand over his face, raked back his hair. They weren't going to get anywhere on the case tonight; the library and historical society, maybe the county clerk's office, would be the next logical step. Local legends, the history of the land, other unsolved disappearances – those were the bread and butter of their work, and they were all nine-to-five missions. Maybe the best thing right now would be to get a good night's sleep, start fresh in the morning.
He started gathering up his printouts. "I'm gonna head back," he said. "You coming?"
Dean's eyes drifted around the room, gauging prospects. "Think I'll stick around for a bit." He pasted on a leering grin that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Don't wait up."
Dean had always slept a soldier's sleep: wherever and whenever he could.
Lately, it just wasn't happening. He'd spent far too many nights counting tiles in motel ceilings, watching the sweep of highway headlights cut short by curtains or blinds, cataloging hideous theme-room decorations, surfing for internet porn. Meditation didn't help; drink only worked if he got thoroughly shitfaced. Masturbation barely took the edge off. Now he'd even begun to envy Sam's broken hand – a couple Vicodin would have knocked him right out.
The girl from the bar certainly didn't suffer from a similar affliction; she was sprawled out on her stomach, snoring softly, disheveled red curls spread over the pillow. Hell, poor thing should be tired; they'd gotten quite the workout. She was lithe, limber, and strong as hell. She'd scratched and bit, introduced him to some rather unconventional uses for ice cubes. In return, Dean was certain she'd joined the national fan club that quite vocally worshipped his skill with his mouth. He could still taste her on his lips.
It was just what he needed. But it still wasn't enough.
He barked his shin on the bedside table, hopped his way through the dark to the bathroom. A flick of the light switch revealed a horror of pink: everything flowers and frills, right down to the rose-covered Kleenex box. He twisted around in front of the mirror to get a good look at his back. Hard to reconcile the virginal décor with the wildcat whose nails had shredded his skin.
He pissed, then showered, the hot water stinging his back. The soap was vanilla-scented. Considering the bite marks on his chest and thighs, it was a bit disconcerting to think he'd smell like a giant cake or ice-cream cone.
He dressed in the dark, left without her waking.
Sam was still asleep when Dean crept in a little after 5:30. They'd lucked out this time, the motel made up of small free-standing cabins, cheap and clean, though decorated in a rather disappointingly uncreative hunting-lodge theme. The cramped kitchenette and mounted bear head seemed eerily familiar. He couldn't be sure, but he thought they might have stayed here once before, ages ago, with Dad.
He pulled a wobbly wooden chair over to the window and sat, listening to the soft whistling of Sam's breath through his nose, watching the night till the lightening sky revealed the peaks of the San Juans, jagged granite limned in purple.
Sam kept his head down, eyes fixed on the food-spattered menu, and tried to bite back a grin.
They were seated on the diner's east side, the sun's glare directly on their table. Even with the blinds drawn, bright stripes of light painted the room. Dean, out of deference to civility, had left his sunglasses in the car, and obviously regretted his decision. He shaded his bloodshot eyes with one hand, wincing as he squinted at the menu. When the waitress came by, he muttered something that sounded like, "Pancakes. Coffee. Black."
Sam wanted desperately to crack a few jokes – his brother's hangovers were true comedy gold – but sensed that with the tension of the last few months, any attempt at humor would only fall flat. Pity, too. Judging from those claw marks on his back, Dean must have been screwing a daeva.
Ah, well. Sam filed it away for later, when things weren't quite so raw.
After massive infusions of coffee and a short stack drowned in boysenberry syrup, Dean looked a little less peaked. "So where do you want to start?" he asked.
"I thought maybe we'd split up – I'll take the library for local history and legends. You hit the newspapers and county clerk for any mysterious deaths or disappearances."
Dean shrugged. "Sounds good. You ready?"
They waited at the cash register to pay the bill. Took a while – it seemed most of the staff, as well as many of the customers, were involved in a conversation at the other end of the counter. Sam caught a few snatches of words: "Temperature was near forty degrees last night – " "Little slip of a thing – " "Cougar – " "Search party – "
A harried waitress stepped up to the register. "Sorry 'bout that, boys. Was everything all right this mornin'?"
"Yeah, just fine," Sam said. "What's all the commotion about? Something wrong?"
The woman handed him his change. "Little girl's been reported missing," she said. "The police think she may be lost in the woods, so the fellas are starting up a search party."
Sam shot a glance over at Dean. Looked like their plans for the day might have to change.
He turned back to the waitress. "They looking for volunteers?"
This wasn't exactly the first look Dean had hoped to get at the woods: an armspan away from other searchers, no weapons save for knives. Sam's beat-up old backpack held only bottles of water (both drinking and holy), some Power Bars, and a small container of salt.
The day was crisp and didn't warm much as the sun rose. Among the pines and aspen, spruce and fir, only dappled sunlight reached the ground. Dozens of volunteers trudged through the trees and brush, scanning the shadows for a bright scrap of clothing, calling the missing girl's name.
Teresa Sandoval was just six years old, a Hispanic girl whose father was a firefighter, her mother a nurse. According to the locals, there was no way the parents had done anything shady. The fact that a girl had gone missing after four boys seemed to discount a human predator – those freaks usually had a type. The case for an animal attack seemed strong – the fact that there were no tracks and the child had disappeared from her bed made the supernatural likelier still.
They'd tromped the woods for nearly three hours, and, in Dean's opinion, had gotten nowhere. The area near the girl's home was well-covered. If some creature had taken her, the search party would never find her, and now, any trace evidence would be obliterated by hundreds of well-meaning boots.
Dean was irritable, starving, and somehow sunburnt. His head still throbbed. Every now and then, through the pine-scented breeze, he caught a whiff of alcohol sweat or the stubborn vanilla soap still clinging to his skin. He paused at the base of a tall aspen, squatted as if to study the ground. Closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose.
Sam stopped next to him, took a long swig of water, then stowed his bottle and handed another to Dean. "You should drink some more," Sam said. "Probably dehydrated."
Before Dean could tell his brother where to stick his sanctimony, Sam took a step and promptly pitched forward, sprawling in a gangly-limbed heap onto the ground. "Motherfuck," Sam said in a matter-of-fact tone, a sure indication he was in a pretty foul mood, too.
Dean reached out to help him up. Stopped. Sam must have stepped wrong, catching the edge of an indentation. Dean frowned, grabbed his brother's good hand. "Hey, Sam, take a look at this."
With Sam upright, they stood back, peered down. The depression in the forest floor could have been a gopher hole. Some kind of burrow or wallow. A geologic formation.
But it seemed a rather unlikely coincidence that a natural hole would have taken the shape of a large footprint.