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It was almost midnight but nobody in the Winchester's grungy little apartment was sleeping. John was tapping away at his laptop, brow furrowed with deep lines, Dean's attention divided between the computer screen which he was perusing over his father's shoulder and the gun he was cleaning almost without looking. Sam sat at the edge of the table, sifting quietly and determinedly through piles of printed pages.
"It's definitely a spirit but I can't seem to find any motive," John said at last. "Sam, you got anything on this Anderson guy?"
"There's no sign of a family grudge or anything," Sam replied without looking up from his work. "I've gone back to 1954 when the first killing happened but I can't see any cause for it…victims aren't related anyway."
"So how d'you know it was the same spirit?" John said with a heavy sigh. Sam looked up at last, his eyes shadowed dark and haunted with exhaustion. "Same style. That heart-shaped stab pattern on the victims' backs. And it says here…this man Jonah Wilkins was found inside a locked room, no weapon or signs of a struggle, no fingerprints or evidence, but bled dry through the wounds on his back. That's exactly the same as what happened to Anderson."
"You're sure this Wilkins didn't have some kind of other connection to the Anderson family?" Dean asked. There had been a mysterious killing two days before, conforming to the pattern Sam had described, to a member of an old town family, John Anderson . It definitely looked like the work of a spirit, but pinpointing the exact ghost was proving to be a little more difficult than expected.
"Not that I can find," Sam mumbled, bending his head back to his pages. "But I'll keep looking."
"Oh, I don't think so," Dean contradicted him, surging to his feet and swiping Sam's pages away from him. "You got school tomorrow and you need your sleep."
"Dean…" Sam lunged for his research notes but Dean whipped them away from him, his extra three inches giving him the edge.
"Your brother's right, Sam," John said unexpectedly. "First your pills, then get some sleep."
"I'm not tired," Sam said immediately. "I want to help. Somebody else could die if we don't solve this."
Dean, suddenly realising what was going through his little brother's mind, grabbed Sam by the back of his sweater and dragged him to his feet. "That's it. Come on, Sammy." He headed off into the other room and Sam, slightly confused, uncertainly followed. Barely had he entered than Dean slammed the door behind them and wheeled to face him.
"So that's what this is about, huh? And there was me thinking you were just taking a sudden mysterious interest in hunting. But no, it's all part of your stupid penance and making amends thing, is it?"
"No," Sam mumbled, not quite truthfully. "I just want to stop anyone else getting hurt."
"Yeah, well, you're not the only one on the job, Sammy! Plus you're no use to anyone dead on your feet, plus you're never going to recover if you don't take care of yourself, plus you're not God and you can't save everybody! It's just not feasible!"
"Doesn't mean I shouldn't try," Sam snapped, suddenly angry. "I don't get you, Dean. All my life you've been pushing me and pushing me to care about hunting and be just like you and Dad, and now when I suddenly have a reason to do it you want me to stop? What do you want from me? Isn't this what you've always wanted me to be?"
"I don't want you to be anything except you," Dean returned. "And I want you to take care of yourself for once in your messed-up life! Why d'you think Dad and me care so much about you learning to hunt properly and to defend yourself?" Sam did not reply. "I'm serious Sam, why d'you think?"
"To find the thing that killed Mom," Sam muttered. "Don't you understand? I get Dad now. Mom's the one he couldn't save. That's why he does what he does. I can understand that now, Dean. I understand him because I feel the same way!"
Dean whirled away, scarred hands digging into his scalp in frustration. "God you have got it all so wrong," he growled. "Sam, yes, we're gonna find that thing whatever it is and take it down. But you know what the really important thing is? You know why I get mad when you screw something up? It's because we know what's out there, we know how freaking messed up this forsaken world is and I have to make sure you can take care of yourself, because no matter what I'm not gonna lose you!"
Sam opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again. He had nothing to say. The silence between them intensified painfully, a widening abyss of pain and unspoken words, misunderstandings and pride. Finally he spoke, his voice reduced to a whisper by the anguish in his heart. He could not hurt Dean. But nor could he survive the way Dean wanted him to. His life was just not as important as his brother seemed to think it was.
"Dean, you won't lose me. But just because we know how bad it is out there means we should try hard as we can to protect those who don't. We're hunters. It's what you've trained me all my life to be and I can't walk away just 'cause you're worried about me."
"I don't want you to walk away," Dean snapped. "I want you to get a lockdown on your crazy head and stop being so damn…" He trailed off.
"Damn what?" Sam said quietly. "What do you want me to do?"
Dean pushed past him and slammed out of the room. "Take your freaking pills," he shouted back through the closed door, and Sam heard him swear viciously, and then their father's absent-minded remonstration. He turned away and slowly crumpled down onto his bed, his head feeling strangely light and empty. Suddenly he felt nothing at all but tired, and yet not sleepy. Tired as in sick of everything, of this whole world that would not let his soul rest or breathe. Maybe a world in which his soul was already dead and faded away, and he just had not realised it yet, and kept moving, walking, acting, reacting, just out of habit, like a puppet powered only be guilt. A spirit by unfinished business. He sat very still, waiting for the lightness to pass. Finally he closed his eyes and started to count to one hundred, trying to re-connect with his mind.
Sam spent his lunch period the next day at school in the library, fighting the slowness of the school computers in an effort to work out the missing key of their ghost hunt. As it turned out, John Anderson did have a connection with Jonah Wilkins: it was an almost insignificant detail but he found it on a photograph of a small brass shield, the kind given out as an award for some trivial favour. This shield was to be found at a club called Highrail, not far from Sam's school, which the Anderson family had patronised since the 1920s. Sam smiled unconsciously at the decision-now to find out if any strange deaths might have been associated with this club. If he found any, then he was sure to have found their wayward spirit. At that moment, however, the bell rang to signal the end of lunch period and he bit his lip, wondering what to do. To be honest, he reasoned, it was more important to locate this spirit than to go to his next class; if he could keep somebody from dying the next night it was surely worth cutting one class. He glanced surreptitiously behind him, nervous-he had never skipped class before. And then he turned back to his research.
By the end of the next period he was pretty sure he had the name of the spirit. A club singer named Alice Leigh had been mysteriously killed shortly before the death of Jonah Wilkins-not much was remembered about her, but it was noted that he had been one of her greatest admirers, and that they had had some kind of falling-out shortly before her death. It was right after this that Wilkins had suffered his bloody death. Some things still did not fit the equation, but it was a start at least. Sam knew he could not risk cutting another class-already one might merit a call to his father. But after school ended he decided that he would go up to Highrail himself-he might, if he was lucky, be able to end this tonight.
Highrail might once have been an elegant haunt of wealthy young men, but now it was little more than a rather derelict nightclub with crude and splashy pictures of stars and band logos and half-naked women painted untidily on the walls. The front door was locked but Sam could see lights on upstairs, and climbed over the back wall to try the other door. It opened easily but he knocked anyway, unsure of the correct protocol-nobody came to answer it, so he just walked inside, into the sickly-sweet smelling darkness of the club. He could see nothing but a flight of stairs leading up into shadows: a light flickered faintly at the top and Sam swallowed hard.
"Hello?" he called nervously.
"Who's there?" an annoyed, phlegmatic male voice called the stairs.
"Uh-I have to, uh, speak to the manager?" he tried. His voice sounded very young all of a sudden. He heard creaking footsteps and suddenly the figure of a plump middle-aged man appeared at the top of the stairs, peering down at him from the darkness.
"I am the manager," he said coldly. "But you don't even look old enough to be in here, kid."
Sam twisted his hands in the pockets of his hoodie. "Can I talk to you? It's…for a school project."
The plump man looked hugely annoyed. "On what? Listen, kid, I really don't have the time for this…"
"It's on Highrail's history," Sam said quickly. "The glory days, you know? Uh…they tell me if it's good enough they're even gonna think about trying to print it in some paper."
He could see the man's mind whirring: if such a fictitious article were actually printed, it could do wonders for the economy of a club that obviously wasn't doing too well. Finally he made a grunting, irritated noise and gestured for Sam to come up the stairs into his office. He went ahead, wheezing and grumbling under his breath, and when Sam stepped into the room at the top it was to see him slump into a chair behind a cluttered desk and take a slurp of obviously cold and congealing coffee before turning his attention back to his young visitor.
"So what is it you wanna know?" he demanded heavily. "You could've called first, you know."
"Actually," Sam said. "I was wondering about a couple of funny deaths that happened here about fifty years ago. Alice Leigh and Jonah Wilkins? I don't suppose you know anything about them?"
The man groaned. "Them again. I could swear they haunt this place. Terrible for business…don't you know life's not film noir, kid?"
"I know," Sam agreed quickly. It's a horror movie instead. "I was thinking more about their real story. You know, reveal the truth and get away from the rumours."
The plump man put his head in his hands. "Gotta lay off the whiskey in the mornings," he mumbled. "Fine. The Leigh girl was some singer here, not great but okay for a place like this. Wilkins' journal says he got frisky with her one night and carved up her back with a knife or something when she wouldn't go the whole way. Spoilt rich brat, ya know. Used to getting what he wanted. Anyway, she died and he paid the club a lot of money to cover it up. Few days later they find him dead. That's all we know about it."
"He carved up her back?" Sam said with a frown. The manager shrugged.
"So they say."
I wonder if he carved a heart shape, Sam thought. "Okay. And what about the, uh, recent death?"
"You mean my partner?" the manager demanded. Sam cursed himself. "Oh, I didn't realise you knew him…I'm so sorry…"
"Don't be," the manager told him. "Jerk of a partner. Would've sacked him if he hadn't have died. Yeah, don't know anything about that. Probably suicide. He was the kind of loser who'd do something like that."
"But how can you explain the-"
"Hey, do I look like a detective to you, kid? I just know all his bad publicity hasn't done the business any favours."
Sam nodded. "So he did a lot for the place beforehand?"
The manager snorted. "Hell no. Unless you count molesting the performers every time they're blonde and over twenty-one. That sure brought people in, don't ask me why. Crazy world."
"Yeah," Sam said softly. "I guess it is." He stood up. "Uh, thanks, sir. I…I better be going now but that was very interesting. Thanks for your time."
The manager looked almost disappointed. "Oh, that's it?"
"I think I got enough for now," Sam said. "But maybe I can call you if I think of anything else?"
"I guess." The man stuck his hand in the pocket of his shirt and pulled out a crumpled card, bearing the name Robert Sheldon and a telephone number. Sam took it, thanking him again, and moved towards the door. He was just about to leave when Sheldon called him back, sounding vaguely embarrassed. "Hey-kid."
Sam turned back. Sheldon was squirming in his seat. "Kid-don't make out in your article like I hated him or anything, I mean we were kinda friends. Old friends. And it's not like he was the only one with those blondes, I mean it was a joint thing, you shouldn't think he was some…"
Sam nodded fast. "Sure. Don't worry. I…I'll give the right impression." And then he was out of that door and almost running down the stairs, suddenly desperate to get out of that sordid, stinking little club with the death and money and sex that ruled it and drove it mad over and over again.
Sam pushed open the door to the apartment and immediately Dean was in his face, yelling full-force: "What the hell d'you think you're playing at, Sammy? Disappearing like that with no call, no explanation-"
"I'm only an hour late," Sam said.
"Only a freaking hour? Anything could've happened to you, I can't believe you can be so selfish sometimes, don't you think after your last fiasco I'd be worried about you? What the hell were you doing?"
"It's cold out here," Sam told him. "Can you let me in the door please?"
Dean, speechless with rage and relief, swore and whirled away inside.
"So I think it's that Alice Leigh girl who killed Wilkins, and then whatever Anderson and Sheldon were up to with the other performers must've recalled her, mirroring what had killed her in a way. Which means that she's probably going to go after Sheldon next, so we should go and get her bones burned before it's too late. Just need to find out where she's buried." Sam sat back, folding his arms: his father and brother just looked at him.
"So this is what you were doing when you disappeared into the ether," Dean muttered. John shot him a quelling glance.
"Sam, don't you think you're being a little…overeager about this?" he said cautiously. Sam's eyes popped wide open and he sat bolt upright.
John held up his hands. "It's worth thinking about this is all. We still don't know it's Alice Leigh and it'd be worth talking to any family she has left. I guess you didn't think of looking for them?"
"No," Sam said. "But Sheldon's in danger right now! We should be protecting him!"
John assessed his youngest son with a critical, concerned eye. Sam's face was pale and his eyes burned almost feverishly. He knew that during the seven or eight days since he had left the hospital that terrible choking cough had eased a lot, but he was by no means convinced that the boy was out of the woods yet, and he was not prepared to risk his life again. "You know?" he said. "I'll go out and see if I can find Sheldon. Dean, you go down to the library and try to track down the girl's grave. Sam, I want you to stay here and get a few more solid facts before we go rushing into this."
"I can't stay here!" Sam protested immediately. "Dad…"
John silenced him with a blazing look. "That's an order. If you want to accelerate this hunt then you do as I tell you, Sam, you understand me?"
For just an instant Sam held his father's ferocious glare, then dropped his eyes. "Yessir," he mumbled.
Dean and John left in their respective directions, leaving Sam alone in the apartment. He sat there where he was for a few more minutes, then pulled his father's laptop towards him and moodily jabbed at a few keys. Then abruptly he slammed it shut. This was ridiculous. Why wouldn't they listen? Why couldn't they see how urgent this was? This man could die tonight, die because they failed him. Because Sam failed him like he had failed Mike.
You should never have had to die for my mistakes…I'm so sorry…
Impulsively he stood up and grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair. He shoved his keys and his cellphone into his pocket, then picked up his backpack, emptying it of schoolbooks, and filled it instead with one of the several cans of lighter fluid set around the room, a salt shaker and his knife and a lighter. Weaponry. Swiftly he scribbled a quick note, just in case Dean returned before he did, then slipped out of the apartment without a backwards glance and headed down in the clunky old elevator to the street. Darkness was already gathering, casting a grey shroud over the sky: if Robert Sheldon's death was to be tonight then he did not have much time. He disappeared into the maze of the city like a shadow, or a ghost, in search of a reason to live. In search of a life to save.
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