Author's Notes: Written for the spn_summergen fic exchange, for the prompt: "Crossover with Criminal Minds. How do you profile demon hunters?"
Title from the song made popular by Dinah Washington and covered by a ton of other people.
Steady slap of foot against pavement. Sweat soaked his shirt, dripped stinging into his eyes. The streets were still wet with last night's hard rain, littered with snapped limbs and dropped buds. Each step kicked up a splash. Fog rose in wisps from dips in the road.
He'd done five miles before sunrise, then turned around, no real purpose besides burning off some jittery energy, besides finding the simplicity of one foot in front of the other. He'd been doing a lot of this lately. If he ran till he puked, then ran some more, maybe his brain would shut off long enough for him to sleep. Maybe the panic that gripped him at odd times would be quiet today.
Maybe by the time he got back, Sam would be there, back from wherever he'd been with Ruby the night before, dropped off by that damn Mustang Dean had spotted from time to time.
Of course a demon would drive a Ford.
The motel was in sight now, maybe half a mile distant, a crumbling L-shaped building with weeds growing up through cracks in the empty pool. The crooked sign splayed its neon letters against a lightening sky: Sleep E-Z Inn. Dean kept his pace steady for a few more yards, then poured on the speed, sprinting full-tilt for the motel. His legs burned. His ribs twinged with each breath, a reminder of his encounter with Alastair – which kind of defeated the purpose of forgetting, but what the fuck could you do? He splashed past a closed dry cleaner and a diner just opening up, a gas station and Stop-N-Rob, a veterinary hospital, the buildings a blur, breathing too fast. Didn't slow down till he hit the blacktopped parking lot.
The Impala waited in front of their room, plastered with wet redbud blossoms from nearby trees. Dean jogged to a stop, rested both hands on the hood. He sucked in deep breaths, cataloguing each pain: burning lungs, pounding head. An ache in his ribs. He'd tweaked his right knee somehow, and his feet felt like a mass of blisters. He sat down on the curb, elbows on his knees. Looked back at the room. The curtains hadn't moved, but that didn't mean much. Wasn't even seven a.m.
Maybe he didn't really want to know.
He pushed back up to his feet, limped toward the Stop-N-Rob. He'd tucked a twenty into his shoe before he'd left and stooped now to fish it out before heading inside, hoping the lumpy guy behind the counter wouldn't be too offended by the limp and sweaty bill.
One liter-size bottle of cold water. One coffee, extra-large, black. Three newspapers. One Tradin' Post for downtime distraction. The ads for classic cars, exotic pets, and arms of questionable legality always lifted his spirits a bit.
He went back to his curb and downed half the water before flapping open one of the newspapers and scanning automatically for their kind of thing. A few items looked promising. Wild animal attack in downtown Knoxville. Freak accident involving a garden rake outside of Savannah. Series of mysterious deaths at a historic plantation near Charleston.
Behind him, the door to their room stuck for a moment before opening with a crack. Dean clenched his jaw, tried to hide his flinch. He glanced to his right as Sam's shoes came into his sight. Didn't look up. Didn't trust himself not to say the wrong thing.
"You're up early," Sam said.
Yeah, and you're home late. "Gotta seize the day, Sammy." He folded the newspaper back to take a closer look at the plantation article.
"So, what, running's gonna replace drinking now?"
Dean looked over at Sam's shoes. "Think I found us a job." He held up the paper.
Sam huffed a sigh, shifted his feet. Took the newspaper just the same. Dean waited, watched a fat red worm writhe on the drying pavement.
"Huh," Sam said. "No witnesses, no signs of struggle…authorities baffled. Does sound pretty weird."
"Charleston, then?" Dean asked Sam's shoes.
"Sure. Grab some breakfast, then hit the road?" Sam started in the direction of the diner, newspaper tucked under his arm.
"Gonna grab a shower first," Dean said. "Meet you there."
He watched as Sam crossed the lot and then the street, long shadow stretched out before him.
Dean drained the rest of the water, listening to a robin sing high in a redbud tree, then gathered up his cooling coffee and the rest of the newspapers. He stooped, caught the wriggling worm between thumb and forefinger, and deposited it in the strip of grass beneath the trees. The robin might still get it, but at least the little fucker wouldn't fry in the sun.
In his years with the FBI, Derek Morgan had seen what could charitably be termed some fucked up shit. He'd seen bodies shot, stabbed, beaten, burned, raped, dismembered. He'd worked to catch killers who felt no remorse, who wanted to be stopped, who didn't even know they'd done anything wrong. But never in his career had he seen a case that made as little sense as this one.
Morgan pulled the door to the conference room shut, took a seat between Hotch and Reid. The smell of coffee was strong in the room: a mug at each place. Their last case had wrapped up late the day before. Fatigue showed in each face around the table.
Morgan took a sip from his own mug of strong brew, leafed quickly through his copy of the case file as J.J. started her presentation. "This is Roger Cooper, age 43." With a click of her remote, J.J. brought up a picture of a smiling middle-aged black man. "He was found dead on the grounds of Branford Hall Plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, in one of the restored slave cabins along the main drive." Another click. The next photo showed a long blacktopped driveway, each side lined with moss-draped live oaks. "The plantation is a popular historic attraction and can be rented out for special events, weddings, fundraisers, and the like. Cooper was employed at the plantation as an archaeologist and head of preservation. Three days ago, he was working late preparing a new exhibit. Another employee found his body Tuesday morning."
J.J. clicked though a series of photos documenting the crime scene. The victim's body lay sprawled in an ungainly heap on the dirt floor of the one-room cabin. Dead eyes stared up at the ceiling.
"Cause of death was strangulation," J.J. continued. "Ligature marks point to thick rope, but local police found no trace of any possible weapon. In fact, they found no evidence whatsoever. No hairs or fibers. No signs of a struggle in the victim's office, in the cabin, or anywhere else on the plantation grounds. The last person to see Cooper alive, a clerk in the gift shop, noticed nothing unusual before she left that night, and regular police patrols in the area didn't report anything suspicious.
"Cooper was the third African-American man to die at the plantation in the last eight months." J.J. clicked again, brought up two more photos, two more ordinary, smiling black men. "William Eckert was found in the same cabin last August, Thomas Holston in February. Eckert had disappeared from the wedding reception he was attending, Holston from a historical society fundraiser.
"Both previous victims died in the same manner, with the same lack of evidence. However, there were additional injuries to Cooper's body that convinced the sheriff's department they needed to call in some help." The next photo had been taken in the sterile stainless steel setting of an autopsy suite. The victim's body lay facedown on the table. The skin of the man's back had been flayed to the bone by a whip or switch of some sort.
Next to Morgan, Hotch made a note on his legal pad. "Escalation in violence, shortening interval between killings. It won't be long before this unsub strikes again."
"Have police found any connection between the victims?" Rossi asked.
J.J. shook her head. "Aside from being fairly affluent black men, nothing so far."
Morgan skimmed through the file again, flipped back and forth through the autopsy and crime scene photos several times. Something wasn't right here.
Reid was the first to pick up on the anomalies. "Wait a minute, this doesn't make any sense. Cooper was found fully dressed, but there was no damage to his clothes, other than the obvious bloodstains. How is that possible?"
"Maybe the unsub redressed him after the whipping?" Prentiss offered.
Morgan went back to the photos that showed the victim's clothing after it had been removed, stretched out on a flat surface. The only bloodstains were those on the back of the white button-down shirt, corresponding to the location of the injuries. "Naw, if that was how it happened, there would have to be more smears of blood on the clothes. This looks too contained, almost as if – " He stopped there. The rest just sounded too absurd.
Reid finished the thought. "– Almost as if he were whipped underneath his clothes."
There had to be a reasonable explanation, but damned if Morgan could figure it out right now. They ran through the rest of the basics quickly. Any other theories and questions could wait till they were in the air.
The grounds of Branford Hall Plantation reminded Dean of nothing so much as a cemetery: clean and tastefully landscaped, its buildings like monuments; quiet, dead.
The main house stood across a broad expanse of lawn, two massive stories of red brick, columned and porticoed, one of the finest surviving examples of Georgian Palladian architecture, according to the background information Sam had insisted on reading aloud in the car. Sculpted gardens flanked the house, filled with azaleas and camellias in bloom, hedges trimmed into geometric knots. Gnarled live oaks lined the long drive leading up to the house, Spanish moss trailing from the limbs. A few horses wandered a corral on one side of the drive; across the lane stood a row of nine tiny slave cabins.
It looked like bad publicity from the deaths was hurting business. Only a few cars and minivans were parked in the gravel lot between the mansion and the gin house that now served as a restaurant and gift shop. Dean angled the Impala into a shady spot beneath a dogwood tree in full flower. They were going in as FBI today. Sam flapped into his jacket as Dean fiddled with his tie, checked the Impala's doors to make sure they were locked.
Megan Peters was the last person to see Roger Cooper alive, and she'd discovered his body the next morning. They found her behind the counter of the gift shop, a perky college-age girl decked out in a hoop skirt, her long blond hair looped in complex whorls of braids. Dean couldn't figure how she moved through the narrow aisles without knocking over displays at every turn.
She didn't flinch when they flashed their badges. "I figured there would be more questions," she said, "but I really don't know what else I can tell you."
"We're sorry to make you go through this again," Sam trotted out his sympathetic frown. "Sometimes details that seemed insignificant at the time can be a big help."
Megan took in a deep breath, let it slowly whoosh out. "Like I told the sheriff's people, I didn't really see or hear anything. The last time I saw Mr. Cooper, he was heading from the slave cabins up to the main house. He'd work late in his office a lot, especially with the new exhibit coming up. It was about six-thirty, because I had just finished counting out the till and was straightening the shelves. When I got done, I locked up and went to my car. The light was still on in Mr. Cooper's office. That would have been about seven. I didn't see anybody hanging around or anything strange. The next morning when I came in, his car was still in the lot, so I went looking for him. And I found him in the last cabin." She half-turned toward the window facing the row of trees.
"I know you've already answered a lot of questions about that night," Dean said. "But what about the weeks before? Do you remember anything strange – maybe creepy people hanging around, strange phone calls? Even" – he raised his eyebrows – "weird noises or smells? Flickering lights?"
Megan reached up, smoothed a hand over her braids. "Well, up in the main house, there are problems sometimes with the wiring. It's an old house, you know? But what would that have to do with Mr. Cooper's death?"
Dean smiled, bland and reassuring. "Probably nothing. We just want to make sure we cover all the bases. You wouldn't happen to remember if those lights flicker more often in one part of the house, would you?"
"Actually, yeah. Usually in the study. Mr. Cooper's office is just off that room."
Sam pasted on a smile of his own. "Would it be all right if we take a look at the house?"
The rooms of Branford Hall echoed with their footsteps. Ordinarily, docents guided tours through the house at half-hour intervals, but Cooper's death was keeping business slow. The hoop-skirted guides were more than happy to perch on the stone garden benches and let Sam and Dean roam through the halls on their own.
The house was just as finely crafted inside as it was out. Egg-and-dart molding, hand-carved wooden brackets beneath the grand staircase. Grapes and vines carved in plaster bordered the ceilings in some rooms. Another plaster carving was the centerpiece of the ballroom on the second floor: a huge circular medallion made up of vines and flowers and leaves. Each room was furnished with antique pieces, every bit as ornate and well-made as the house itself.
Dean didn't consider himself naïve – he knew that most fortunes, in the north, the south, or anywhere else in the world, were made by exploiting other people. But the visible reminders of the slave cabins soured his appreciation of the craftsmanship, the glimpse of history. There were two different histories here: the privileged lives lived within the mansion's walls, and the lives of those who had worked and suffered to provide those privileges.
They swept each room for EMF, but found only background readings until they reached the study. Located on the northeast corner of the first floor, the room was furnished much the way it would have been a hundred and fifty years earlier. A man's man kind of place. Everything was done in dark wood. Bookcases filled with old volumes lined two walls. Dean let Sam browse the titles, turned to the massive mahogany desk. An old-fashioned ledger book lay opened on the leather blotter, flanked by a fountain pen and ink well, a cigar box inlaid with an intricate star-shaped pattern. He pulled open each drawer, but wasn't surprised to find them empty.
A squeal from the EMF meter. Dean looked up from the desk. Across the room, Sam stood before a large globe set in a floor stand. The globe was spinning. Dean raised an eyebrow at Sam. "I didn't touch the thing," Sam said.
Dean glanced around the room. The temperature seemed to have dropped a few degrees, but nothing else moved, nothing manifested. As spirit activity went, it was pretty tame.
"Definitely something here," Sam said. "I bet things will ramp up after dark."
Dean nodded, continued his circuit of the room. The EMF readings waxed and waned, quiet in the empty spaces, louder when he approached the desk. He waved the meter toward Sam, gave a big cheesy grin like it was just a joke, but he couldn't help feeling a rush of relief when the thing didn't go off.
Nothing else turned up in their search of the house. They walked the grounds next, poking around in the sculpted gardens, the small family cemetery, the round brick smokehouse and brick privy building. Then they wandered down the oak-lined alley toward the slave cabins. "Well, looks like it's gotta be one of the men of the house," Dean said, more to break the silence than anything else.
"Yeah, now we just need to figure out which one."
Dean loosened his tie. "Should be a piece of cake. Only, what, eight generations to narrow down?"
"Could also be an overseer of some sort. We'll have to dig pretty deep into the history, make sure we don't miss anyone."
They stopped at the cabin closest to the main house, the one where Roger Cooper's body had been found. The cabins were built from the same locally-made red brick as the rest of the buildings. Each was a single room, no more than twelve feet by thirty. A quick sweep of each building turned up nothing more than minimal EMF readings.
After the last cabin, they crossed the drive to lean against the corral fence. A cool breeze carried the scents of horses and azaleas. "You really think it's that simple?" Dean asked. "Just some good ol' boy slave owner pissed off that black people are free?"
Sam shrugged. "Sometimes the simplest answer is the right one. Now, does that mean I think it'll be easy?"
Dean looked over at Sam with a ghost of a smile. Neither of them had to say it: seemed like nothing ever came easy for them.
Derek Morgan stood beneath the twisted branches of the live oaks, surrounded by crime scene tape and evidence markers, case file in hand, and couldn't stop staring at the slave cabins.
He wondered if this were the last sight of those three dead men, if this was what the unsub had wanted them to see: a reminder of their collective past. Some sick way of saying, This is where you came from. This is where you belong.
Footsteps shuffled through the grass behind him. He turned. Reid came to stand beside him, hands shoved deep into his pockets, squinting in the direction of the cabins. "It's fairly unusual to find slave housing out in the open like this. Typically, slave quarters were placed behind or to the side of the main house, out of sight. But some plantation owners had cabins built like this, along the main entry road, probably to show off the size of their labor force to any visitors. Plus" – Reid half-turned toward the mansion – "tiny cabins like these made the house seem that much more impressive." A silent moment passed, filled by the undignified squawk of some bird out in the marshes. Then Reid said, "Dicks."
Morgan started. "What?"
"I just don't get it, you know? I mean, I try to come at it from a historical or socioeconomic perspective, I try to tell myself that this was the world that people were raised into, that this wasn't a moral problem for them, that this was all they knew. But to believe that one human being can own another? Even the bizarre things we see every day somehow make more sense to me than slavery ever will."
The pain in Reid's eyes was real and far from naïve, and that meant a lot. All Morgan could do was nod.
They stood in companionable silence, waited as Hotch crossed the broad lawn from the parking lot, looking hopelessly out of place in his G-man suit next to the corral. A couple of curious horses trotted over to the fence to watch him pass. "What've we got?" he asked.
"No answers, but a whole lot of new questions." Morgan flapped his file folder toward the last cabin. "How the hell did the unsub manage to get three grown men out here? These weren't blitz attacks. No trace of drugs. And I can't think of any ruse or coercion that would get me to stand still long enough to string me up."
"Good point," Hotch said. "Maybe he convinced these men that there was some danger to their families."
"A neuromuscular agent is a possibility," Reid put in. "Like what we saw with that angel of death in Pittsburgh."
Hotch nodded. "The coroner still has Cooper's body. We'll have him check for an injection site. I'd say we're definitely dealing with a degree of sophistication here. This unsub is either charming enough to blend in at these receptions and fundraisers, or so familiar with the area that he can slip in and out without ever being noticed."
"Possible military training?" Morgan said. "Maybe we're looking at a militia type. Hardcore white supremacists."
Reid nodded toward the marshes and creeks. "No one reported hearing or seeing strange cars in the area. It's possible he came and went by boat."
And wasn't that a comforting thought: some whacked-out, backwoods, paramilitary redneck poling a skiff through the swamps? Morgan flashed briefly on mosquitoes and gators. He sincerely hoped they were dealing with a more urbane criminal, but suspected they wouldn't get that lucky.
They left the alley of oaks and crossed the grounds again, heading for the gin house-cum-gift shop to speak to the woman who'd found Cooper's body. A black muscle car motored slowly from the opposite direction, leaving the parking lot. An old Chevy Impala, late sixties. Something about that niggled at Morgan's brain. The low rumble of its engine faded as the car disappeared beneath the canopy of trees.
Three FBI agents and one clerk in a giant hoop skirt made the aisles of the gift shop seem even smaller. Reid browsed a shelf of trinkets while Hotch made the introductions.
Reid picked up a pen from the display, studied it as he turned it upside down. Morgan peered over his shoulder. Behind the pen's clear plastic casing, a tiny cut-out of a southern belle drifted from one end to the other, set against a veranda backdrop.
The exasperated tone of the clerk's words caught their attention. "Look, I already talked to a couple of other agents not even an hour ago. Can't you guys just share notes or something?"
Morgan stepped closer, shared a look with Hotch. "What other agents?"
"Fuck," Dean said.
"Fuck," Sam agreed.
Dean shucked his jacket and tie, sat down hard on the edge of his bed. He slumped forward, elbows on his knees. "How are we supposed to work this case with real feds running around?"
Sam perched on the other bed, mirroring Dean's position. "Dunno, man. Guess we could split. Call Bobby, see if he knows someone who could take it."
"Yeah, and in the meantime, how long do you think it'll be before Casper the racist ghost finds another victim, considering there's a black agent working the case? If they happen to be at the plantation after dark, that guy is screwed."
"And if we get arrested for impersonating law enforcement, we're screwed." Sam shot a glance over at Dean. "Or have you forgotten what it's like being trapped in a jail cell with Lilith out for our blood?"
Dean hadn't forgotten. Could never forget. More good people, dead because of him.
He pushed up from the bed, crossed to the window. Outside, midday sun sparked off the cars in the motel lot. The Impala was parked a few doors down from their room, sleek and solid and constant. He took comfort in its presence because he had to take comfort in something, a bubbly panic rising up in his chest, grabbing at his throat. He closed his eyes, dragged in a few deep breaths through his nose, and made up his mind. He was taking a stand here – because Jesus Christ, he couldn't let any more people die.
"You said yourself this was a pretty straightforward case," he told Sam. "We can work this thing without getting in their way, hopefully wrap it up in a couple of days."
Sam watched him for a long, uncomfortable moment, and Dean wondered if this would be it: the time Sam refused, the time they split and went their separate ways for good. Dean didn't want it to happen – didn't think he could handle it if it did – but felt it coming, as inevitable as the end of his one year had felt, ten months (almost forty-one years) ago.
Then Sam shrugged. "Guess we could do most of the research online. And I doubt the FBI will need the public library or vital records for anything."
"Well, all right then." Dean grinned. It felt weak even to him.
After a furtive trip to pick up a stack of books from the library and some steaming Styrofoam cartons of buffalo wings, they got to work, digging into the history of Branford Hall. Sam took the laptop – presumably because he was better-stronger-smarter, as he was so fond of pointing out – while Dean got stuck with several dusty volumes of county histories and genealogies.
Most of the genealogical information was documented with paperwork from the plantation, wills and inventories, bills of sale for slaves. He tried to read with objectivity, but couldn't ignore the human stories hidden in the dry legal language, the forgotten and nameless who'd been considered nothing but property. One bill of sale described a four-year-old girl who was traded for "one bay mare, two cows, and two pigs."
Jesus. A four-year-old kid. All the fucked-up shit he and Sam saw every day – spirits and demons and werewolves and killer clowns – and he still couldn't believe the things people did to each other.
When the coffee ran out, they took a break to start another pot and report their findings.
Sam stood and stretched, popping his back. "Well," he started, "this spirit, if that's definitely what it is, is a pretty recent phenomenon. There's nothing else in the history or lore to suggest spirit activity before the first killing in August of last year. And I think I know what set this ghost off. Last July, some of the graves in the family cemetery were dug up, most likely by graverobbers looking for jewelry or Civil War artifacts.
"I did find a few rumors of hauntings, but it's all your standard plantation lore: angry ghosts of slaves, yellow fever epidemics. The only interesting legend has to do with why the house was spared during the war – it was supposedly used as a cholera hospital. Of course, most scholars believe that Thomas Branford, Senior just hung out flags to make it look like a hospital, so ghosts from an epidemic look pretty unlikely. What'd you get?"
Dean grabbed the legal pad full of his notes and flipped back to the start. "The first owner of the land was John Branford, who grew rice and indigo. Construction on the house was completed in 1742. Over the years, the plantation was passed down through the family – a total of six generations of Branfords owned it, until a spinster daughter died in 1943. Since then, the place has had a handful of owners. It was bought by the local preservation association in 1979."
"Any crazed white-power types stick out among the owners?"
"You know how these books are, man." Dean scrubbed a hand down his face. "It's all civic pride, upstanding citizens, founding fathers. They never say, 'Mister Branford enjoyed tending his gardens and beating his slaves.' But if I had to guess – " He paged through his notes. "I've got two guys that seem like a good bet. John Branford the third, owned the plantation from his father's death in 1802 till his own death in 1835. Some of the biggest expansions to the plantation occurred during those years, including the purchase of a whole hell of a lot of slaves.
"Then we've got Thomas Branford, Junior, Confederate hero" – the word held a bitter edge – "who went off to war even though he could have bought his way out, because he was such a believer in the cause of states' rights."
"Any idea how either of them died?"
"Thomas was killed at Chickamauga, so 'violent death' definitely applies. Nothing I've read so far mentions John's death, but he was in his sixties when he died, so I'd guess natural causes."
Sam sprawled back into his chair again, watched as the coffee dribbled into the pot. "We'll have to find the death certificates. We need to find out how John Branford died, and where these guys are buried."
Morgan slapped the hood of the SUV. "Dammit. We must have just missed these guys."
Hotch was on the line with J.J. at the sheriff's office, requesting a crime scene unit to search for fingerprints or any other evidence of the imposters. They'd done a quick check of the property, but the only visitors at the moment were two elderly couples on vacation from Ohio. Whoever these "agents" were, they were long gone – and Morgan had the sinking feeling he'd watched them go.
He leaned in close to Reid when he spoke. "I saw a car leaving while we were walking over to the gift shop. Late sixties Chevy Impala. Black."
A flash of recognition in Reid's eyes. "Hey, the Winchester brothers drove a black Chevy Impala. Sixty-seven, wasn't it?"
Morgan nodded. "I knew the lead on their case, Victor Henriksen. He was a good agent – and a good friend. I saw that car, couldn't quite place what it reminded me of. But that clerk's description sounded awfully familiar."
"But the Winchesters died in that explosion, over a year ago." Reid frowned. "Copycats, maybe? Like the Angelmaker case?"
Hotch had ended the call, caught the tail end of the conversation. "Please tell me we haven't found another dead serial killer acting from beyond the vale."
Morgan repeated what he'd told Reid. "Anybody else, I'd say we were dealing with copycats or just a huge coincidence. But those guys escaped custody at least twice that I know of, and Dean Winchester's already faked his own death once before."
"There wasn't much left to find after that explosion in Colorado." Hotch folded his arms across his chest, somehow managed to look even more serious than usual. "You think they engineered the whole thing and escaped again?"
Morgan shrugged. "Possible."
"Well," Reid said with a laugh, "at least we can be sure they weren't resurrected."
The Charleston County Health Department was housed in a low-slung building that looked more like a strip mall than a government office building. Dean parked around back. They weren't sure the FBI guys had noticed the Impala, but there was no sense tempting fate.
Dean straightened his jacket, shot the cuffs. To cover all the bases, they'd need to get death certificates for all their possible suspects. A violent death that wasn't mentioned in any of the histories could focus the investigation in a different direction – and the certificates should list a place of burial.
The lady behind the counter looked like a soccer mom picking up some extra cash: plump and cheerful, wearing a baby blue sweater and glasses on a chain. Her nametag announced her as "Terri," and her southern accent was too sweet to be true. "Hello there, boys, how can I help you?"
They flashed their badges and Sam took the lead. "I'm Agent Cook, this is Agent Clifford. "We need to locate some death certificates in connection with a case we're working. Some of them go pretty far back, all the way to the 1800s. Would you be able to help us with that?"
Terri's eyes lit up, a suburbanite's typical excitement at helping with an investigation. "Of course. Be happy to, Agent Cook."
She took the list Sam handed her, written out in Dean's neat capital letters with as much detail as they could find. Terri frowned as she scanned the names and dates. "Some of these are from the old ledger books, might take a little bit of time to pull together. Do you boys have time to wait?"
Not like they had much choice. While Terri disappeared into some hidden archive, Dean leaned back against the counter, keeping one eye on the parking lot, one eye on his brother. Sam wandered over to a spin a rack of pamphlets, presumably hoping to learn about teen pregnancy and STDs. Dean wondered if they had one along the lines of "Sex With Demons – How to Stay Safe."
Of course, Dean didn't have much room to talk, hooking up with an angel.
God, if only he could get his brain to shut the fuck up. He rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands. The daily headache was early today.
What he saw when he opened his eyes didn't exactly help matters: a big black SUV with government plates had pulled up in the parking lot and was currently disgorging the same FBI agents they'd seen at the plantation.
Fuck. Dean pushed away from the counter, slapped Sam's shoulder. "Dude," he hissed, "Feds." Sam turned, eyes comically wide. Frozen, they watched the agents cross the parking lot…and enter the suite next door, the coroner's office.
Dean released the grip he'd had on Sam's sleeve, let himself breathe again.
Sam looked a little peaked himself. "You wanna take a chance, hope nobody looks out a window back there?"
A minute later, they were on the road, sans death certificates. It took everything Dean had not to floor it. "Great. What now?"
"I dunno, man, we've gotta get that information somehow."
"Yeah, I know." Dean looked up at the rearview, tried to loosen his grip on the wheel.
Morgan figured Victor Henriksen would be spinning in his grave.
You know, if there'd been enough left of the poor guy to bury.
After a few prints had been found at the plantation gift shop, a call from Garcia had confirmed everyone's worst fear: the Winchester brothers were alive and well. How they'd pulled that off was anyone's guess. All Morgan knew was that he wanted these guys bad, for Victor – and for his own curiosity.
Reid had obviously read up on the brothers at some point. He leaned forward between the front seats as Hotch navigated and Morgan drove. "No one was ever able to accurately profile the Winchesters. Their crimes were all over the map – ritualistic killings with elements of sexual sadism followed by bank robbery and grave desecration. Victimology was seemingly random. The older brother, Dean, was thought to be responsible for the most violent acts, since he was caught literally red-handed more than once. But they always escaped before anybody could get them to talk."
Morgan swung into the parking lot at the coroner's office. "Garcia's sending us everything she can dig up. Maybe we can find something that was missed – or at least try to make some sense out of this mess."
"In the meantime," Hotch said, "let's try to work this like any other case."
That was exactly what they did, grilling the coroner about his findings. There were no signs of injections on the latest victim, ruling out the theory of a neuromuscular drug. No trace evidence had been found, either. The visit was a dead end, until a plump secretary in a blue sweater approached Hotch. "I was wondering, would you mind giving these to Agent Cook? He and his partner must have had to leave in a hurry."
While Reid coaxed a description from the woman, Hotch fanned through the photocopied pages, then handed them to Morgan. Death certificates. The oldest dated back some two hundred years, entries in some old record book penned in a faded, spidery hand.
Morgan was getting sick of missing these guys.
By the time they got back to the sheriff's office, J.J., Rossi, and Prentiss were sorting through reams of printouts that nearly covered the conference table – crime scene photos, police reports, mug shots, newspaper articles. "What's all this?" Morgan waved a hand toward the stacks.
Prentiss grimaced. "Every bit of information Garcia's found so far, starting with any crime in which the Winchesters – father or sons – were ever suspected. Some of this stuff dates back to the eighties."
Reid slung his messenger bag into a chair and picked up the nearest sheaf, running one hand down the page while his eyes did a rapid scan. "I'll see if I can put together some kind of timeline."
Hotch stood with his hands on his hips and surveyed the mounds of paper. "What do we know for sure about the Winchesters?"
"Dean Winchester was born in 1979, Sam in 1983, to John Winchester and Mary Campbell of Lawrence, Kansas," Reid rattled off. "Mary was killed in a house fire in November 1983, when Sam was six months old. John apparently became delusional, convinced that his wife had been murdered by something supernatural. The family left Kansas after that. They popped up in records from time to time all over the country, but no one really knows much else."
"Henriksen told me they stockpiled weapons," Morgan said. "Everything from ceremonial daggers to sniper rifles, handguns to landmines. John Winchester had a lot of contacts among militia members out west."
"That definitely fits with the current case," Hotch said. "What about the grave desecrations last year?"
J.J. shook her head. "Deputies caught a couple of local kids who'd been hunting for jewelry to sell."
"The death certificates – why were those so important?"
Reid paged through the photocopies. "Looks like they're all members of the Branford family, the original owners of the plantation…though I'm not sure why they would need this information."
"They left without it, though, right?" Rossi said. "If it was so important, maybe they'll be back."
The alarm was easy to bypass.
Sam stood watch while Dean worked the lock. No traffic on this street this late at night. A loud-ass cricket chirped somewhere to their left. Dean cast one last look around the parking lot. Empty, except for a couple of coroner's vans. No one in sight. He still had a bad feeling, the prickling sensation of being watched.
The last tumbler clicked. Dean pocketed his picks, held the door open for Sam.
Sudden light – the coroner's van's headlights. "FBI! Freeze!" The shout came from behind the light.
Dean glanced over at Sam. Sam shrugged.
Opposite directions, Sam toward a nearby copse of trees, Dean across the parking lot toward the street. He hoped they'd chase him instead of Sam; he was supposed to be the dangerous one, after all. A quick look over his shoulder. Two agents followed.
Dean put on a burst of speed, but not so much he'd lose them. Sam had the better chance of getting away, and Dean wanted to give him as much time as he could.
When he thought he'd given Sam long enough to reach the woods, he slowed. He couldn't hear the feds over his own pounding footsteps, over his breath and the rush of blood in his ears, but he could feel the pursuit closing in. He slowed a bit more.
A body slammed into him from behind, taking the both of them down in a sprawl of limbs. The blow knocked the wind out of him; the pavement took the skin off his hands. He lay there for a moment trying to breathe, while the fed yanked on his arms, cuffed him roughly and a bit too tight.
"Dean Winchester," the voice behind him panted. "Lookin' pretty good for a dead man."
Dean wheezed a laugh. "You think I haven't heard that one before?"
The team gathered around a small video monitor that displayed Interview Room One, the bare-walled closet of a room where Dean Winchester currently waited in handcuffs and leg irons, looking sallow and uncomfortable in an orange prisoner's jumpsuit. His palms and chin were scraped raw from meeting unforgiving asphalt during Morgan's tackle. Old bruises stood out on his face and throat, fading to a yellowish green.
Morgan paced the room. "Bastard won't give up a thing. Two hours in the box and all I could get out of him was a few dirty limericks."
"In his defense," Prentiss said, "those were pretty good limericks."
"Not as cocky as he used to be, though," Rossi said.
Morgan thought back to the smirking "confession" Winchester had given in Baltimore. The hunched figure in the interview room hardly seemed like the same person. "Looks like he got the beatdown of a lifetime recently. Maybe that's got a little something to do with it."
"He's showing some signs of PTSD – hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response. Most of the time he's got it under control, but every once in a while, it's there."
"One thing I'm not seeing," Hotch said, "is any evidence of racism. He doesn't seem to have any problem at all with Morgan, or the black deputy who processed him."
Morgan hated to admit it, but it was true. He hadn't picked up any weird vibes from Winchester, other than a sense of resignation.
Hotch tilted his chin toward the paper-filled table. "What else did you find?" he asked.
"Well, we've been able to fill in a few of the gaps in those missing years." Reid picked out a sheaf of papers bound together by a binder clip. "The records are spotty, but it looks like John Winchester tried to keep his sons in school even though they moved around so much – sometimes more than four or five schools in one year. We already knew Sam was a good student, considering his success at Stanford, but it turns out Dean wasn't exactly the underachiever everyone assumes. He wasn't a straight-A student, but his grades never dropped below a C. I'm inclined to believe he was trying to stay under the radar and avoid any sort of attention – good or bad.
"Garcia also managed to dig up several reports to children's services over the years – usually alleging neglect. It seems that John often left the kids on their own, and occasionally a motel clerk or neighbor would phone it in. There were two allegations of abuse, when teachers noticed Dean coming to school with bruises and broken bones, but nothing was ever substantiated – both times, the family packed up and left town before an investigation could begin.
"After Sam left for Stanford, the trail is sporadic at best. It looks like Dean and John were just drifting – sometimes together, but often apart. In early October, 2005, John dropped off the grid completely. November 2, 2005, Sam's girlfriend died in a fire eerily similar to the one that killed Mary Winchester. After that, the reports indicate Sam and Dean were on the road together.
"There are a few exceptions, though. In 2007, just a couple of months before their incarceration in Arkansas, Sam was a suspect in a series of crimes that took place over the course of two weeks – mostly misdemeanors, drunk and disorderly type stuff, but his name did come up in the investigation of the murder of one Steve Wandell. There's another string of incidents starting last summer, not as frequent or severe. Dean is missing from reports altogether for about four months. During that time, there are quite a few witnesses who describe Sam – or presumably Sam – as the 'tall scary guy,' 'really intense.' He was careful about not leaving fingerprints or other evidence, but he was seen near some crime scenes, reportedly got in some bar fights, frightened a few people while questioning them."
"Questioning them?" Prentiss frowned.
"Yes, and this is where it gets weird."
Morgan huffed a laugh. "It wasn't weird before?"
"It seems that bizarre confession Dean made in Baltimore wasn't just trying to set up an insanity defense. The Winchesters apparently see themselves as ghost hunters of some sort. This was among the things Dean was carrying when we brought him in." Reid held up a black electronic device that looked like an old Walkman. "An electromagnetic frequency reader. Seems they're de rigueur for 'paranormal researchers,' though this one looks homemade. High readings are supposed to indicate supernatural activity."
"You mean all that nonsense in the confession – vengeful spirits and shapeshifters – he was actually serious about that?"
"Apparently so. I did some research on those matching tattoos – it's a symbol supposed to guard against demonic possession. Oh, and Dean was also carrying this." Reid picked up a silver flask.
"So he likes a drink now and then, so what?" Morgan asked.
"Actually, it's water." The look on Reid's face was somewhere between puzzled and amused. "I bet you anything it's holy water."
"You've got to be kidding me." Morgan sagged back against the wall. "Not another self-proclaimed exorcist."
Hotch stood in front of the corkboard, arms crossed, inscrutable as ever. Morgan sure as hell hoped he was seeing something besides a big-ass pile of crazy. "Let's give this another shot," Hotch said and turned to Morgan. "I haven't played good cop in a while."
Winchester brightened considerably when he saw they'd brought him coffee, even more so when Hotch unlocked his cuffs. "Thanks," he said. Seemed surprised – and definitely a little suspicious. He ignored the packets of sugar and little tubs of cream, downed half the cup black before Hotch even sat down.
Morgan took the chair nearest the wall and leaned back, arms crossed, going for surly skepticism. Hotch sat directly across from Dean, neatly arranged his files, legal pad, and coffee.
Winchester let out a low whistle. "Damn, that must be painful."
"What's that?" Hotch asked.
"That giant stick up your ass."
Morgan snorted a laugh. Even Hotch twitched an almost-smile. He waited till Winchester met his eyes. "I'd like to ask you some questions, Dean, and I'd like to hear the truth. Not the version you think we'll believe. Not the version you think will get you out of jail. The truth, no matter how crazy it sounds."
Winchester's brow furrowed. "Why the hell would you want to hear that?"
Hotch flapped open the case file, carefully laid out three crime scene photos – the three Charleston victims. Must have been the goriest shots he could find. Winchester glanced at the photos and looked away. Morgan couldn't tell if it was guilt or something else.
"I can't begin to make sense of this case," Hotch said. "I don't think you killed these men. But I think you know what happened to them. Please. Tell me."
The only sound in the room was the hum of the fluorescent lights. Winchester stared down into his coffee. Hotch stared at Winchester. Morgan stared at the both of them and tried not to move a muscle.
It must have been a minute or more before Winchester shifted. His hunched shoulders relaxed a tick; he turned his coffee cup clockwise a half turn and then back again. Looked up at Hotch for a split second, almost shyly.
Hotch took out the homemade EMF meter, placed it on the table between them. "Why don't we start here? You made this, didn't you?"
Winchester kept his eyes on the meter. Cleared his throat. "Years ago. Figured it was a little more subtle than just waving around some gadget." He shrugged. "Guess it's getting obsolete. Everybody listens to iPods nowadays."
"Pretty impressive, nonetheless. I know people with multiple graduate degrees who couldn't do this."
Not even a smile.
"So this detects evidence of supernatural activity?"
Another shrug. "Theoretically. Things like power lines can interfere with readings."
"What are some other signs? What are the things you and Sam look for when you're working a case?"
That got a sharp look.
"That is what you do, right? Kind of like private eyes for paranormal problems?"
Winchester laughed. "Well, when you put it like that, it sounds ridiculous."
"So how do you find a case?"
"Look for weird stuff in the newspaper. After a while, you start to recognize the signs. You know, phrases like 'freak accident,' 'unexplained injuries,' 'authorities are baffled.' Wild animal attacks in the middle of a city. Stuff like that."
"When you get to town, what do you do?"
"Same things you guys would do. Talk to any witnesses. Visit the scene. Try to narrow down whether it's a spirit or demon or some kind of creature."
"So all the time you spend in libraries – ?"
"Research. The history and folklore of a place can give you some idea what you're looking for."
"And that's why you were looking for death certificates at the health department today?"
Ah, damn, Hotch was good. Led it right back around to the case at hand. They might only get batshit crazy answers, but at least they were getting something.
Winchester hesitated. Must have realized they were getting back into dangerous territory. But Hotch was definitely on the right track, because the guy kept talking. "We think it's a vengeful spirit. Most likely one of the plantation owners or overseers. Angry spirits are usually the product of violent deaths, so we were trying to narrow down our list of suspects."
"What happens then, when you think you've found the ghost's identity?"
"Well, typically the way to get rid of a ghost is to destroy the remains. Uh, salt and burn them, actually."
"So that's the grave desecration." Hotch actually smiled at that, and Morgan thought he understood why: one of the weirdest aspects of the Winchesters' crimes had finally been explained. He wondered if Victor Henriksen had ever suspected this reason, or if the poor guy had died never knowing.
Hotch looked down at the EMF reader again, turned it this way and that. "I still can't get over this thing. I mean, I can't even program a VCR. You've got a real talent for electronics, Dean. I guess you'd have to be good at that sort of thing, keeping that car of yours on the road as long as you have. You're not a dumb guy, but you choose to play dumb. You got decent grades. Probably could have gone to college if you wanted. Could have had a different life. But you stayed."
Hotch's eyes came up, held Winchester's. "You let us catch you, didn't you? You probably could have escaped if you'd gone with Sam. Instead, you led us away from him.
"You had a .45 at the small of your back. A knife at your belt and one in your boot. You could have shot your way out. You could have fought. But you didn't."
The fluorescents hummed. Hotch waited, an uncomfortably long beat. Then:
"Your brother's the monster, isn't he, Dean?"
The change was almost imperceptible: a tingling charge in the air. Before he could clamp down on the reaction, Winchester's eyes went wide. A split second, a flash of panic. That was all Hotch needed. He pressed on.
"Your father raised you to be a soldier in his war. To follow orders. To take care of Sam. You kept him clothed and fed, made sure he got to school on time and did his homework, did your best to keep him safe. All your life, you did what was asked of you, even when it didn't quite seem right. And now that you're both grown, you're still looking after him, aren't you – covering for him, cleaning things up.
"Because deep down, you're just that scared little boy who misses his mother and would do anything to keep the rest of his family together."
Winchester sat rigid, jaw clenched, a light of panic in his eyes. For a minute, Morgan thought they had him. Then he shifted, looked away. His voice was low and rough when he spoke. "I think I'm done talking for now."
Early the next morning, Morgan found Hotch in the conference room, staring blearily at the small monitor that showed Dean Winchester's holding cell. He poured two cups of coffee, held one out to Hotch. "You get any sleep?"
"Some." Hotch nodded thanks, took a grateful sip of the terrible cop shop brew.
"What about him?"
On the screen, Winchester sat on the floor, back to the wall and knees drawn up to his chest, facing the cell's door. His head lolled at an awkward angle; he was asleep, though it didn't look particularly restful. As they watched, he muttered and twitched. Jerked awake, tried to scramble away from some invisible threat, before the nightmare faded. After a few minutes of slow, deliberate breathing, he seemed to calm down. Soon, his eyes slipped shut, his head drooped to the side, and the process repeated itself.
"He's been like that all night," Hotch said, "except for when he was pacing the room, trying to stay awake."
Morgan blew out a frustrated breath, tipped his chair back onto two legs. "This case is bothering the hell out of me, Hotch."
"Me, too. Any aspect in particular?"
"I don't know, man. I know this guy's guilty of credit card fraud at the very least. I have no doubt he can throw down if need be. I'm sure he knows his way around weapons and he's not afraid to use them. But the more I see, the less I think he's a killer."
Neither of them looked at each other. Morgan caught Hotch's nod out of the corner of his eye. "I think you're right. In fact, I'm even starting to wonder about Sam's involvement. Reid's been comparing the new credit card information Garcia found with the timeline of the Winchesters' alleged crimes. There are quite a few discrepancies, instances where Sam and Dean are committing credit fraud halfway across the country from the murders they're accused of. In other cases, the crimes overlap. They're supposedly killing someone at the same time they're digging up a grave or impersonating Homeland Security in another city."
Reid's voice came from behind them. "There are also very mixed reports from witnesses."
Morgan turned to find Reid hurrying into the conference room, carrying an extra-large cup of carryout coffee, messenger bag slung over his shoulder. Looked like sleep wasn't coming easy to anyone on this case.
"Some accuse the Winchesters of every crime imaginable," Reid said, settling into the chair next to Morgan. "From brutal murders to burning down an orchard – while others describe them almost as folk heroes, swear the Winchesters saved their lives. And I've found something else weird."
Reid dug into his bag and extracted several printouts, handed them over. Morgan laid them out on the table so Hotch could study them, too. Booking photos, the shots documenting Winchester's tattoo and scars: one taken just the night before, the other from his arrest in Arkansas almost two years ago. "Now, we knew about the tattoo," Reid said, "and the handprint brand is new. But what's odd is what isn't here."
Morgan leaned in to peer at the photos. "What the hell?"
He'd only noticed the handprint before, livid red against pale skin, though it had obviously healed some time ago. He couldn't begin to imagine how it had been done or how painful it must have been.
But Reid was right. Now that Morgan looked closer, he saw that scars were missing: an old burn, knife wounds that looked almost like clawmarks, a bullet wound high on the left shoulder that had still been fairly fresh when the Arkansas photo was taken. Now they were just – gone.
"That's impossible," Hotch said. "I don't know of any plastic surgery with results that good."
Reid shook his head. "There isn't. And even if there were, why would he bother removing those scars, but not the tattoo, which is much more memorable?"
"And why get something new, as easily identifiable as that handprint?"
Morgan looked back to the screen, where Winchester was snapping awake from another round of nightmares, and tried to shake the feeling that they'd stumbled into something way over their heads.
It wasn't the first night Dean had spent in a holding cell; it probably wouldn't be the last.
It was, however, the first time he'd ever been offered a McDonald's breakfast by an FBI agent.
The black dude, Morgan, he recalled, collected him from the cell around seven that morning, long after Dean had given up hope of a restful hour or two of sleep, and led him back to the interview room he'd seen way too much of the night before. The cuffs came off, which was nice. The McDonald's bag and a cup of joe were waiting on the table, the room awash in the delicious scents of grease and coffee.
"Dig in." Morgan sat, gestured at the bag with his own coffee. "Just a couple'a McMuffins, but it's better than jail food."
So Morgan was good cop today. Pretty rich, considering the hardass tack he'd tried last night. Dude was pissed when he couldn't get Dean to admit he was some kind of white-supremacist, southern-pride jerkoff. Couldn't blame the guy, though. He was just doing his job, and there were few things more frustrating than hitting a brick wall on a case.
Dean dug into the food, since he really couldn't be sure if he'd ever eat anywhere besides a prison cafeteria again, and let Morgan start the inevitable questions.
"Let me ask you something." Morgan leaned forward with both elbows on the table. "Was it Sam who kicked your ass so bad?'
Dean snorted coffee up his nose. "What? No." He flailed at himself ineffectually with a napkin. "I mean, Jesus, we've had some pretty epic fights, but never…" That was about as far as he could get without thinking about Alistair, which never ended well.
"So why did Hotch strike a nerve last night, when he called Sam a monster?"
Dean studiously kept eating. He'd thought he was pretty good at controlling his reactions. Either he was slipping, or these guys were just that damn good.
Maybe it was a little of both.
"You've seen a lot of shit," he said finally. "You ever known a cop who saw too much, got burnt out – who maybe took things too far? Who crossed the line?"
"Yeah," Morgan said, his voice rough. "I've seen that."
"I'm afraid that's gonna be Sam.." Hell, afraid it already was. "He's not a monster." They both heard the unspoken but he could be.
They sat in silence while Dean went back to the food. Then Morgan said, "One other thing I've been wondering about. Monument, Colorado. What really happened in that sheriff's office? How did you and Sam get out?"
Lucky thing Dean had already inhaled one McMuffin, because that little incident was more than enough to put him off his feed.
"Off the record," Morgan said. "Tape's not running. Victor Henriksen was a friend of mine. I just want to know. That's all."
Dean picked at the second sandwich, mulling it over. "I didn't kill him," he said. "But it was my fault he died."
"How did it all go down? Did someone try to bust you guys out?"
A weak laugh squeezed out of Dean's throat. "Pretty much the opposite." The feds must have spiked his coffee with sodium pentothal, because there was no excuse to be spilling his guts to a civilian. Maybe he'd finally cracked. Maybe he just didn't care anymore. "It was demons," he blurted. "Basically, their head honcho wanted us dead. Sent a bunch of minions to storm the place. We fought 'em off. After seeing what he saw, Henriksen let us go. And after we were gone, the big cheese showed up and made everybody pay for helping us."
"Vic was really gonna let you go?"
"Yeah. He was gonna report we'd died when the helicopter exploded, when the shit first started to hit the fan."
Morgan was quiet for a long time, and Dean felt like an ass. Telling the truth was never a good idea. His stomach tightened at the memories of blood and fear, of Henriksen's pissed-off ghost. Breakfast was sitting heavy now.
Morgan leaned back in his chair, a deceptively lazy sprawl. "You might be batshit crazy," he said, "but I think there's at least some truth sandwiched in there somewhere. I don't know why, but god help me, I'm starting to believe you."
"Maybe it's 'cause this case you're on doesn't make sense any other way."
They didn't get a chance to debate the case. The door unlocked from the outside. The bearded guy, Rossi, poked his head in, spoke to Morgan while ignoring Dean. "Looks like the other brother is hard at work. Someone broke in to the vital records department early this morning. Meeting in five."
Fuck Dean had wondered if Sam would even stick around to finish the case. Anybody sane would have taken off, kicked the job to someone else. Dean was already resigned to doing some time; any attempt to bust him out likely wouldn't come until he was transported. He could sit tight for a while. But now – shit, if Sam got himself arrested, they were both screwed.
Son of a bitch. He had to get the hell out of here. Outside the sheriff's office, he'd at least have a shot at finding a stray paperclip, a friggin' coat hanger, something.
He'd been off in his head for too long; Morgan was staring at him. "He's trying to wrap up the case, isn't he? Means he'll be digging up a grave tonight, right? Where? The plantation cemetery?"
Dean swallowed hard, not quite sure if he was about to make a brilliant move or a giant fuck-up. "I'll help you out," he said, "but you'll have to do a few things my way."
Morgan just shook his head. "Come on, man. Just because I'm starting to think you're not completely loco, doesn't mean I can let you start calling the shots."
"I'm not asking you to hand me a knife or let me go, just to indulge my delusions a little bit. If I'm right, no more ghost, no more deaths. If I'm wrong, you get to debunk all this stuff."
"You gotta give me more than that."
Dean felt a cold twist in his gut. Said it anyway. "I can give you Sam."
Morgan was pretty sure Hotch's head was going to explode.
"Let me get this straight," Hotch said, arms folded across his chest. "You want to let a suspected serial killer dig up the grave of a Civil War veteran."
"Well, when you put it that way, it does sound pretty bad." Morgan felt a bubble of hysterical laughter building up in his chest, bit his cheek to keep it in. "We can move in before he actually opens the coffin."
"And why exactly does Dean need to be there?"
"Says he can talk Sam down if things start to get out of hand."
Hotch walked over to the monitor to watch Dean fidget in the interview room. "You realize this is probably some convoluted escape plan."
"Probably." Morgan sighed. "It might also be our best chance at getting Sam without anybody getting hurt."
Right about the time Morgan felt like squirming himself, Hotch nodded. "Let's get the team together. If we can figure out how to control this little field trip, it might just work."
At midnight, Dean sat handcuffed in the back of an SUV parked on a service road of the plantation. Beside him, Morgan watched his every move. The front seat was occupied by the uptight G-man, Hotchner, and the skinny geek, Reid. After a few digressions on obscure topics of American history, Dean knew that kid could pose a real challenge to Sam's title of Walking Encyclopedia of Weirdness.
Christ, he hoped Sam had a plan, or at least knew something was up, because he was fresh out of ideas.
The agents all had those sweet earpieces that made conversation easy for them and hard for Dean to follow. He gathered that the other members of their team were covering the perimeter. Hotchner had night vision binoculars trained on Sam, who was digging away, no sign of trouble yet. The crickets' hum was broken only by occasional updates and check-ins.
At least the feds had held up their end of the bargain so far. They hadn't busted Sam the moment they saw him. They'd kept Morgan away from the grave. They'd let Dean pocket a tiny salt shaker at dinner. And they'd let him change into street clothes instead of that stupid orange jumpsuit. Must have been pretty damn confident he wasn't getting away.
He was starting to think they were right.
A shotgun blast broke the silence, and everyone burst into motion.
Dean scrabbled at the door handle before he remembered he was kiddie-locked in. Hotchner let Morgan out of the back before he and Reid dashed off toward the graveyard. When Dean's door fell open, he tumbled with it. Morgan dragged him to his feet and around to the driver's side. One quick strike to his neck and he was crumbling, one wrist cuffed to the steering wheel before he knew it. Then Morgan was gone, gun drawn and bolting toward the action.
Dean felt around frantically for a lost paperclip or pen, an antenna, anything that could be broken or pried loose. Came up empty. He yanked at the cuffs, at the wheel.
The shotgun boomed again. He could hear shouts in the distance. A second gun fired.
He was dimly aware he'd bloodied his wrist. Didn't care. Pulled harder. Steering wheel, cuffs – unlikely to break. But he knew how fragile flesh and bone could be.
He retched when his thumb gave, fell to his knees. But he was loose. He lurched to his feet and ran into the fray.
In front of him, Morgan heard gunfire. Behind him, Winchester yelled for his brother. He wasn't sure what had gone wrong, but things had turned into a clusterfuck, and fast.
He skidded to a stop in the clearing that held the little cemetery. The flashlight Sam Winchester had been digging by dimmed and died. The light on Morgan's gun went out a moment later. In the sudden dark, he saw only vague shapes: Sam's tall frame, shotgun in hand; Reid ducking for cover behind a tombstone. Where the hell was Hotch?
A misty form coalesced to Morgan's right, slowly becoming more defined, until it took the shape of a man. Its edges became clearer, its form more solid. Now Morgan could see the tattered Confederate uniform.
While the rational part of his brain was thinking, nice hologram, the rest was screaming, HOLY FUCKIN' SHIT! Because ghosts didn't exist. But he was pretty sure that was one right in front of him, advancing toward him. He brought up his gun and fired. The image (totally not a ghost) flickered out, reappeared closer. Before his brain could process that one, something cold had grabbed his legs and he was being dragged across the ground.
He lost his gun. Clawed at the ground, trying to halt his momentum.
Dean Winchester made a diving grab, caught Morgan's left hand, and dug his heels in against the (not a) ghost's pull. They jerked to a stop. Morgan felt like he was being ripped in half. From Dean's grunt of pain, he wasn't doing much better. Then a white shirt bobbed up out of the darkness, and Hotch grabbed on, too. The extra hands let Dean fumble out the mini-salt shaker he'd swiped and fling its contents toward the ghost.
The icy claws let Morgan go, the sudden lack of resistance sending everyone sprawling. Winchester flopped back in the dirt, panting, eyes squeezed shut in pain. Hotch landed on his ass, legs splayed in a rather undignified manner. A thin line of blood trickled down from his hairline.
"You okay?" Morgan asked.
Hotch nodded, breathing hard. "That thing threw me around a bit. Was that a – "
"Ghost?" Winchester said. "Congratulations. You've popped your supernatural cherry. Now come on, that thing's not gonna stay gone for long." He rolled awkwardly to a sitting position. His left shoulder drooped – dislocated? His right hand was streaked with blood. Morgan felt a little sick imagining how he must have gotten out of those cuffs.
More shouts came from the cemetery, then a shotgun blast. The three of them hustled back. In the little clearing, they found Sam Winchester chest-deep in the grave and Reid wielding the double-barrel, looking as panicked as Morgan had ever seen him. "Are you guys okay?" Reid stumbled a bit over the words. "What the hell was that? Was that a – "
"Yeah, kid," Morgan said, "it was."
"Q and A later," Dean bit out. He dug into a duffel bag lying next to the grave, found a canister and began pouring out a circle of salt.
As he worked, the spirit materialized again. Reid blasted it with the second barrel. "Please, guys," he said, "tell me I'm not hallucinating that."
Dean traded with Reid, shotgun for salt canister, and told him to finish the circle. It was proof just how crazy things had gotten, that nobody objected to giving the alleged serial killer the gun. As Dean reloaded with rounds from the duffel, he called down to Sam. "How's it going, Sam?"
Morgan heard the scrape of the shovel against something solid, then a crack of wood splintering. Jesus. They were really digging up this corpse. And he was damn well going to let them.
The ghost reformed. Dean opened up with both barrels, cracked the gun to reload.
"Dude," Sam said from the grave. "Salt!"
Reid realized that meant him, tossed the canister down to Sam. A few moments later, the brothers exchanged salt for lighter fluid. Dean straightened up just as the spirit came back. He unloaded again.
Then Sam was scrambling up out of the grave, scratching at a book of matches until it lit. A twist of his wrist and the old bones went up in flames.
Morgan didn't relax until Dean lowered the shotgun and sat down hard on the ground, leaning against a gravestone. Sam came to sit beside him. A casual shoulder bump served as a greeting, though it made Dean wince.
"You guys can calm down now," Dean said with a pained grin. "It's gone."
That was when Morgan realized he still had one hand fisted in Hotch's shirt, the other in Reid's ugly sweater. Any other time, he might have felt silly. But tonight, he decided to hold on just a little longer.
Dean wanted to take the hand Sam held out to help him up, but his right hand felt like it was swollen to the size of a grapefruit, and it seemed he'd regained the trick shoulder he'd lost when he'd returned from hell. This was the third time he'd popped it since he'd been back.
In the end, he pushed to his feet on his own, then leaned against Sam.
Hotchner stared down into the burning grave, grim and unreadable. Reid looked a little shell-shocked; he let Morgan walk him over and sit him down on a nearby marble gravestone. Dean wondered how all this would play out: who would believe, who would question, who would deny. He'd met more than a few survivors who'd talked themselves out of what they'd seen.
Sam nudged his shoulder. Dean couldn't help the sound he made. "You all right?" Sam asked.
"Mostly," he ground out. "You?"
Sam shrugged. "Dude, I'm fine. That skinny guy was surprisingly adept with the shotgun. Tried to arrest me at first, but once he saw the ghost, he did exactly what I told him."
Morgan made his way over to them, stepping carefully around mounds of grave dirt. "You all right, Dean?" he asked.
Dean managed to nod, flashed a grin that wasn't fooling anybody.
Then Morgan looked to Sam. "So you're Sam," he said. Dean listed to one side while the two of them sized each other up, bristly and alpha-male and, Dean was disconcerted to note, possibly a bit protective towards him. After an uncomfortable pause, they shook hands, a truce of grudging respect.
Okay, that wasn't creepy at all. Dean just hoped they left the territorial pissing to metaphor.
The flames in the grave were guttering out, the sounds of the night creeping back in. Crickets took up their song again. Bullfrogs muttered deep in the marsh. Dean took a deep breath of the smoky air, smelled accelerant and damp earth. His stomach did a little flip, remembering his own grave.
Flashlights bobbed in the trees, the rest of the team on their way. Hotchner wound his way through the grave-dirt obstacle course to stand next to Morgan. "Is your car near here?" he asked.
Sam narrowed his eyes. "Why?"
Hotchner said, "Because you can go."
Sam stooped to start gathering their supplies, but Dean had to ask, "Seriously? How are you gonna explain all this?"
Hotchner gave an almost-laugh. "With difficulty. But I'm sure we can think of something. The CIA does it all the time."
Then Morgan said, "One question, though. If we ever run across something weird like this, how can we get a hold of you?"
Dean hesitated. They'd be getting new phones after this for sure. "Call Bobby Singer," he said. "Singer's Salvage, near Sioux Falls. If we can't take a job, he'll know someone who can."
"Got it. Take it easy on those credit cards, you hear? If anything trips you up, it'll be that."
"We'll do our best."
Sam nodded toward the south and started walking, which Dean took to mean the Impala was parked somewhere on the service roads near the marshes. He turned to follow, then thought of something. "Hey, I don't suppose there's any way I could get my gun back?"
Morgan grinned. "Don't push your luck. And Dean?"
Dean stopped again. "Yeah?"
Dean nodded, then took off.
It would be good to get back on the road, get some miles between him and the concrete walls, the shatterproof glass he'd gotten to know a little too well. They could stop once they crossed the state line, fix up his shoulder and get some ice on his hand, better late than never. He could deal with the pain in the morning. Go back to worrying about Sam, about angels and demons and the apocalypse. Go back to the guilt and the fear and the nightmares.
But for tonight, they were still free. Still together. And for once, the good guys had won. As the dark marsh and insect hum swallowed him up, he felt lighter than he had in weeks.
He caught up and fell into step with Sam.
Hotch and Morgan watched the Winchester brothers disappear into the night. "Hey, Hotch?" Morgan said.
"Just how the hell are we going to explain this one?"
Author's Notes Part Two: If I overlooked your favorite character, I apologize. As much as I love both of the Winchesters and all the CM folks, things can get a little crowded when you try to include everyone, as I quickly learned.
Branford Hall, and the family who occupied it, are fictional, but the plantation and grounds are based on Boone Hall and Drayton Hall, both near Charleston.
The quote about a four-year-old girl being traded for "one bay mare, two cows, and two pigs" comes from the true story of a slave traded in Missouri in 1801 (Ruth Randall, "A Family for Suzanne," National Genealogical Society Quarterly 95 (December 2007): 281-302.)
Recent reading about forensic anthropology has brought to my attention that grave digging as portrayed on Supernatural is even more unrealistic than I first thought. Please just pretend that the coffin described herein would be a nice, Hollywood-prop pine box, pristinely preserved despite its marshy location.