Title: The Exiles
Summary: Two years ago, Kate Lockley was kicked out of LAPD because of her obsession with the things out there in the dark. Now she’s a deputy in a small California town and something she knows isn’t human has abducted a young woman. Kate tracks the thing to its lair but she’s not the only one hunting it. When she runs into John and Dean Winchester, she comes to realise that despite her experience fighting vampires, demons and zombies, she ain’t seen nothing yet.
Notes: Gen, though it can be read as UST if you swing that way :)
Rogue River, Oregon
The remains of the meal Kate and John shared lay on the table. Kate drank her third lemonade while she read through John’s research. He had left her there when they finished eating and was at the pool table. That he would take time out to play pool irritated her, but Kate tolerated it. If nothing else, it gave her time to go though everything in the file he’d given her.
Kate had spent enough time drawing up case files as a detective to appreciate John’s attention to detail. Two children were missing in a small town in Oregon. Gina McDougal and Maria Lyke went to the same school, but otherwise seemed unconnected. They were in different grades and lived in different parts of town. Their families didn’t know each other. No bodies had been found and the local media seemed convinced the children were runaways. Fifteen years earlier, six children had vanished in the same town. Four of those children were found dead, months – in one case more than a year – after their disappearances. Two were never found. Neither was their killer. There was a similar rash of child abductions thirty years ago.
There were things in John’s file he should never have been able to obtain. School transcripts for both of the missing children. Medical records. The arrest record of the father of one child. Both children were what Kate would class as vulnerable: from poor families, broken homes. As she read, Kate found herself building a profile of the abductor. He would be a local man, single and living alone but otherwise innocuous and unthreatening. He might work with children or have a job that let him work somewhere he could observe the kids: near a school or a play area, perhaps. If he was keeping the children at home it must be an isolated property…
But that fifteen year cycle wasn’t a human thing. This wasn’t a person at all. Suddenly Kate discovered she was shaking. Her profile was useless and she was utterly out of her depth. She had no idea how to deal with this.
John sat down opposite her, stuffing a wad of cash into his billfold.
“Are you done playing?” Kate asked, unable to keep the acid from her voice.
“I’m done.” John tucked the billfold into his pocket. “I don’t get paid for hunting evil, Kate. A little pool or poker pays for gas, motels and ammo.”
She hadn’t thought of that. It must be hard to hold down a job travelling from hunt to hunt. “In that order?” she smiled, intending it as an apology.
John didn’t return her smile but there was humour in his voice when he answered, “Hell, no. Ammo first, always.”
“That’s what I thought you’d say. What’s hurting these children?”
John’s humour switched off instantly. “At this point, it could be several things. Most likely it’s a cihuateteo.”
Kate frowned. She knew a little Spanish, but the word was unfamiliar. “And that is…?” Kate prompted, but that was when the waitress finally showed up to clear their table. Both of them fell silent while she gathered up the empty plates and glasses.
John asked her for another beer. Kate ordered nothing. The waitress smiled for him and left them alone.
John glanced around to be sure no one was listening. “A cihuateteo is a kind of spirit. A ghost.”
“Ghosts kidnap children?” Demons and vampires Kate understood. But ghosts? As in dead people?
John reached into his coat and drew out the battered journal she’d seen before. He flipped through the pages as he spoke. “Ghosts cause all kinds of trouble, sweetheart.” He slid the journal across the table, showing her a page within it.
Kate saw what looked like a copy of an old daguerreotype which had been cut out of a book and taped into the journal. It depicted a woman with long, blonde hair standing before a crossroads. She wore a flowing white dress and held a baby in her arms. Kate lifted the journal up to get a closer look, trying to read the writing on the crossroads signpost. As she did, a piece of paper fell from the journal and fluttered to the floor.
Kate laid the journal down and bent to retrieve the paper. It was quite old, and had been torn at some point and repaired with tape. Kate glanced up at John, asking permission with her eyes before she unfolded the paper to look at it. It was a child’s drawing, done in blue ink. The artist wasn’t very good but the picture was clearly intended to be an angel. Kate could now see that the paper had been deliberately ripped up and then taped back together.
Kate folded the paper again and replaced it in the journal without comment.
John went on, “A cihuateteo is the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth. They take children they think are in trouble, unhappy kids.” John frowned deeply, silent for a moment. “For all I know the spirit has good intentions, but the dead can’t care for the living. The spirit drains the child’s life over weeks or months, until it’s dead.”
“Weeks or months. Then these missing children are still alive somewhere?”
“If I’m right, they could be, yeah.”
“How do we save them?”
“First, confirm what we’re dealing with. Then we find it and kill it.”
“How do you kill a ghost? Isn’t it already dead?”
“Ghosts are easy. Identify who the spirit was in life, then open up the grave and salt and burn whatever’s left of it. No more spirit. The hardest part is usually figuring out who the spirit used to be.”
He was sitting there calmly discussing desecrating a grave. Jesus. How could he be so matter-of-fact about it all? But Kate knew he had done it before. He got arrested for it once. Well…it was no more insane than vampires dealing drugs to demons or cops raising zombies to police the neighbourhood. Part of Kate still thought this man was insane, but she nodded. “Just tell me what we have to do.”
“For tonight, we go back to the motel and sleep. In the morning we’ll talk to the families of the missing kids and go from there. A job like this, a lot of it is digging through old records. Research.”
Kate nodded. That, at least, was familiar territory. “Most cases are,” she agreed. Police work was all about getting buried under paper; it was reassuring in a weird way to find this “job” was no different.
“You’re going to have to lie, Kate. Maybe break a few laws. Are you up for that?”
Was she? There were lines Kate wouldn’t cross, but she hadn’t always been a by-the-book type. So she steeled herself to meet John’s eyes. “If it’ll save the children, yes. It’s your show.”
“Are you ready?” John called. He sounded impatient.
Kate checked her appearance in the bathroom mirror. She’d had to emergency-shop for the smart business suit she wore and her hair was a disaster, but she thought she looked the part. Close enough, at least.
“Ready,” she called back, and headed out, her heels clicking on the linoleum. She picked up her gun from the bed and holstered it at her back. She ran her hands over the suit jacket, straightening it. The jacket covered the gun well enough, but not perfectly. She would have to be careful.
John passed her a wallet with the fake ID he’d promised. Kate studied the ID closely. The badge bore Kate’s photograph and identified her as Special Agent Kathryn Fisher. It was very close to a genuine FBI badge. John had borrowed her drivers’ license that morning and told her to dress “professional”. He returned a couple of hours later with this. No one would notice it wasn’t genuine unless they looked very closely. For the rush-job it had to be, it was scarily impressive. Kate didn’t point out that impersonating a federal agent was a felony; she was sure he knew that.
The change in John himself was dramatic. The scruffy guy who’d spent the past evening hustling pool was gone. He’d shaved off the week-old beard, styled his hair and dressed in a dark suit and tie. He looked years younger and about six hundred per cent more respectable.
For some reason, that scared Kate more than anything had since she first met him.
John knocked on the apartment door. It was a small, basement apartment with no yard and only a single, tiny window set high in the wall. The door had been painted blue once; now the blue paint was faded to grey and peeling away from the wood. A glass pane in the door was thick with dirt and cracked, though not broken. John observed the details without judgement. He and his boys had lived in worse places. He knocked again, louder and heard footsteps approaching. A woman opened the door as far as the security chain allowed and peered at him through the crack.
John raised his ID. “FBI, ma’am. Are you Mrs Lyke?”
She closed the door and the chain clinked as she released it. “Yes,” she answered fearfully. “FBI?”
“I’m Agent John Weston; this is my partner Agent Fisher. We’d like to speak to you about Maria.”
Mrs Lyke was clinging to the door as if she needed the support; John noticed her knuckles were bruised. She looked at him, struggling to hold back tears. “Is she…?”
“No, ma’am,” John answered quickly. “There’s no news yet. May we come in?”
John and Kate followed her into the apartment. He could smell mildew and damp, but not dirt. The place seemed clean. They sat down on an old, sagging couch.
John politely refused Mrs Lyke’s offer of coffee. He coaxed the story from her as gently as he could. In his hunting career, he had spoken to many like her: parents grieving or terrified for their children. The story she told him was a familiar tale. Too familiar. Kate didn’t ask questions at all, and after a while she rose from the couch, letting John get on with the interview alone. She wandered toward the kitchen as if restless, but John guessed she was looking for something and made a mental note to ask her later.
“Did Maria mention anyone new in her life?” John asked. “A new friend, perhaps?”
Mrs Lyke’s hands shook and she fiddled with a hand-towel in her lap: a nervous habit. “No,” she answered, not quite meeting John’s eyes. “No one.”
She was lying. “It could be very important, Mrs Lyke,” John pressed. “Even if it seems…strange, you must tell me.”
She frowned, evidently uncomfortable, but John knew that meant it would be something important. He waited, knowing she would fill the silence eventually.
“Maria said…” Mrs Lyke began. “But it was just one of her stories! How could it matter?”
“What story?” John asked.
“She claimed there was a woman near the school. Someone only she could see. Maria’s always making up stories.”
John smiled, though inside he felt the familiar thrill of discovery. “She has an active imagination. Her teacher told us the same thing,” he lied smoothly. “Tell me, did she describe this woman?”
“A lady in a blue cloak,” Mrs Lyke said, “but it’s made up! How can that help you find her?”
“Well, imagination is usually based on something. Maria might have made up the story about seeing her at the school, but maybe there is a woman in a blue cloak, somewhere. Every clue helps, Mrs Lyke.” He leaned forward, meeting her eyes, his sympathy sincere. “We’re going to do everything we can to get Maria home safely,” he promised. He stood up. “Thank you for talking to us.”
John was pissed. He should not have to be out here, missing work. He’d actually been holding down a job for a change, trying to give his boys a little stability while he could. If this got him fired… Hell, he didn’t give a damn about the job, but he needed the money to feed his sons.
One of the teachers from Dean’s school had called him at the workshop to tell him his youngest son was there, alone and upset about something. Dean, apparently, had headed off without him. This made no sense to John, because Dean was supposed to pick up Sammy from Sammy’s school. The elementary school was about a half hour’s walk from the middle school, and another half hour from the trailer park where they were living. John hadn’t wanted Sammy walking that distance alone. He’d arranged for Sammy’s teacher, Miss Miller, to take care of him while he waited for Dean, who was supposed to head for the elementary school immediately his own school was out for the day. He was to bring Sammy safely home, and could then go out if he wanted to until John finished work at six.
If Dean was off with some girl, John was going to beat the crap out of him.
He could see Sammy outside the Middle School gate. The boy was sitting on his schoolbag and even from his distance John could see he was miserable. He stopped outside the gate with a squeal of brakes that made him wince. He’d been neglecting the Impala. He rolled the window down and saw a young woman coming toward him, presumably the teacher who had called.
“Hey,” he called to her. “I’m Sammy’s father. Thanks for looking after him.”
She smiled coolly. “It was my pleasure, Mr Winchester.”
“Get in the car, Sammy,” John ordered, then to the teacher, “No sign of Dean?”
“I’m afraid not. A lot of the boys play baseball over at the old factory. You could try there.”
“I will,” John answered, though he wouldn’t: he knew Dean wouldn’t have done this for baseball. He thanked her again and turned his attention to Sammy. Sammy had thrown his schoolbag into the rear seat and was hovering at the door as if scared to get in. John patted the seat beside him. “C’mon, Sammy. Jump in.”
Sammy rarely got to ride in the front: that was Dean’s place and he guarded it jealously. So the invitation should have raised a smile. But Sammy only climbed in without even looking at his father. He closed the Impala’s door and gazed down at his knees.
John rolled up the window and moved the car so he wasn’t blocking the road. He shut off the engine, then, and turned to Sammy. “Where’s Dean?” he asked bluntly.
Sammy turned a tear-stained face up to John. “I don’t know. He didn’t come.”
John took a deep breath and tried to calm down. Yelling at Sammy wouldn’t get to the bottom of this. Sammy had been going through a moody phase since Christmas, when Dean had told him the truth about John’s hunting. John thought he just had to tolerate it and the phase would eventually pass. Perhaps he’d been wrong. Maybe something more was going on. Sammy had been crying. Why had Sammy been at Dean’s school? Why wasn’t Dean with him?
“Son,” John tried, more gently, “what happened?”
Sam slumped in the seat beside him, his hands clasped tightly in his lap, his head down.
John reached across to lay a hand on Sammy’s shoulder. The boy was too thin; John could feel his bones beneath his palm. “Sammy, I won’t be angry with you or Dean, I promise. Please tell me what happened.”
Sammy looked up. “Dean always meets me at the gate. He was late yesterday but today…”
“He didn’t show.”
“Okay. Now, I told Dean to collect you from your school. Mrs Miller was going to stay with you until Dean showed up. So why were you here?”
“Dean said,” Sam answered in a small voice.
“Dean left you here?”
Sammy shook his head.
It was a frustrating conversation, but eventually John prised the story out of his son…or at least, as much of it as Sam was willing to tell.
At the beginning, Dean had followed John’s orders: he’d walked to the elementary school at the end of each day and the boys walked home together. But last week he’d been late collecting Sam and this week he’d told Sammy to come and meet him. He’d even squared it with Mrs Miller, who damn well should have known better.
Every day this week, Sammy had walked to the middle school and waited for Dean to show up. John had the impression Sammy knew what Dean had been up to, but he got very upset when John tried to push it, so John had let it go…for now.
Something was happening to Dean. It had been going on for more than a week…and John hadn’t noticed.
He took a shotgun from the trunk and, with Sammy at his side, walked the route Dean should have taken to Sammy’s school. Then he walked back, searching everywhere he could think of. There was no sign of Dean. John and Sammy searched until the boy almost collapsed with exhaustion, but there was no trace of Dean anywhere.
Dean was gone.
Kate allowed John to take the lead interviewing the missing girl’s mother. While they talked, Kate listened to their conversation and looked around their home. It was a tiny basement-apartment, dark, cold and damp. Kate had seen poverty before, but there was something about the thought of raising children in a place like this. It was awful.
Yet Mrs Lyke’s distress at the loss of her daughter seemed genuine. The kid was well loved. Was this an unhappy home? Kate saw used beer cans piled high in the kitchen. She saw bruises on Mrs Lyke’s hands and wrists and a dressing visible just inside her neckline. Yes, there was something wrong here. Maybe whoever roughed up her mom beat on the girl as well…or maybe just scared her. Kate felt the familiar anger rising. She’d seen bruises like that on too many women.
Outside, Kate rubbed her arms for warmth. It was a sunny day but it seemed as if the damp of the apartment seeped into her very bones.
“Are you okay?” John asked her.
Kate nodded and pulled her jacket straight. “Yeah. It’s just that apartment. It was cold in there.”
“So far everything fits the profile.” John led her back toward his truck. “What did you think of Mrs Lyke’s story?”
“I believed her. She’s upset, terrified for her child.”
“She had fresh bruises. I’d guess there’s a man in the picture. Some abusive bastard. Is that relevant to your theory?”
John unlocked the truck. “Until I’m certain what we’re dealing with, everything’s relevant.” He climbed into the truck and waited for her to join him. “Kate, as a hunter I only get involved it it’s supernatural. If this kid’s run away from an abusive home, the most I can do is make an anonymous call to child services. It’s hard to walk away, but that’s the job. Yours too, as long as you’re with me.”
Kate was accustomed to jurisdictional boundaries, but it wasn’t as if John worked for any official organisation. Still, she understood the concept. “Are we going to talk to Gina McDougal’s family, too?”
“Later today. She said Maria always walked home from school on Tuesdays. It was a Tuesday when she disappeared.”
“So I want to take a look at the school. It’s just a hunch, but the school is one thing the missing girls had in common.”
The school was situated at a crossroads just outside town. There were playing fields at the back and a high brick wall at the front. A large, wrought-iron gate led into the grounds. It seemed to be rusted open. John parked on the far side of the crossroads. He jumped down from the truck and walked around to the back. Kate followed, more slowly because he’d parked on the grass verge and she was still wearing high-heeled shoes.
The back of John’s truck opened to reveal a case full of weapons. Kate stared. It looked like the kind of case a high-class photographer would use: packed with foam, each item placed into a recess cut to exactly the right size and shape. It contained at least eight guns of varying types, knives of all sizes and of different metals: Kate recognised steel and silver and others she thought were brass and copper. Perhaps even gold.
“Relax, I’m not taking a shotgun into a school,” John told her.
There would be no children at school on a Saturday, but still, Kate found it reassuring. John took out a device of some kind and closed the weapons case. The device was about the size of a Walkman, but there were lights and wires sticking out of it. Kate couldn’t tell what it was supposed to do. John pushed a button and it emitted a squeaky sound, three green LEDs lighting up.
“Keep watch for me,” John ordered. He walked away without waiting for Kate’s response.
Kate shrugged and followed him. She did as he asked, keeping an eye on all directions. She expected John to go through the school gate but instead he walked around the crossroads, holding that weird device in front of him.
“Are you going to tell me what that is?” Kate asked as the device gave another loud squeal.
“It’s an EMF detector. Dean made it.” John stopped walking when the squeal sounded. He crouched on the ground. The squealing became louder.
“Okay, I’ll bite. What’s an EMF detector?”
“It’s a way to detect traces of supernatural activity in an area. It’s not always reliable, but…” he held the EMF detector up to her, “take a look.”
Kate took it from his hand. “What am I looking at?”
“The lights show the level of EMF – electromotive force. If it hits red the reading’s worth noticing. I don’t see any power lines or transformers around here so chances are it’s a true reading.”
“Will this help us find the children?” Kate passed the device back to him.
John straightened up, meeting her eyes. “I hope so,” he answered.
For the first time, Kate glimpsed something behind his confidence. She should have seen it sooner. A lot of cops were like that: outwardly brash or even arrogant, but it was a front, covering up their doubts and fears. They were usually the best cops if they knew when to drop the act.
“John,” she began, not sure whether she should remark on it, “what is it?”
He shook his head, dismissing whatever inner thought had given her that glimpse into his pain. “This could be the place. I wonder if there used to be a house near here.”
“The school,” Kate said. “The building’s at least a hundred years old – you can tell from the gate. It probably started as a residence.”
John turned to look at the school, then he nodded. “Good call. Are you ready to hit the library?”
“First,” Kate insisted, “we’re going to have lunch, and you can tell me more about what we’re hunting.”
They were sharing a motel room: one room, two beds. Kate hadn’t asked about the salt John laid down across the threshold and at every window: it spoke for itself, really. The research for their hunt was pinned to the wall. When Kate questioned it, John explained it helped him to focus on the hunt.
Kate kicked off her shoes with relief and sat down on her bed. The wax paper crackled as she unwrapped her lunch. The familiar scents of ketchup and mustard rose from the sub, reminding her of LA.
“John, can I ask you something?”
“Yeah.” John was at the window, gazing out over the parking lot as he ate his burger.
“Is this somehow…personal for you? I’m getting the feeling there’s something you’re not telling me.”
He turned to look at her so quickly Kate knew she’d scored, but John covered his surprise quickly. “You were a good cop, weren’t you?” he asked astutely.
Kate knew he’d used the past tense to distract her. “I am a good cop,” she corrected, narrowing her eyes.
John walked around to sit on the other bed, facing her. “Every hunt is personal in a way. No one becomes a hunter for the money or the glory. We do it because something drives us to do it.”
“But this hunt is different,” Kate prompted.
John hesitated, then set what was left of his burger on the bed. He dug his wallet out of his pocket and drew a photograph out of it. He offered the photo to her. “My boys,” he said simply.
Kate knew he had two sons, because she’d checked his record. The photograph showed a couple of teenagers sitting on the hood of a black car in a snow-covered field. Kate recognised Dean. He looked about eighteen in the picture, with the lanky frame of a boy who had attained his full height but still had some filling-out to do. He wore a black coat and jeans, fingerless gloves and a dark woollen hat pulled down over his ears. Next to him was a younger boy, similarly dressed but with the addition of a bright green wool scarf. His features were sharper than Dean’s, his hair longer, but there was no doubt the two were brothers.
Kate had met Dean; why hadn’t she met the other boy?
“Did something happen to…to your son?” Kate asked. She was almost afraid of the answer.
John took the photograph from her. Kate looked up and saw the look on his face. He seemed sad…nostalgic, perhaps, but it wasn’t a look of grief. It couldn’t be bad, then, Kate thought.
“Sammy is away at college,” John said, glancing down at the picture before he slipped it back into his wallet. “I don’t really expect to see him again.”
“You sound almost happy about that.”
“Not happy, no. But Sammy’s doing well for himself. He got into Stanford, Kate, with a full scholarship. I don’t know a lot about colleges but I do know that’s a good school. It’s everything I used to want for him.” John pushed the wallet back into his pocket. He was silent for a moment. “Sammy was never happy with the choices I made for them. This life. I would have understood it if the cihuateteo targeted him. But it wasn’t Sam. It went after Dean.”
“How long ago?”
“Oh, a long time. Twelve, maybe thirteen years ago.”
“You feel responsible,” Kate said softly. John was opening up; she wanted to hear more.
“I was responsible. I’m their father,” John answered. “You don’t have children, do you?”
Kate shook her head. “I’ve never really had that maternal instinct.”
“I tried to give Sammy something like a normal childhood, but with Dean I didn’t have that option. He witnessed what happened to his mother, you see. I couldn’t insult Mary’s memory by pretending it was some accident.”
Kate nodded, understanding. “I was five when my mom died,” she volunteered. “It wasn’t anything supernatural,” she added quickly, “but it happened very fast. The way I remember it, it was like one day she was just fine, the next she was in hospital and then I was at her funeral. It wasn’t that fast, not really, but that’s how it seemed to a little kid.”
John was silent, listening.
“When it happened my dad…I think part of him died with her. He just shut down. I’ve seen enough tragedy since then to know, that’s just how some people, especially men, deal with stuff. But the thing is, I was just a kid. I didn’t get it. It hurt me, because I remembered the man my dad used to be.”
“What’s your point?”
“That Sammy didn’t know you before your wife died. He was a baby, wasn’t he? But Dean did, he remembers.” Kate saw John react and knew she’d struck a nerve. She leaned forward, instinctively pressing her advantage. “It makes sense to me that he would have been vulnerable to this thing. Dean understood what he’d lost.”
John took out his gun, popped the clip and examined the weapon. “Thanks,” he grunted, and Kate felt ashamed of herself. This wasn’t an interrogation; she had no right to intrude on his private pain.
But John met her eyes without censure. “I think you’re right.” He pulled the slide back on the gun, opening the chamber. “The missing children are still alive. For now. We need to identify the spirit.”
Kate accepted the change of subject. “A woman who died in childbirth,” she said. “That’s not exactly rare.”
“She’ll be associated with the school or the crossroads, but that link might not be easy to track down. Do you think you can handle it by yourself, Kate?”
It felt like a test, or a trick question. Kate nodded. “I’ll start with the library and look up the history of the school. If there’s no obvious candidate I’ll move on to the county records. But that will take longer than an afternoon if they’re not computerised.”
“They won’t be. I’m going to talk to the McDougal family, then I’ll call you. If you’re still looking I’ll join you at the library.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Kate bit into her sub.
Kate was waiting outside the town library when John got there. The library was an old building with tall columns and doors twelve feet high; a stark contrast to the McDonalds and K-Mart on the other side of the square. Between the library and the commercial street was a wide green. They walked across the green together, heading for John’s truck, and it crossed John’s mind that they probably looked like a couple. It was as good a cover as any.
Their conversation, however, was all business.
“Cecily Grainger,” Kate said, holding out a sheaf of papers.
John took the sheaf of photocopies from her. He hadn’t expected her to find an answer so quickly. Could be she had a natural aptitude for this work, but he hoped she wasn’t jumping to conclusions. “Are you sure?” he asked, careful not to sound as sceptical as he felt.
“The school was her husband’s family home a century ago,” Kate explained. “Cecily died in childbirth, which fits the profile. Her son died a week later. James Grainger remarried and his new wife had five children. All of them died young. He died in 1927, leaving the estate to be turned into a school since he had no family left.”
Yahtzee! “Do you know where she’s buried?” John asked. That was the million-dollar question.
Kate looked less certain. “I hope so,” she hedged. “According to the records there used to be a chapel and a family plot on the estate.”
“Used to be?”
“When they converted the house into a school the chapel was torn down and the bodies moved. James Grainger was buried in what’s now Canyon Road cemetery. I think that means they moved the whole family plot there, but I couldn’t find anything to confirm that.”
John glanced through the photocopies she had given him: archived parish records and newspaper clippings to support everything she’d reported. She’d done it.
“You’re wasted as a small-town cop,” he told her, offering the papers back to her.
Kate’s eyes narrowed in what he was beginning to recognise as her pissed-off-but-trying-to-hide-it look. Her voice dripped with sarcasm. “Yeah, I’m sure a life of credit card fraud and stealing silver for bullets is much more fulfilling.”
When had she noticed his credit card? John wondered. He’d been careful not to let her see when he paid for their room and she had paid for lunch herself. Had he used the card since then? It came to him: he’d bought gas while she got their lunch. Damn…that was careless. But she must have very sharp eyes. He’d meant what he said to her: Kate had all the right instincts for hunting and her police background could well work in her favour. Not every hunter broke the law to fund the job. John knew several people who managed to hold down a real job. Some hunters traded their skills or mystical artefacts. It could be done.
“The silver’s got to come from somewhere,” John pointed out, “but the rest ain’t compulsory.” He caught her swiftly-stifled smile at his words. “Look, Kate, I wouldn’t wish this life on anyone. We do it because once we know what’s out there in the dark, we can’t do nothing. But what you do about it is your choice.”
They were outside the store now and there were other people on the streets. But no one paid any attention to them. It was safe to talk.
“I know we have to dig up this woman’s grave,” Kate answered. She sounded like she was steeling herself for bad news. She looked his way, but didn’t quite meet his eyes as she spoke.
John wasn’t surprised. Hell, she was handling the notion better than he had the first time. He’d been prepared for exorcisms, silver bullets, stakes or holy water; he was willing for anything he’d seen in a horror movie to turn out to be real. But the idea of desecrating a grave, digging up a rotting corpse – that touched a deep nerve. It just wasn’t decent. Elkins had taken a pretty big chunk out of John’s ego when he’d said that. John still remembered it with some embarrassment. Everyone makes mistakes at the beginning and everyone makes stupid assumptions. But John had a lot of pride. He’d given himself away as green; it was worse than being a rookie marine.
So he was willing to cut Kate a little slack. Only a little. He nodded. “Yes, we do,” he confirmed, “but that’s only part of it. Are you ready for this, Kate?”
She did meet his eyes then. “Until you explain what we have to do, how do I know?”
“That’s fair. One of us has to go grave-digging. That’s the easy part…usually. The other will need to find the children. Now that could be dangerous.”
“Dangerous how?” Kate brushed a stray lock of hair back from her eyes.
“Spirits can kill, if you give ’em a reason,” John told her bluntly. He looked up at the sky. “We’ve got a couple of hours. Let’s check out the cemetery while it’s still light.” He gestured. “I left the truck over that way.”
John watched Kate carefully as she walked toward the truck. She was tough and determined, but was she up to this? If he sent her to salt-and-burn Cecily Grainger, would she balk? Maybe it would be better to send her after the kids…but if this spirit was going to be a threat, the cemetery was the safer job, and Kate was inexperienced. Damn, if he hadn’t sent Dean on another hunt, they could have split this job between them.
There wasn’t really a question. John’s job was to stop this spirit, so no one else would be hurt. He would do the salt-and-burn, so he would know it was done right. It meant putting Kate into the danger zone. It meant risking her life and the lives of the missing children. But that was the job.
Kate sat on the bed to pull her boots on. They were knee-high boots with a comfortable, one-inch heel. She wore black jeans over the boots, and an indigo jacket buttoned up to her neck. Dark clothing to hide in the darkness. John had nodded in approval of her clothing but told her to blacken the belt buckle. It was a little scary that he had matte black paint to hand.
She raised her voice a little to talk to John through the open bathroom door. “So, you dig up the grave and break open the coffin. Then what?” She heard John splashing water around.
“You cover whatever is left of the body with salt,” John called back, his voice a little muffled. “Salt represents purity, it’s a cleansing element. Then you throw in an accelerant. Gasoline works fine, but you could use anything that burns well. Torch the remains. When there’s nothing left but ashes you fill in the grave and hope like hell no one saw you.”
“What happens to the ghost? The spirit?”
He came out of the bathroom, patting his face with a towel. John’s hair was still wet, but he was dressed in jeans. His chest was bare and Kate couldn’t resist checking out his physique. John had a working man’s body: firm, flat muscles that showed his strength but not the “six-pack” of a body-builder. The scars of old injuries stood out prominently. His feet were bare.
She looked up to his face again and caught him watching her. She felt heat rise in her cheeks. John had been a perfect gentleman; he’d done nothing to make her feel uncomfortable sharing a room with him. She should pay him the same courtesy.
John pulled an olive-green t-shirt on over his head. “A salt-and-burn is the equivalent of an execution for spirits,” he told her, smoothing over the awkward moment as if it never happened. “It’s gone. Can’t come back.”
Kate frowned. “So, you’re what? Killing her soul?” Kate wasn’t even certain she believed in souls…but she didn’t believe in ghosts, either. Demons, vampires…yeah. Seeing is believing.
John didn’t answer at once. “Souls are for priests, Kate. I don’t know anything about that. Could be we’re sending the soul on to whatever afterlife exists. Could be there’s no afterlife and we’re just finishing what the Reaper started. Maybe it’s something else. Ask God if you ever meet him and in the meantime, do what needs doin’.” He sat on the edge of the bed to pull on his socks.
He sounded bitter. Kate took a deep breath, but said nothing more.
“Which job do you want?” John asked her.
She finished buckling her boots and looked up at him in surprise. “You’re letting me decide?”
“I asked your preference,” he answered.
She figured that meant it wasn’t her decision, but she considered the question before she answered. “I want to look for the children. That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? Saving them.”
“Can you use a shotgun?” he asked.
“I prefer my .38.”
“I’m sure you do. For this, you’ll need a shotgun.” He pulled his bag out from beneath the bed and produced a sawn-off shotgun. He cracked it open, showing her the contents. “It’s loaded with rock salt, see? If the spirit comes after you, this could save your life. Lead bullets in your .38 are as useful as shoes on a snake.” He closed the gun and offered it to her.
Kate knew enough about shotguns to hold it correctly, prime the gun and take aim at the window. “I don’t know if I’ll be a great shot, but I can use it.”
John sighed and Kate felt like she’d disappointed him. “You’ve never fired a shotgun in your life, have you?” John asked.
Kate shrugged, unable to deny it. “It’s not exactly a police special.” She offered the gun back to him.
“Shit.” He did not look happy. “There’s not enough time to teach you. Maybe you’d better take the cemetery.”
“I can fire a gun, John,” she insisted defensively.
His dismissive gesture said it all. “Sure. Fire, hit what you aimed at, reload and get it aimed again in under two seconds. In the dark. Or you’re dead.”
Kate fumed silently. He’d been treating her as an equal and now suddenly he talked like she was a useless tag-along. Who the hell used a shotgun in LA?
“I don’t deserve that look, Kate. I’ve lost too many friends to the hunt. I meant what I said earlier: you’ve got the makings of a good hunter. But not if you get killed on your first hunt.”
“Third,” she corrected.
“No, sweetheart. When we’re done here, you’ll know what a hunt really is.”
“I’m a quick study, John. Just show me how to reload the gun.”
John looked at his watch and sighed. “Fine, I’ll show you. But if I don’t think you’re good enough by the time it’s dark, you’ll do this my way. Deal?”
Kate smiled. “Deal.”