The heat is like a blast furnace. Dean's skin is starting to blister. The back of his throat is scorched and raw. The roof groans overhead. The whole building shakes. A rafter shears off with a crack like lightning, crashing down near Dean's feet. Sparks catch in his hair and clothes. Ash billows in his face.
Everything is smoke. Dean crouches down, sucking in air with his face pressed to the dirty concrete. His lungs burn. His lips are bleeding. His dad shouts, but the thunder-roar of the fire drowns out the words. The roof groans again. Dean crawls forward a little. Gray spots shimmer at the edge of his vision, blurring the orange-red glare of the fire.
The air shifts beside his ear. Flutters. The searing heat ebbs slightly. A hand grips his shoulder. Someone whispers. Tugs him. He can't move. Sirens are blaring. He can't –
Dean gasps awake to his phone screaming in his ear. A cold sweat is drying on his skin and his hands are fisted in the sheets. Groaning, he rolls toward his nightstand. His clock tells him it's four fifty-two; he slept for an hour and change.
His phone shrills off mid-ring, but it starts up again a beat later. Dean thumbs it unlocked and grunts, "Yeah?"
"Dean, it's Sam. Are you up?"
"I am now, asshole. D'you know what time it is?"
"Yeah, sorry. It's – it's important."
"Important?" Dean heaves out a noise and rubs his burning eyes. "Someone better be fucking dead."
Sam doesn't say anything. And doesn't say anything. And doesn't say anything. A cold weight churns in Dean's gut; if Sam's trying to be delicate, it's got to be someone close to home. Someone – fuck. Bobby. Bobby conned his way into the Douglas County DA's office after a demon knife to the spine cost him the use of his legs. Now he runs the phones for guys playing fed and sends out the monster signal when a suspicious death crosses his desk. He also cleans up the mess when a hunter steps in their own shit, mostly by making in-the-line-of-duty misdemeanors disappear. It's the safer end of things, but hunting is never safe. Something he failed to kill back in his glory days must've come home to roost.
Bobby was John Winchester's first hunting contact; he helped John track down the werewolf that killed Mary. He also helped John raise his sons, filling in whenever John had been too busy or too drunk. And that had been more frequently than Dean cares to remember. He thinks he might puke. If –
"Alastair," Sam says finally.
It's the last thing Dean expects. He blinks at the ceiling for a second before asking, "What–? Alastair?"
"I – I, um." Alastair hadn't texted him last night, but he never did after a job. Not unless he turned up something that couldn't wait until morning. Dean had just figured whatever went down with Castiel had been a cakewalk. Or that Castiel had been a no-show. "He – was he shot?"
"No, he wasn't shot."
Sam sighs. Through the phone, the sound rattles in Dean's ear like laundry on a clothesline. "He – look, can you come up here? I'm at the Bel-Aire."
"Yeah." Dean sits up and swings his feet off the bed. The floorboards are like ice cubes. The sliver of sky peeking between the curtains has barely begun to bruise. "Gimme thirty, thirty-five."
Dean says, "Fuck you," and hangs up.
He stills feels a little sleep-drunk, so he sits on the edge of his bed for a minute. He stares at the dusty floor while he waits for his brain to start firing on all cylinders. Taps his phone against his thigh. If Sam's at the Bel-Air, that means Alastair's body is there, too. His wife won't be notified until after he's been bagged up and shipped off to the coroner. That could take hours. Once the sun rises, she'll spend all of it leaving Dean angry voicemails because Alastair hasn't come home yet. Sighing, he thumbs his phone awake and dials Kevin.
It rings four times. Then Kevin picks up and whines, "Are you fucking kidding me? It's –"
"Shut up and listen," Dean cuts in. His knees pop as he stands. "Alastair's dead."
Kevin just breathes at him for a few seconds. "How?"
"I don't know. Sam just called me about it. I'm headed up there now. You gotta tell Lilith."
"Yep," Dean admits. Lilith hates his guts. She blames him for Alastair's long PI nights and his shitty PI paychecks, like Dean had begged him to quit his cushy nine-to-five at the law firm. Like Alastair hadn't spent two months duffing around on his savings accounts before scratching at Dean's door for a job. "Look, I – just call her. Then go back to sleep and come into the office when you wake up again. I'll leave a note on the door that says we're opening late."
Kevin grunts out, "Yeah," and hangs up.
Dean starts a pot of coffee. He uses the Starbucks French Roast Sam's partner gave him for Christmas because the heartburn might help him stay awake. What's left of his forty minutes doesn't really leave him enough time for a shower, but he takes one anyway. He's itchy from night-sweating, and last night's six-hour flip-flop to Oklahoma has wrapped a dull ache around his spine. Afterward, he pulls on a reasonably clean pair of jeans and throws a fresh flannel over yesterday's t-shirt. The coffee looks and smells like tar. He pours it into an empty Fuel & Go cup he finds sitting on his kitchen counter.
The note he sticks on the front door says, "Opening late because of bereavement." The note he sticks on the back door catches the wind, rips loose, and air-surfs toward the tattoo place. The rain stopped overnight, but the parking lot still looks and feels damp. The two guys who clean the dentist's office once a week are sneaking cigarettes under the sodium light, shivering as smoke clouds around their heads. Dean left his jacket inside, but getting into the car is faster and easier than going back upstairs. By the time he hits US 59, the sky is an ugly, livid purple.
Sam gives it forty-four minutes before he starts texting. Dean's already over the river by then; instead of replying, he just leans on the gas until the Bel-Aire comes into view. The parking lot is a clusterfuck of people and the driveway is blocked by the coroner's meatwagon. Dean stashes the Impala at the greasy spoon across the street and jaywalks to the crime scene like five hundred cops aren't watching him do it. Sam's waiting for him, his shoulders hunched impatiently and his Columbo coat flapping against his legs. He waves off the beat cop who tries to stop Dean from ducking under the police tape.
Dean grins and tugs Sam's lapel. "Looking good, Detective Winchester. Where's Jody?"
"She's –" Sam pauses as a pair of forensics guys slink by. "She's working another angle. You look terrible. Rough night?"
"You know me. I like to party."
Sam sighs and gestures over his shoulder. "Come on."
The Bel-Aire is a snake of twenty-four seedy rooms with a check-in office at the head and a meningitis swimming pool at the tail. A narrow brick path cuts the snake in half. It leads to the service track that runs behind the rooms, and the alley it makes houses a bank of vending machines and an Employees Only laundry area. Alastair is sprawled out in front of the ice hopper. A sheet has been thrown over him, but Dean recognizes his tired loafers.
He also recognizes the rotten-egg hint in the air. Wrinkling his nose, he says, "Dude. You smell that?"
"Yeah," Sam says, nodding. "We're lucky this place is such a dump. Everyone thinks the sewer lines are backed up."
After a quick glance over his shoulder, Dean hisses, "Demons?"
Sam opens his mouth. Closes it. Then his throat works as he swallows what he almost said. He crouches beside Alastair's body and pulls the sheet down to his neck.
Alastair's eyes have been burned right out of their sockets. The skin around his nose and mouth is singed, like whatever did this scorched him from the inside out. Faint bruises mottle his throat. A handful of sulfur dusts the collar of his coat. The smell is fighting against a stiff dose of Taylor of Old Bond Street.
"What the fuck? That's –"
"Yeah." Sam covers Alastair's face again and stands. "Sulfur means demons, but I've never seen a demon kill like that. They usually just –" Frowning, he twists his hands like he's snapping a neck.
"Right, yeah," Dean says. He sighs and rubs his hand over his face. "Who found him?"
"A guest. She came out to get a soda about one."
"Anybody hear anything?"
Sam snorts. A cockroach is scaling the wall just above his head. "What do you think?"
"And lemme guess, the manager stepped out right about that time."
"Of course he did. Lester's –" Sam waits as an airplane thunders over the motel. "Lester's out of his office more than he's in. That's what makes this place so popular with the wildlife." Sam's phone buzzes; he checks the message and types out a quick reply. Then he asks, "Was Alastair working on anything?"
"Yeah. He – tail job."
"Who hired him?"
Something itches under Dean's skin. Something soft and warm but also electric and bright. It makes him hesitate.
"Look, I'm not trying to crowd you," Sam insists. He leans his shoulder against the wall. "I know PI clients have privileges. You know I know that. But this isn't – if this is monster stuff, we –"
"No, I know," Dean says. Sam's right. And Dean knows Sam's right. He just – fuck. For some reason, he wants to talk to Castiel first. "I just – it was Alastair's gig. I'm up to my neck in the Stark divorce."
Sam winces a little. "Yeah, I've heard that's getting ugly." He pauses and splits a frown between Dean and Alastair's body. "Do you know who he was tailing?"
"Yeah. Some clown named Ellsworth."
Sam looks at him sharply. "Ellsworth?"
"Yeah. He – wait. Lemme guess. That's the other angle Jody's working on."
"Yeah. Joseph Ellsworth. He bit it in one of the rooms."
"And is he –?" Dean vees his fingers and gestures at his eyes.
"Yep." Sam says. After an awkward pause, he asks, "Where were you last night?"
"C'mon, Sammy. I –"
"You know I've got to ask. If I don't, Jody will. She already knows you weren't home."
"We got the call about this around two. The uniforms had already ID'd him. Since he was your partner, we stopped by your place to see if you wanted to ride along. You didn't answer."
"You missed me by an hour," Dean says, pinching the bridge of his nose. An exhaustion headache is throbbing in his temples. "I popped down to Oklahoma to gank a coupla ghouls."
Dean blinks at him. "He – Alastair didn't hunt."
"What?" Sam asks. He sounds horrified. "You – have you been working alone all this time?"
Dean shrugs. Two or three weeks after Sam left, Dean had hired a hunter named Rudy. But he'd turned out to be lousy at both jobs, so Dean had let him go before the month was out. After that he'd Jo. She'd been younger than he was comfortable with – barely twenty-five – but she'd been a damn good hunter and she'd been willing to learn how to snoop. About two months in, her mother decided to get back on the road; Jo had headed back to Nebraska so they could hunt as a team. Alastair came in looking for a job a few weeks later. He'd had decent PI instincts but he'd been out of the monster loop. Dean never got around to letting him in.
"Since Jo, yeah," he says finally. He shrugs again. "It's not a big deal. If I get into something really hairy, I call Lee or Garth."
"Damn it, Dean. You –"
Dean waves him off. "Look, I gotta get back to the office. Kevin already wants my head for waking him up at ass o'clock."
The greasy spoon is a squat little place called Mabel's. The brown leather booths are shiny from thirty years of truckers' asses, and the green and white curtains are thin and faded from the sun. Dean thanks the staff for not towing the Impala by coming in for breakfast. He sits with his back to the window so he doesn't get caught up watching the circus over at the Bel-Aire. He orders a country-fried steak with scrambled eggs and hashbrowns. He gets a short stack on the side. He takes his time eating it because something doesn't feel right.
Demons don't need a reason to kill people. Maybe Alastair was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe he settled in for his stakeout right next to a room some demons were using for a party. And maybe the demons got tired of the bedbugs and moved out to the parking lot to make their noise. It's not half bad for a morning-after breakfast theory, except for the part where the demons nabbed one of the two guys in Lawrence who shares an office with a hunter.
Dean hates coincidences. Demons picking Alastair out of a hat is one. Those same demons also killing Ellsworth is another. Maybe Alastair and Ellsworth were chatting when the demons turned up. Maybe they snuffed Alastair and then chased Ellsworth back into his room. But Ellsworth should've been chatting with Castiel. Alastair should've been in his car.
And his car is missing. Dean hadn't noticed it when he first got to the Bel-Aire; there's been too much going on. He might not have noticed at all, but he'd spent ten minutes pacing the Bel-Aire's parking lot while waiting for a traffic window that would let him jaywalk back across the highway. The Continental is an unregistered piece Alastair picked up while tailing a child-support dodger from Lawrence to Mason City. The police wouldn't have impounded it because there's nothing connecting him to it.
Marcy bustles up to his table with a coffee pot cocked at her hip. "You need a refill, hon?"
"Make it to-go," Dean says. He's already halfway out of his skin with jitters, but it's looking like it's going to be a long day. "And box me up a big slice of apple pie."
"It's too early for that."
"It's never too early."
She sighs indulgently. A pen is speared through her bright red bun. "You in trouble again?"
"Me? No way." Dean winks at her. "What makes you think that?"
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe 'cause you stopped by this town's favorite crime scene before sunrise?"
"Nah," Dean says, shaking his head. "I was just in the neighborhood. Make it two slices of pie. I can't go back to the office empty-handed."
Traffic is stop-and-go over the river. Everyone is plugging along just slow enough that Dean has time to peck out a text to Kevin asking for the name of Castiel's motel. The sun has finally climbed into the sky, but clouds are gathering on the horizon. It'll be raining again by late afternoon. Dean turns on the radio and spins the knob until he finds some Zeppelin. He hums Gallows Pole under his breath and drums his fingers on the steering wheel. Kevin gets back to him just as he's closing in on the office.
The street parking out front is full again, so Dean pulls around back. The lot is empty now aside from the dentist's elderly minivan and a charcoal Prius that's been lurking beside the dentist's hedge for two straight days. Dean thinks it belongs to one of the tattooists, but since it's a hybrid he's tempted to have it towed on principle. Creedence comes on the radio; instead of going inside, Dean leans back in his seat and dials the number for Castiel's motel.
The Glen Capri's phone rings six times. Then a chick sighs out, "Motel," in the tiredest voice Dean has ever heard.
"Yeah, I need room fourteen."
She pauses for a second. Dean hears a faint clicking – fake fingernails against a computer keyboard – then, "Fourteen checked out."
Dean's pretty sure he knows the answer. Still, he asks, "This morning?"
"Dark hair and blue eyes? Trenchcoat?"
"Something like that."
Dean swallows a sigh. He mutters, "Thanks," as he's hanging up and kills the Impala's engine.
When he gets inside, Kevin is on the office phone. He lines Dean up with an evil eye and says, "Yes, Mrs. Alastair. Absolutely, Mrs. Alastair." He's holding the receiver with both hands. His knuckles are white. "I'll have him call you as soon as he gets in."
She slams the phone down so hard that Kevin jumps and drops the receiver. He blinks for a second. Shakes his head like a dog with water in its ear.
"Sorry," Dean says.
"That's like the fifth time she's called."
"Yeah, well, until she loses her voice or I figure this out, I ain't here."
Kevin stares at him. Then he asks, "How did he die?"
"That's... what –? Why would demons kill Alastair?"
"No fucking clue," Dean says, rubbing his temples. His head is pounding. "They wasted his tail-job, too."
"Jesus Christ. What about the other guy? The –" Kevin waves his hand "– you know. Trenchcoat McSex-Hair."
Dean rolls his eyes. "He checked outta his motel. I think he stole Alastair's car, 'cause it – wait. You got the details on that heap?"
"Maybe." Kevin rolls his chair back and opens the top drawer of his desk. He digs around until he turns up an orange post-it with Alastair's chicken-scratch on it. "Yeah. Iowa plates. B-2-6-7-6."
"All right. Start calling the flops in this town. Ask 'em if that junker's in their parking lot."
Kevin tries the evil eye again. "That sounds like Donna's department."
"Yeah," Dean says slowly. Donna's a weekend hunter and head of parking enforcement at Lawrence PD. Between her red-light cams and her army of meter jockeys, she can find a car anywhere in the city in under an hour. "But she likes to talk, and I don't need this getting back to Sam. I'm withholding evidence all over the place."
"Oh. Well." Kevin's voice is flatter than a pancake. "I guess it's a good thing I already called your lawyer."
"What?" Dean asks. The DA's office is a little slow on the uptake; he figures he's got about three days before Henriksen crawls up his ass. If he can fabricate something believable between now and then, he won't need a lawyer. "Why'd you do that?"
Kevin hands him a giant envelope. "Because you're being sued."
Dean barks out a laugh – it's either that or scream. The return address is for a Mara Daniels on Massachusetts Street, which makes Dean groan under his breath. Daniels, Daniels & Daniels is the only outfit in town that charges more than James Langston Roberts the Third, Esquire. Dean stares at the envelope for a few more seconds. Then he rips off the flap and pulls out the complaint.
"Don Stark?" Kevin asks.
"Yep. He's saying those pics I took invaded his privacy."
"Jesus Christ," Dean mutters. "Look at this thing. Three people work in this office and she included a hundred Does." Sighing, he flips to the middle of the complaint. "This Mara chick must get paid by the hour and the page. She wrote a separate cause of action for each pic."
"Anything to it?"
"No way. A restaurant's a public place." Dean tosses the complaint on Kevin's desk. "I bet Daniels moved to suppress and got denied. This is just a stall. Maggie can't use those pics against Stark until this is settled."
"Aaron's in court all day today. He said he could fit you in tomorrow afternoon. You want me to call him back?"
Dean sighs again. He – fuck. He doesn't know. Aaron isn't a chiseler, but he's still pretty expensive. And this is some civil bullshit, so Bobby can't make it disappear. Dean's picked up enough law over the years that he could probably piece together a decent motion to dismiss; he just doesn't have the time. Roberts the Third might help him out if he put the request through Maggie, but he hates owing rich assholes a favor.
"Lemme think about it. I'm going upstairs."
Kevin glares at Dean like he's trying to decide where to bury his body. "Is that a joke?"
"Look, kid. If I don't crash for an hour or two my head's gonna explode." Dean hands Kevin the bag from Mabel's. "Eat some of this pie. Come get me if you find Alastair's car."
Dean jolts awake to someone banging on his door. His headache is still going strong, so it sounds like they're using a battering ram. His phone isn't on the nightstand. According to his clock it's eleven thirty-seven. He slept for a little over two hours. At this rate, he'll get a full forty winks banked by the end of the week.
The banging continues. Dean heaves himself up with a grunt. He sits on the edge of his bed while he waits for his pulse to come down, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. His back aches. His stomach is pissed off about all the coffee he's had in the last eighteen hours. He rolls his shoulders and scrubs at his hair. Down on the street, a car blares its horn.
The banging stops. Then it starts up again. Louder. Sighing, Dean stands and shuffles out of his bedroom. He figures it's just Kevin, so he doesn't bother bringing a knife. He also doesn't bother throwing a pair of jeans over his boxer-briefs.
It's Jody Mills.
"Morning, Winchester," she says brightly. "Can I come in?"
"I ain't decent."
She rolls her eyes and nudges her way through the door. "I was married once. Nothing you're packing is going to surprise me."
"Suit yourself," Dean says, glancing around. He hopes nothing freaky is sitting out. His weapons and lore books are in Sam's old room, but that door is closed and locked. If she tries to get in there, he'll make her come back with a warrant. That would give him about a day to move everything into one of his lockups. "You want a beer?"
"No thanks. Technically, I'm on the clock."
"Well, I haven't had lunch yet, so if you don't mind..."
She quirks an eyebrow. "Suit yourself."
Dean edges past her and heads into what passes for the loft's kitchen. It's wedged tightly between the bedrooms and pushed up against the naked brick of the back wall. The curtains are open, but the pressing clouds are heavy enough that the rectangle of light hitting the sink is a watery gray-white. Dean snags a beer from the fridge and pops the cap. He uses the first mouthful to chase two aspirin.
When he turns around, he finds Jody sitting in the only chair he's not using as a laundry hamper. His forty-five is lying on the coffee table amid a forest of empty beer bottles. Its nickel plating glints in the dim light like an accusation. He pauses. The floor creaks under his feet where the kitchen's linoleum lips into the living area's scuffed hardwood.
Jody nods at the gun and asks, "Is that yours?"
"I'm just surprised you leave it out."
"My partner just got iced. Excuse me if I'm kinda jumpy."
She doesn't say anything, so Dean decides to let that simmer. He perches on the arm of the couch with one leg bent and one foot on the floor. Thankfully, his boxer-briefs behave themselves. Jody wastes the next two minutes of her life watching him drink his lunch. The last time they butted heads, her hair had been dark brown. She must've dyed it recently because now it's hinting at auburn.
Finally, she asks, "Where were you last night?"
"I know that much."
"I was out," Dean says, resting his beer on his knee. The condensation on the bottle chills his skin. "Drinking."
"On a Monday night?"
Dean shrugs. "I was sad. My girlfriend dumped me."
"That was months ago," Jody points out. "That either makes you a hopeless romantic or a liar."
A car coughs to life down in the parking lot. Dean shrugs again and says, "Dealer's choice."
"Winchester, you –"
Dean waves her off. "Look. Kevin and Alastair both split early last night. I got bored, so I came up here, had some dinner, and crashed for a coupla hours. I woke up lonely." He lets a smile tug at his mouth. "I hit the bar and had a few drinks and made a friend."
"Okay," Jody says slowly. "Your friend... does she have a name?"
"If he did, I didn't catch it."
Jody leans back in her chair and gives him another eyebrow. "You went to The Bulge?"
"All right." Her voice is kind of brittle around the edges, but it's irritation, not judgement. Lawrence is conservative enough that the gay spots in town have a dicey history with the law. Beating the bushes at the The Bulge would be a waste of time. The people there would gnaw off a foot before talking to the police. "Tell me about the guy."
"My height. Dark hair and blue eyes. Good jaw." Dean smiles again and puts a leer in his voice. "You wanna –"
"I just ate," Jody deadpans. She leans her elbow on the arm of her chair. "How long did you stay?"
"And then you found a motel?"
"The Sleep-EZ, yeah."
Jody chews on that for a few seconds. Then she says, "The Sleep-EZ is five blocks from the Bel-Aire. You showed up an hour after Sam called you."
"Well, I took a shower. And I hadn't slept much, so I stopped for a cup of coffee. And then – oh, yeah. I'd just heard my partner got snuffed. Maybe I needed a minute to wrap my head around that."
"Sam says you didn't like him."
"No, I didn't," Dean admits. Alastair had been a decent enough PI, but he'd had a mean streak and a nasty sense of humor. He'd ogled Lisa when she still came around. He'd treated Kevin like a servant. He'd worked a few cases that had felt questionable in a way Dean could never quite pinpoint. "He was a dick. He – we never really clicked. He wasn't –"
"He wasn't Sam."
That one goes in like a knife. Instead of acknowledging it, Dean asks, "Where is Sam, anyway?"
Jody sighs quietly. "He's down at the DA's office, trying to convince Henriksen that working his brother's partner's murder isn't a conflict of interest."
"How's that going for him?"
"Not well. You know how Henriksen is."
Dean grunts out a noise. Victor Henriksen is a good Dean, but he's also a world-class pain in the ass. And he's the only person in Lawrence who hates Dean more than Alastair's wife. A couple of years ago, the City Bank Lawrence got robbed by an inside crew. They lined up a patsy so they could get away clean, and Henriksen fell for it so hard he'd charged the guy and tried to talk him into a plea deal. He hadn't been thrilled when Dean showed up at his office to tell him he had it all sideways.
Jody sighs again. Her chair squeaks softly as she crosses her legs. They listen to the bathroom sink drip for a minute: plink-plink-plink. Dean drains his beer and heads back into the kitchen. He sets his dead soldier on the counter and grabs two new recruits from the fridge. On his way back, he rescues his phone from a laundry pile on the other end of the couch. His head still hurts. He has five voicemails from Sam.
He offers Jody one of the beers. She barely hesitates before taking it. As he's settling back on the arm of the couch, he says, "So, tell me about Alastair. How'd I kill him?"
Jody replies, "Preliminary reports are inconclusive." Dean snorts – that means the coroner has not fucking clue – and Jody shoots him a dirty look. "Off the record, Doc's thinking some kind of acid. She's still waiting on tissue samples."
"All right," Dean says, tapping his phone against his thigh. "How about this: why'd I kill him?"
"The rumor is he was skimming. Charging two-fifty an hour and pocketing the difference."
It's possible; Alastair had liked money. Most PI clients pay in cash, and Alastair had done all the paperwork on jobs he worked alone. Still, Dean asks, "Where'd you get that yarn?"
"Like inside inside?" When Jody doesn't deny it, Dean whistles through his teeth. "C'mon, Mills. I've never known you to listen to jailbird songs. Who is it?"
"You know I can't tell you that."
"Yeah, all right. Can you tell me about Ellsworth?"
Jody drums her fingers on the arm of the chair. "What about him?"
"I know he died the same way. With the –" Dean wags a finger at his eyes. "Let's say Alastair was shorting me. Let's say I offed him for it. If that floats Henriksen's boat – fine. But there's nothing connecting me to Ellsworth. I never met the guy."
"Let's say he was a witness. Let's say he caught you killing Alastair and you didn't want any loose ends."
Dean takes a long pull from his beer. Then he rolls the bottle against his aching forehead and says, "That's pretty thin."
"Well, thin is all we've got," Jody snaps. She narrows her eyes. "You won't give us Alastair's client, so –"
"Okay, Mills. This has been fun, but I got work to do." Dean slides to his feet and snatches his jeans off the back of the couch. "Drink your beer and get out."
Jody tips her head back and unloads her beer in four long swallows. Then she stands and sets the bottle on the coffee table, right beside Dean's forty-five. The bathroom sink drips some more. Dean's phone buzzes with a text from Kevin. Jody straightens her coat and walks to the door, but she doesn't let herself out. Instead, she turns around and leans back against the jamb.
She says, "Listen, Winchester. I wasn't thrilled when they put me with your brother. It's no secret Bobby Singer greased some wheels to get him into homicide so quickly. And I didn't want to housebreak a former PI. But he – I was wrong about him. He's very good at his job. I like him. I like working with him."
Something in her tone suggests "like" is an understatement, but Dean lets it go. His brain is still sleep-fogged and he hasn't put his jeans on yet. That's not a conversation he wants to have in his underwear. "Okay. What's that gotta do with me?"
"I don't think you did this. But I do think you're hiding something. And I think Sam will stick his neck out until it breaks if he thinks he can help you."
"Just –" Dean looks up at the ceiling and heaves out a sigh. He really thought he'd have more time. "Just gimme another day, all right?"
"All right, Winchester. One day."
After she goes, Dean slouches into the bathroom to piss and slap some water on his face. He could use a shave, but he only gets as far as staring at himself in the mirror for a minute before shrugging and walking back out to the living area. He checks the text from Kevin. It says, "Got him." He throws a flannel over his t-shirt and brews another pot of heartburn coffee. Its thick, tarry smell slowly fills the kitchen. When it's finished, Dean pours it into the same Fuel & Go cup he used this morning and heads downstairs.
Kevin's in thesis mode; he has three books open on his desk and he's typing like he's trying to break a land-speed record. A styrofoam clamshell of Korean barbecue is waiting stinkily at his elbow. He looks up as Dean is closing the door and rolls his eyes.
Dean helps himself to a chunk of the barbecue. Chewing, he asks, "What's up?"
"A guy named Wes Mondale came in. Forties, glasses, bad comb-over. He wants you to track down his high school crush. He didn't say why."
"Sounds creepy," Dean says, shaking his head. "Lose his number. What about Castiel?"
"He's at the Starlite. Room eight."
The Starlite is a no-tell off I-70, far enough to the east that it's practically kissing the Lawrence city limits. It charges fifty a night, but it also has an off-book hourly rate for drunks and cheaters willing to pay in cash. It takes Dean almost thirty minutes to get there because an overturned semi has the hammer lane closed for a three-mile stretch near the water treatment plant. Dean chews his lip and hums And Justice for All as he waits for orange-vested KDOT guys to move a hundred broken crates of peaches off the highway. Anxiety hammers in his chest. His eyes feel gritty and raw.
He looks at the duffel hiding in the passenger-side footwell. He packed two rock-salt shotguns, a box of extra rounds, a jug of holy water, an iron crowbar, and an assortment of silver knives. He also has a demon-killing shank Sam picked up when they busted a coven of overachieving kitchen witches in Duluth. It seems like too much, but it probably isn't enough. Dean can't swallow Alastair and Ellsworth getting snuffed out of sheer shitty luck. It all points to Castiel, and a demon who can burn people from the inside-out isn't something Dean's in a hurry to tangle with.
The sky finally breaks as Dean is swinging into the Starlite's parking lot. The rain starts out easy, barely enough to mist the Impala's windshield. Potholes pockmark the tarmac. The Impala rattles over three just getting in the driveway. The Starlite is a double-decker dump with ten street-facing rooms on each floor. Room eight is on the west end, closer to the vending machines than the office. Dean pulls into a spot two spaces down from Alastair's Continental. He grabs his duffel and climbs out into the drizzle. The brick path lining the rooms is littered with cigarette butts and choked with weeds.
He listens at Castiel's door. He doesn't hear anything but his own heart; it sounds like it's beating in his throat. He leans back and shoots a sideways glance at the office. He could try strong-arming the manager into giving him a key with his PI license and blackmail threats about prostitutes and drug deals. But his chances are only sixty-forty, and he doesn't want to make a scene. He can't afford to make a scene. He figures Henriksen is chewing his nails right now, just waiting for Dean to start a bar fight or run a red light.
An old guy in khakis and a ratty sweater slouches out of room seven and heads for the vending machines. Once he's gone, Dean slips his tension wrench and pick into Castiel's lock. Its innards are smooth and loose from being turned a million times. The pick keeps slipping over the tumblers and refusing to catch. So much for the element of surprise. Gritting his teeth, he swaps his pick for a three-quarters rake and tries again. The lock pops just as the old guy is shuffling back with his Dr. Pepper.
Castiel isn't there. Dean locks the door behind him – it won't give him a lot of warning, but something is better than nothing. He sets his duffel on the table and pulls out the crowbar and a couple of the knives. Then he checks out the room. Balding, powder blue carpet creeps across the floor and blue-striped wallpaper sags on the walls. Navy blue bedspreads cover both beds; they're dotted with yellow and white stars. Neither bed has been slept in. Dean doesn't see any luggage. No McDonald's bags or beer cans. The fridge in the kitchenette is empty. The toilet lid is down; a handful of dingy towels are still folded on top. The room key is lying on the nightstand.
Dean doesn't smell sulfur. He does smell something else – ozone laced with fresh-cut grass. It's warm. Pleasant. But it feels wrong in a place that should reek of stale cigarettes and sex. Dean palms the key. He needs to salt the door and windows. He should probably call Sam. He –
Something rustles behind him. It's a strange sound, like the air is being ripped in half. Dean's skin crawls. He whirls around and whips his forty-five out of his jeans.
"Dean Winchester," Castiel says. He's in the same cheap suit and dumpy trenchcoat he'd worn in Dean's office. His tie is still crooked and his eyes are still incredibly blue. "I didn't expect you to seek me out. Although –" He pauses, his head almost tipping to the side. "I'm not surprised."
"You shouldn't be," Dean says. Fear-sweat is beading on his forehead. It runs down his temples and stings his eyes. "You killed my partner."
"Yes, I did."
Dean glances at his duffel. The table is about a foot behind Castiel; he'll never get to it in time. "Who are you?"
"I told you. My name is Castiel."
"Okay. What are you?"
"I'm an angel of the Lord."
Dean chokes out a strangled laugh. "Get the hell outta here. There's no such thing."
Castiel's eyes narrow slightly. A burst of white-hot something explodes in Dean's shoulder – just like last night, but stronger. Brighter. Thunder rumbles in the distance, and Dean sucks in a shaky breath. The windows rattle and the walls creak. The star-shaped light above Dean's head explodes in a shower of glass and sparks. Slowly, shadows crest behind Castiel's back. Sweat drips off Dean's chin as they unfurl into wings.
"You – some angel you are," Dean manages. His throat feels like sandpaper. He doesn't remember dropping his gun, but it's lying on the floor between his feet. "You burned Alastair's eyes out."
Castiel studies Dean for a long, uncomfortable moment. Then he sits on the bed closest to the door and says, "Alastair was a demon."
"What –? No. He –"
"Alastair was a demon," Castiel insists, an angry edge to his voice. His wings are gone, but Dean can still sense them, an elephant in the room. "As was Ellsworth."
"So that story you gave me? That was bunk?"
"Yes. I do have a sister named Anna, but I haven't seen her in almost a decade."
Dean's legs feel weak. He sits on the other bed and rubs his hand over his face. He doesn't bother grabbing his gun; it's not like it'll do him any good. "I don't get it. Why the front?"
Castiel pauses again. Then he says, "I knew there were two demons in this city. I tracked Ellsworth to his motel, but I couldn't find the other. After I killed him, I discovered Alastair carried a hex bag that prevented me from locating him through celestial means."
"Sandalwood," Dean mutters, shaking his head. "I thought it was cologne."
Castiel nods. "He did wear it, likely to cover the sulfur smell. I assume he chose that scent because it corresponded with the contents of the hex bag." The bed whines as he stands. "I came to your office because you're a hunter. I'd hoped you'd seen something that would point me toward the second demon."
"Buddy, that story you were telling wasn't gonna get you anywhere."
"I was... uncertain about revealing myself," Castiel says, moving to the table. "Angels haven't openly walked the earth in two thousand years." He studies the stuff laid out beside Dean's duffel for a moment, palming the crowbar's hook and running his fingers over the grip of the longest knife. "I intended to look into your mind, but –"
"Hey, no. No way," Dean says, getting to his feet. Anger roils in his gut. "Mind-reading is not cool. You can't just –"
"I didn't. Alastair interrupted me before I had the chance. Once we were face to face, the hex bag was of no use to him. I saw his true form. I persisted with my story so I could lure him to Ellsworth's motel and... kill two birds with one stone. I –"
"Just shut up a second," Dean snaps, throwing up his hands.
His headache is back. His temples are throbbing, and it feels like someone is drilling for oil at the base of his skull. He goes into the kitchenette, cracks open the honor bar, and snatches up two mini-bottles of rotgut whiskey. He chases the first one with the second. They both go down like turpentine. The burn is so bad he has to breathe through his nose for a few seconds to keep them from coming back up
When he turns around, Castiel is still there. It seems like his wings are hovering around the edges of the room. Dean scrubs at his hair and says, "You left a huge fucking mess behind."
"I know. I –" A muscle tics in Castiel's jaw. "Ellsworth was nothing, just a common demon. But Alastair – he was stronger than I anticipated. Far stronger. There's a spell that will force an angel from its vessel. Few demons can work it, but Alastair came close. I managed to overpower him, but it left me weak."
"So... what–? You had to go somewhere and recharge your battery?"
"Essentially, yes. I was unable to fly, so I stole Alastair's car and returned to my motel. Once I'd rested, I went back to the Bel-Aire, but by that point the police had arrived."
"Yeah, well, you – wait. Vessel?" Dean waves his hand around. "Is that – you're possessing some poor bastard?"
Castiel hesitates. A strange look crosses his face. Then, quietly, he says, "Jimmy was a devout man. He prayed for this."
"Was? He's dead?"
Castiel looks away. "It's not of import."
"You know what? Never mind." Dean stoops and grabs his gun. He walks over to the table, stuffs the weapons in his duffel, and zips it closed. Castiel is right beside his shoulder; the smell of ozone and fresh-cut grass is stronger and warmer. Dean clears his throat. "I'm not buying what you're selling. Demons, hex bags, mind-reading, angel vessels – whatever you are, you killed two people and the police are trying to pin it on me."
"Save it. I'm outta here."
Just as Dean reaches for the doorknob, Castiel says, "Eight years ago, an archangel gave me a mission. I came to earth and took this vessel. I failed the mission, and the archangel obliterated me as punishment." Pausing, he moves closer to Dean – close enough that Dean can feel the heat of him against his back. "God brought me back. I don't know why. But this vessel – it's mine."
Dean turns around. His gear clanks as his duffel bounces between his hip and the door. "Why'd you change motels?"
"I knew the police would look for me. I hoped if they couldn't find me it would just become a... cold case."
Dean huffs out a rough noise. "No dice. I told you: they're trying to pin it on me."
"I can deal with that. I just need a few days to –"
"Damn it, Castiel. I don't have a few days." Dean pushes away from the door and puts himself right in Castiel's face. "In a few days I might already be in the cooler."
"Dean, I said I'd deal with it. But I need time. There's something else I must do first."
"Something else," Dean mutters. He clenches his hands at his sides. "Like what?"
"It doesn't concern you. But it's important. Grievously important. Please trust me."
"Why?" Dean asks, his voice half a whisper. He's so fucking tired. "Why should I?"
Castiel touches Dean's shoulder, pressing his palm right over the scar. A slow shiver curls up Dean's spine.
"Because I'm asking you to."
Dean opens his mouth. He starts to say, "It's not that easy." Or, "It doesn't work that way." But the words stick in his throat. Castiel just stares at him. The space between them is heavy and charged, arcing like a live wire. Heat burns in Dean's cheeks and jaw. Castiel's mouth parts. Dean nearly jumps out of his skin when his phone buzzes in his pocket.
It's Sam, asking Dean to meet at Bobby's as soon as possible.
"I gotta go," Dean says, shrugging away from Castiel's hand. "You'd better still be here when I get back."
Bobby's house lurks on what's left of an auto salvage yard. It's way up US 59, right about where North Lawrence blurs into Midland. Bobby stopped bringing in new wrecks after he took the nine-to-five with the DA, but there are still plenty of cars on the lot, rusting as they wait for someone to rescue them from the raccoons and the weeds. Dean pulls in through the front gate and parks between Bobby's piece-of-shit van and a drunken pile of tires. The rain is coming down hard, chopping the yard into mud and making the tires stink.
Dean gets as far as the porch before Bobby barks, "What the hell took you so long?"
"Sorry, I was in no-tell country." As Dean closes the door, the old clock on Bobby's mantle chimes two with a sound like tin cans hitting concrete. Bobby's suit jacket is off, but he's still wearing his dress shirt and tie. Dean quirks an eyebrow and asks, "Shouldn't you be at the office?"
"I told 'em I had a doctor's appointment," Bobby explains. His rotgut bottle is on his desk; he tops off his own glass and pours one for Dean. "I had to get outta there. Henriksen's so far up my ass I can taste those cinnamon Altoids he chews all day."
Dean peels off his wet jacket and tosses it over the back of a chair. Then he picks up his rotgut and asks, "How bad of a spot am I in?"
"Sit down, will ya? You're giving me a crick in my neck."
"All right, all right," Dean says, grabbing the other chair. The rotgut smells like gasoline, but he kills about half of it in one swallow. "Spill."
"It ain't too bad yet. Acid sounds good coming outta the coroner's mouth, but she's got nothing backing it up."
"The tissue samples didn't wash?"
"Nope," Bobby says, loosening his tie. He pulls it over his head and tosses it on the desk. "If there's anything hinky on that skin, the doodads at the lab ain't picking it up."
"What stopped their hearts? Shock?"
"Doc's thinking Succinylcholine, but she can't stand a spoon in it yet."
"Any needle marks?"
"None on Alastair. A few on Ellsworth, but they're older than last night. He prob'ly liked to chase the dragon." Bobby leans back in his wheelchair and drums his fingers on his desk. "They're grasping at straws right now, but you ain't in the clear. And if you keep sitting on Alastair's client, Henriksen might can you for obstruction outta spite."
"PIs have privileges."
"Some. It ain't like you're a goddamn priest."
That's a horrible thought; Dean shakes his head to clear it away. "So, who's the canary saying Alastair was shorting me?"
A shifty look creases Bobby's face. He nurses his rotgut for a few seconds before saying, "Jeffrey Becks."
"Jeffrey –? What?" Dean grates out a noise and rubs his hand over his face. "He – are you fucking kidding me?"
"Sam dug up the evidence that proved Becks killed those women." Serial killings aren't normally a PI gig, but the family of one of the victims hired Sam when the police stopped making any ground. It had been a nasty case; Dean feels sick just thinking about it. "He figured out where Becks was buying the roofies and where he was working on the bodies. He pretty much put that bastard away."
"Listen, son. You –"
"Besides, that was before Alastair's time. Like years before."
"You all finished?" Bobby asks. When Dean shrugs and rolls his eyes, Bobby huffs under his breath and says, "Becks had a cellmate a coupla months back. His name ain't crossed my desk yet, but I guess this clown hired Alastair to settle some blackmail thing for him. It didn't shake out the way he wanted, but Alastair charged him anyway. Sent him to collections when he tried to duck it."
"Yeah. Alastair was a peach." Dean drains his glass and pours himself another finger. "Go on."
"Right after that, the guy went upriver for something unrelated. He got put in with Becks, and they... bonded over their mutual hatred for your office."
"And he told Becks Alastair gouged him." Dean whistles through his teeth. "Sounds like hearsay."
"It is," Bobby admits. "It won't hold water in court. But it puts a motive on at least one of those bodies, so Henriksen ain't looking it in the mouth."
Dean finishes his shot and sets the glass on the desk. It hits the old wood with a dull, hollow thunk. He sits there for a minute, listening to the clock tick and the rain pound while Bobby pretends he has crumbs in his beard. Hearsay can't be used against him, but if Henriksen believes it enough he'll try to make it into something solid. He'll subpoena Winchester & Alastair's books. And since Linda still does taxes for family and friends, he'll send someone up to Meditations to hassle her about the office's returns. Financially, Dean's clean. His paperwork is on the level, and if Alastair was skimming he never knew about it. But cops poking around his office and his loft and Linda's shop could turn up monster shit he won't be able to explain.
Bobby's wheelchair squeaks as he leans in and rests his elbow on his desk. He asks, "What's the deal with Alastair's client?"
"He, uh. He – where's Sam?"
"Hell if I know. You boys keep your own schedules."
Before Dean can say anything, the door creaks open and Sam squeezes inside, muttering, "I'm here, I'm here," as he drips water on the carpet. His hair is soaked and he's carrying a Starbucks cup. When he notices Dean glaring at it, he says, "Sorry. Jody called and asked to meet right after I texted you. I was afraid if I blew her off she'd –"
"Don't get me started on your girlfriend."
Sam says, "She's not my girlfriend," but his face heats slightly. Dean gives it a month. Maybe a month and a half.
"She busted in on me this morning and tried to grill me. I wasn't even dressed!"
Sam's mouth twitches, but he drowns the asshole remark caught between his teeth with a long swallow of coffee. Then he sets the cup on Bobby's desk and dumps his wet jacket right on top of Dean's. He smells cold and damp and a little like the inside of the wine-colored narc cruiser he shares with Jody – leather and stale "new car smell" air freshener.
As he's moving some books and papers off the only other chair, Bobby looks at him and asks, "How'd it go with Henriksen?"
"I'm out. He says it's too close to home. He's left Jody on it for now, but he's itching to take it away from her. If she doesn't get anywhere in a few days, he'll probably pass it to Walker and Kubrick."
"Great," Dean gripes. Walker and Kubrick are two of the best detectives in the city, but they're hard-nosed and old-school in a seventies cop thriller kind of way. And they work like dogs. If they get this case, Dean'll be bumping into them every time he turns around. He'll have a wet-eared uniform tailing him whenever he makes a beer run. The next sucker he hustles at pool will be a street snitch on their dime. "You got any more good news?"
"No," Sam says. He stretches his legs out, balancing one foot on top of the other. His boots are caked with mud. "Listen, we need to figure this out. Alastair –"
"Demons," Dean says.
Bobby snorts. "No shit, Sherlock. Whoever killed those two didn't stint on the sulfur."
"No," Dean says, shaking his head. "Alastair was a demon. Ellsworth too."
Silence. They both stare at Dean like his head is on fire. The rain batters the roof. A car turns down the road behind the salvage yard, rattling like it's dragging its muffler.
Sam recovers first; he clears his throat and says, "That's – there's no way. He worked with you six months. There are devil's traps all over the office. He –"
"He wasn't possessed the whole time," Dean says. "I gave him a holy water beer when I interviewed him, and he was clean. I think it was recent. I mean, I never really liked the guy, but he was way more of a dick the last five, six weeks. I just –" he shrugs " – I didn't think anything of it. His marriage was on the rocks. I figured –" He shrugs again and sighs.
"You figured he was sleeping on the couch," Bobby says.
Frowning, Sam says, "A few weeks is still –"
Dean waves him off. "Right after Jo left, this chick came in to see me. Ellie. She'd made a deal. Her mom got Parkinson's, and she'd – you know. Anyway, her bill was coming due. The sonofabitch holding her contract was wearing a banker from Kansas City. I called him with a blackmail story and set up a meeting. I broke the traps at the office so I could get him inside."
"All of them?"
"Yeah, 'cept the ones on the chairs."
Bobby buys himself another drink. "You get her off?"
"Yeah," Dean says, nodding. "He sat in a hot seat and got stuck, and I showed him the demon shank. I told him if he junked Ellie's contract and left her mom alone, I'd send him downstairs the old-fashioned way instead of giving him a sore throat."
Sam picks at the lid of his coffee. "And you never fixed the traps?"
"Nah." Heat digs under Dean's jaw. He feels like an idiot for being so sloppy, but the office traps are painted on the planking under the carpet, and he never found the time to move all the furniture out and rip it up again. "I wasn't –"
"Look," Bobby cuts in gruffly. "We need to get back to Alastair and Ellsworth."
Sam nods. He asks Dean, "What about Alastair's client?"
"I talked to him earlier."
"And what did he say?"
Dean hesitates for a second. Something is itching at the back of his neck. He takes a breath and admits, "He says he killed 'em."
"Hunter?" Bobby asks.
"Not exactly. He, uh. His name is Castiel. He – he says he's an angel."
Bobby just blinks at him. He grabs his glass of rotgut, slopping about a finger's worth over the rim before knocking the rest back in one swallow. After he's finished, he rubs both hands over his face. Then he sighs and asks, "You buying that?"
"No. Maybe. I – I don't know." Dean pinches the bridge of his nose. "Iron and silver didn't hurt him. When I said I didn't believe him, he – the lights blew out and the room shook and he – he, um." He opens his mouth. Closes it. Then he clears his throat and makes himself say it. "Wings. He had –"
"Wings?" Sam asks, his eyes wide. "Like actual wings?"
"No. They were just shadows. But I –" Dean pauses, unable to explain it. How he'd still felt them after they disappeared. How it had still seemed like they were rustling around the corners of the room. "I don't know."
"I knew it," Sam says. He sits up straight and raps his knuckles on the desk. "I always knew we'd run into an angel one day."
"Don't go all choirboy on me," Dean grumbles. "I'm not sure I believe him. He – I don't know. I –"
Bobby shuts him up with a sharp whistle. "All right. Just for laughs, let's say this guy is an angel. Why didn't he clean up his crime scene?"
"I asked him about that. He said he snuffed Ellsworth easy, but I guess Alastair gave him a run for his money. He limped off to catch his breath for a coupla hours. When he got back to the Bel-Aire, it was crawling with cops. So he flew off."
Sam's eyebrows inch up. "Flew? Like –" he flaps a hand in the air. "Like flying?"
"Yeah." Dean shifts in his seat. "He was out when I got to his motel, so I let myself in. And I locked the door, but he – I don't know. One second he was gone, and the next he was right behind me. And I heard – fuck." He scrubs at his hair. "It sounded like feathers."
"Jesus Christ," Bobby mutters. His tips his head back and stares at the ceiling for a moment. Then he huffs out a noise and says, "None of this gets you off the hook."
Something itches at the back of Dean's neck again. He rubs at it and says, "He told me he'd deal with it. He said he had something else he had to take care of, but after that he'd put me in the clear."
"And you believe that?" Bobby asks.
Dean shrugs. "I guess I'll find out. I told him not to skip town."
"Well," Sam says thoughtfully. "We have his name. If he does pull a runner, we can probably summon him."
"Yeah," Dean says. He shivers a little. "Probably."
Tuesday, part 2 »»»