briarwood: (Fic The Exiles)
Morgan Briarwood ([personal profile] briarwood) wrote2009-05-02 06:59 am

Fic: The Exiles

Title: The Exiles
Fandom: Supernatural/Angel
Rating: Mature
Pairing: None
Warnings: None
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 :)






THE EXILES

Trinity Bluff, California, 2003

Kate parked her car at the side of the road and reached up to retrieve her backup gun from above the vanity mirror. She checked the clip, chambered a round and pocketed a spare clip before sliding the gun into her shoulder holster. Forty four bullets. She was out of uniform, carried no badge and could expect no backup on this job, but if she needed more than forty four rounds she was probably doomed.

She set off down the track toward the old, abandoned house. There were a few scraggly trees on either side of the track; enough to conceal her from view as she approached. The road was just tyre tracks in the dusty ground with a few tufts of grass growing in between the grooves. The trees cast long shadows in the moonlight and Kate shivered. Whatever was at the end of this road, she was pretty sure it wasn’t human.

The house had been white, once. Now it stood grey and broken in the moonlight, the windows dark hollows like eyes. There were tiles missing from the roof and the framework showed through in places. Kate would have assumed no one lived here, except she’d seen it go into the house. Then again, it wasn’t a person, was it?

First things first. Find the hostage. If Renée Fossett was still alive, getting her to safety would be Kate’s first priority.

Kate crept up to the nearest window. Keeping herself flat against the wall, she peered through the glass. She saw nothing inside. She moved on to the next.

Through the dusty glass of the third window, Kate saw something moving inside. She held her breath and drew her gun. She moved closer to the window for a better look.

A low growl sounded behind her. Kate froze. Her heart beating like a wild thing, she turned around slowly. Behind her was the biggest leopard she had ever seen. It stared at her with eyes that seemed to glow in the dark. It growled, low and menacing, baring sharp, white teeth. Kate’s mouth went dry. Those glowing eyes held intelligence…and hunger.

Kate opened the safety catch on her gun. She started to raise the weapon. The leopard leapt at her. Kate threw herself to one side, even as she tried to get the gun aimed. She fired, point-blank. Claws pierced her coat, sliced into the flesh at her shoulder. The leopard’s snarl was inches from her face, its weight on her chest, its foetid breath surrounding her. Kate fired again. And again.

She heard another gunshot, from somewhere to her right. The leopard reacted, whining in pain. The unknown gunman fired again and the leopard’s weight on her chest was gone. It lay on the dusty ground beside Kate, bleeding and still.

Kate raised her gun without missing a beat, looking for the source of the shots. She saw two men running toward her. They were far enough away that she had time to get to her feet and shift to a two-handed grip, bracing her body for recoil. One of them, maybe both of them, had shot the leopard and saved her…but that didn’t mean they were the good guys.

“Freeze!” she shouted, the order sounding a lot more confident than she felt.

Neither man obeyed, but both looked her way. The elder of the two slowed his pace and pushed his gun through his belt, making sure Kate saw him do it. The other man moved to flank him. The younger man held a gun, too and made no move to put it away. He watched Kate warily.

“Who the hell are you?” Kate demanded.

“Dean,” the older man said, “check inside.”

The younger man – Dean – glanced at Kate, then turned away. Kate opened her mouth to shout after him, then caught sight of the dead leopard. It wasn’t an animal any more. She stared. There was fur, leopard fur, but she also saw pale, human flesh. The limbs ended in hands and feet, not claws.

“What the hell is that?”

Kate didn’t realise she’d spoken aloud until the older man answered her. “Skinwalker. They revert to human form when you kill them."

Kate studied the man through narrowed eyes. He looked like a man in his fifties, his black hair and beard greying, his eyes determined. But Kate had learned the hard way that appearances can be deceiving.

“You know who’s responsible for the massacre,” the vampire insisted.

Kate was through letting him dance around the subject. She met his eyes, letting him see her anger. “Yeah. But I can’t figure out why Forensics is telling me it looks like the suspect or suspects didn’t break in. They had to breakout. The victims were locked in that wine cellar with their attackers.”

The son of a bitch didn’t even flinch. She knew he had locked that door. He knew that she knew. And he didn’t care. She couldn’t prove a damned thing. “I am done helping you now,” she spat at him, and stalked away.

“What are you?” Kate challenged.

He actually smiled. “John Winchester. I’m human. I’m a hunter.” He looked down at the dead skinwalker. “And you have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

Dean called from the house. “It’s clean, Dad. But the girl’s dead.”

Kate’s heart sank. Shit. She holstered her gun and turned toward the house.

“Wait!” Winchester snapped. “Slow down. You’re a cop, aren’t you?”

Kate turned back to him. She wore no uniform, carried no visible badge. “Yeah,” she admitted.

“It shows. So don’t go in there. Come back when we’re gone and you’re in uniform.”

“You’re crazy. What – ”

Winchester moved toward her, his eyes intense. “Because there’s a crime here, but people can’t know the whole truth. Most people can’t handle it. We’ll take care of this…” his gesture indicated the dead skinwalker, “and tomorrow you can treat this like any other crime scene.”

Kate frowned. It actually did make sense. Hell, she’d come here knowing it wasn’t a human criminal. She’d come planning to kill it.

She knew what she was risking. Trinity Bluff was a small town and the people wouldn’t tolerate a cop who believed in demons and monsters any better than they had in LA. Her obsession with the things out there in the dark had cost Kate her career in LA. She'd lost her father. She almost lost her own life. She couldn’t go through that again. She didn’t want to get sucked back into a world where she couldn’t tell the darkness from the light. But neither could she stand by and do nothing when that woman was abducted.

Kate nodded, not happy, but she didn’t have a better plan. “Alright. But make sure no one can trace you to this. I’ll have to run it by the book.”

“You’ll never know we were even here,” Winchester answered confidently. He turned to Dean, who had just emerged from the house. “Can you handle this one without me? Burn that thing, and clean up?”

Dean frowned. “Uh, sure, but – ”

“There’s a bar a couple of miles down the road,” Winchester said to Kate. “Let me buy you a drink.”

Kate narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Not interested.”

“I’m not tryin’ to get in your pants, lady. I think we should talk.”

Kate’s hand still hovered near her gun, but she nodded. “Alright.” She did have questions.

“We’ll take your car,” he announced. “Dean, you can join us when you’re done.”

“Yes, sir,” Dean answered. It made Kate wonder. He’d called the other man “Dad”, but he took orders like a soldier. One more question to add to the list.

***

John insisted on looking at Kate’s shoulder before they entered the bar. She laid her jacket on the hood of her car and waited patiently while John drew her bloody shirt away from the wound. She kept a basic first aid kit under the dash and John cleaned Kate’s wound with an antiseptic wipe that stung like hell. Then he examined the scratches carefully. Finally he pulled her shirt back into place.

“You might want to get an antibiotic shot,” he advised gruffly. “Those claws can carry all kinds of things. But the cut is shallow. You’ll be fine.”

She would be fine. Kate pulled the jacket on over the bloodstained shirt; the jacket was dark blue denim and in the dim light of the bar no one was likely to notice the blood on it.

Someone died on Kate’s watch tonight. Someone she’d been there to save. Had she waited too long, dithering over her fear for her reputation? If she’d gone out there before dark, would that woman be alive now? Kate had never wanted a drink so badly as she did that night.

“Lemonade,” she said when John asked. “Or Coke.”

“Teetotal?” he asked, more curious than intrusive.

“Alcoholic,” she answered honestly. “Two years sober.” Kate remembered vividly the last time she’d had a drink. It was the day she got fired from LAPD. She’d cleaned out her desk and gone home. At first, she only wanted a drink. But then she’d seen the photograph of her father. Most of the evening was a blur after that, but she knew she’d swallowed a handful of sleeping pills and chased them with all the vodka she had left in her apartment. She remembered waking up in Angel’s arms, fully dressed under a cold shower. He’d called 911 for her. He’d saved her life.

John nodded without commenting further and ordered the lemonade she’d requested with whiskey, straight for himself. He carried both drinks to a corner table that afforded them some privacy.

There were three bars in Trinity Bluff; the one John had chosen was outside the town, the place folks came for cheap booze, illegal drugs traded in the toilets and a bartender who would tolerate the fighting as long as only people got broken, not furniture. It was not the place Kate would have chosen for a drink with a stranger, but it did have one advantage: the chances were good no one here would recognise her and if they did, they wouldn’t want to be noticed by her. She was a deputy, after all.

Kate accepted the lemonade and sipped it wishing it were vodka. “Thanks.” The jukebox in the corner of the bar clicked on, playing something that sounded vaguely Hispanic.

“You’re welcome.” He drank his whiskey. “I’m John Winchester.”

He’d already told her his name, but Kate realised she hadn’t returned the favour. “Kate Lockley. Would you please tell me what that thing was?”

“It was a skinwalker.”

“What is that? Some kind of demon?” She was proud of the way she said that. Like it was okay to be sitting here talking about demons.

He shook his head. “Not a demon. A skinwalker is a shapeshifter. That thing was human once. It sacrificed someone, probably its brother or its son, to gain the power to shapeshift. Once a skinwalker has that power it can turn into any animal. All it needs is a skin.”

“That was a person? A person killed Renée Fossett?”

“It’s not a person any more. It can live like one, well enough to pass for human in a place like this, but inside it’s just a killer.”

“But if it’s a human – ” she began, not seeing the distinction he did.

“You’re thinking you could arrest him? Kate, while you’re trying to get together enough evidence to make an arrest, it’s out there killing people. Sure, you take away its leopard skin, it would seem like just another serial killer. But what are you going to tell a jury? That he used fake claws to slice up his victims? If you can’t produce the murder weapon what  are the chances a jury would let the bastard walk?”

It had the feel of an often-repeated argument, and Kate wondered who he usually had this debate with. The other man, Dean? That didn’t feel right, though Kate didn’t know either of them well enough to know for sure.

She sipped her lemonade. “Okay. You’re right. The system doesn’t always work.”

“With things like that, the system can’t work.” John leaned forward over the table. “Kate, you screwed up badly out there. Dean and I made your stakeout. You didn’t even have the right ammo.”

She started to get up. “I think I’ve heard enough.”

John grabbed her wrist. He was very strong. “No, you haven’t. I’m trying to help you, Kate. Sit down.”

She stared at him a moment longer, then sat, more to avoid making a scene than because she wanted to hear him out.

John released her. “If you want to be a cop, then be a cop,” he said harshly. “Stay clear of things like this, at least until it’s time to pick up the pieces. If you want to hunt these things, you’ve got a lot to learn first. Go in half-cocked again and you’ll get killed.”

John’s drill-sergeant manner reminded Kate of her father, but she was shaking her head before he was halfway through his speech. “I’m not making a career out of killing evil things. I left LA to get away from all that!”

“LA, huh? I’ve heard it can get bad there.”

She finished her lemonade. She was thirty seconds away from ordering vodka.

“Want to tell me what happened?” John asked, and his voice was gentle suddenly.

Kate looked at him. His understanding look calmed her. “It’s a long story.”

“If you don’t want to talk about it, just say so. But I’ve got time.” John raised his whiskey glass, swirling the golden liquid around. “Most of us have lost someone to evil.”

Kate glanced around them, but there was no one close enough to overhear anything she said. None of the other patrons was even paying attention to them.

“Vampires killed my father,” Kate blurted. She braced for his reaction, expecting laughter, disbelief.

John simply nodded.

“After, I…I got a bit obsessive about the things out there. Underground. I kinda got a reputation for being the cop on the scene if anything weird happened. But there was this guy. He was a vampire but I thought…he convinced me he was different.”

“Easy mistake. Vamps used to be people. A lot of them are good at hiding the monster inside.”

She let her breath out, relieved. “That’s exactly it. I didn’t completely trust him. I mean, I knew what he was, but I thought…he was okay. Or not pure evil.”

“He hurt you?”

Involuntarily, Kate found herself touching her neck, her fingers tracing the scars left by Angel's bite. “Not just me.” Kate answered curtly.

She remembered the crime scene: thirteen bodies in Holland Manners’ wine cellar. The cellar had been locked from the outside. The bodies were drained of blood, a few of them ripped apart as if whatever did it had searched frenziedly for more. Angel hadn’t killed them, not directly, but Kate knew he was responsible. Everywhere he went, people died. Like her Dad.

John didn’t press for details. He drank his whiskey in silence for a while.

Kate was grateful for the space to remember and to banish the memory. “My round,” she offered. “Whiskey neat, right?”

“Yeah.”

Kate wanted a drink more than she’d wanted one since she quit. She ordered lemonade, but she didn’t think she’d be able to resist again. It had been a crappy night.

John took the whiskey from her hand. “I lost my wife,” he volunteered. “I never found the thing that killed her, but I kill what I can.”

“And Dean?”

“He’s my son,” John said, as if that explained everything. To him, it probably did. To Kate, it explained nothing. “Listen,” John went on, “about what happened out there – ”

“Yeah?”

“In the morning, do whatever you have to do to get a cop out there. You can say it’s a tip from an informant, an anonymous call. Anything. Then just be a normal cop. There’ll be no evidence to tie it to me or Dean; just make sure they don’t pin it on some innocent patsy.”

“I know how it works,” Kate began and stopped at a gesture from John.

He pulled a phone from his pocket and answered it. “Dean.” John was quiet for a moment, then said, “Good. I’ll join you in a moment.” He snapped the cell phone closed and looked at Kate. “Dean and I are staying at the Victory motel. We’ll be there one more night. If you want to know more about what’s out there, take the weekend off and come find me. If you don’t…well, you’ll never see us again.” He drained his glass and stood up.

Kate nodded. “Okay.”

***

Dean reached across to the Impala’s passenger door and John heard the door creak as it opened from across the parking lot. He climbed into the Impala.

“She turn you down?” Dean asked with a smirk.

“Huh?”

“Well, I figured I’d be sleepin’ in the car tonight.” Dean started the engine. John’s expression must have given him away because Dean added, “What? It’s about time you took some shore leave. And she’s cute.”

John gave him a look. “Dude, this wasn’t about getting laid.”

“Then what? Since when do we hang out with hunters we don’t know?”

John sighed. “Why do we do what we do?”

“To find the thing that killed mom,” Dean answered at once.

“Wasting that skinwalker didn’t help us find your mother’s killer. Try again. Why do we do this job?”

This time Dean considered the question before he answered. “Well…to save people.”

“Right. Now tell me why knowing a little bit about what’s out there makes Kate less worth saving.”

“I didn’t say that!”

“Didn’t you? She’s not a hunter, Dean. She’s a person who knows just enough to get herself killed. She’s scared and lost.” Kate’s plight had touched a raw nerve in John. Some vampire killed her father. Then another vamp fooled her into thinking he was her friend, and somehow that ruined her life. John didn’t need to know the details. He knew what it was like to be groping around in the dark. Kate’s instincts told her to act, to save lives, but she was freaked to hell by what she knew. She was a cop: her training told her the rules of how the world worked. It was hard to let go of that kind of training.

Dean shook his head as he drove. “So, what? You gonna train her?” It was clear Dean disliked the idea.

“No. I thought you could,” John deadpanned.

Dean swerved the car violently. “You’d better be joking!”

John allowed himself a chuckle. “I am. I told her a few things. If she wants to know more she’ll look us up.”

“So you are planning to train her.”

“Just point her in the right direction. Did the cleanup go okay?”

Dean shrugged, giving John a look that said louder than words that he hadn’t enjoyed the job. Well, the boy would have to get used to it. John wouldn’t be hunting with him forever.

Back at the motel, John let Dean shower and change first while he checked the room. The map they’d used to track the skinwalker was pinned to one wall. Beneath it was a table piled high with discarded fast-food cartons and a couple of chairs. John gathered up the trash and dumped it near the overflowing trashcan. He pulled out his journal and sat down at the table.

Tucked into the back of his journal were press cuttings he had earmarked to check out. He riffled through the collection and extracted several, laying them out on the table in front of him. He turned to a fresh page in the journal and began to make notes. When Dean came out of the shower, John told him to get some sleep and went right on working.

By the time John had what he wanted, Dean had been asleep for hours. The quiet sound of his breathing reassured John, kept him calm and focussed while he worked. Eventually, John left his research where it was and lay down on the bed, fully dressed, for what remained of the night.

***

“It’s in Gannerville.” John laid the article on the table between them.

Dean looked up from his breakfast to read the article. “Axe murders?” he mumbled around a mouth full of sausage. “And it’s not even Halloween.” He swallowed and spoke more clearly. “All the doors locked. Nothing broken.” He nodded. “Spirit, right?”

“Seems likely. What do you think?” John finished his coffee and signalled the waitress for a refill.

“Uh…I guess we talk to some people. Look into the history of the house.”

“And the local area. The second article refers to it as ‘near the Lewis house’ – it might indicate some local legend.”

“When do we leave?”

John smiled at his son’s eagerness. “Think you can handle this one solo?”

“Really?” For a moment Dean’s answering grin made him look like all his birthdays had come at once. Then his eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Where will you be?”

“I found a job just over the border in Oregon. I’m going to stay here another night in case Kate shows. If she does, I’ll take her along on that job. If she doesn’t show, I’ll join you in Gannerville and we’ll go on to Oregon after the first job’s done.”

“You really like her, don’t you?”

John leaned back. “Son, I told you this is nothing to do with liking her. Dude, she didn’t even know to bring silver ammo last night. You know, when I first started hunting, someone helped me out. You boys might have been orphans if no one set me straight.”

Dean’s teasing smirk vanished. “Yeah. Okay.” He set his fork down, apparently no longer hungry. “Be careful with her, okay, Dad?”

John frowned. “Spit it out, Dean. What’s troubling you?”

Dean shook his head.

“Come on. You know something about this girl I don’t?”

Dean’s frown deepened. “I know she’s no hunter. I ain’t happy about you relying on some clueless chick to watch your back.”

John arched an eyebrow. “You tellin’ me how to do my job?”

“I’m just sayin’,” Dean muttered.

John let it go.

***

John let the curtain fall back, smiling to himself. Kate had been sitting out there in her car for at least an hour. John knew it wasn’t easy for her. He had guessed, from the few things she told him the night before, that she paid a high price for her involvement with the supernatural in LA. It was natural she would hesitate to get involved again. He was not going to push her into it. Hell, it was probably better that she stay out of this life. He only wanted her to understand that she couldn’t do this halfway. She’d gone after a skinwalker without even packing silver shot. The next one would kill her, or worse.

He was packed and ready to go. Most of his gear was already in the truck, but he’d left his research for the skinwalker hunt on the wall of the motel room, and the lines of salt at the door and windows for the motel staff to clean up. He would leave as soon as he knew what Kate was going to do. He didn’t care much either way. He’d offered his help, the way Daniel Elkins once helped him, but if she chose to reject the offer John would go on his way, losing nothing by it. But he hoped she’d find the courage to come to his door.

He could only take so much daytime TV, and John was almost ready to give up and leave when he heard the slam of a car door outside. He moved to the window and saw Kate coming toward his room. She wore a tailored shirt, indigo jeans and a wide belt. If she was armed, it had to be an ankle holster. Her blonde hair was scraped back into a ponytail and she wore no makeup at all. She looked like she was walking into her worst nightmare: her jaw set, no colour in her cheeks. John was impressed. She was scared, but she was still doing it.

He waited for her to knock before he answered the door. Kate looked up at him, saying nothing at first, and he could see her struggle to keep her expression neutral.

John stepped back from the door with a welcoming gesture. “Come in.”

Kate stepped over his salt-line without comment, though he knew she saw the salt. She strode into the room and turned to face him. “I checked you out,” she announced.

John closed the door. “I expected you to.” She opened with a challenge to cover her fear. That was good. She had guts.

“And?” Kate challenged.

John shrugged. “And what? I know what’s on my record. It goes with the job.”

“Uh-huh,” she responded. She looked around the room and could hardly have missed the collection of articles and notes pinned to the wall. John sat down on the bed, letting her examine it. He tried to see the display through her eyes: newspaper articles, each linked to a map, handwritten notes scrawled on stationary from half-a-dozen motels, photographs, a weather report, arcane symbols, co-ordinates and his own, private shorthand. Would she find the display confusing or might she understand what it all meant?

She turned her back on the display, half-smiling. “It makes you look like a stalker.”

John nodded grimly. “You’re not far wrong. Doing what I do takes…obsession. But I’m not hunting innocent girls. The things I ‘stalk’ deserve to be taken down.”

All of them?” she asked.

John remembered she’d been friendly with a vampire. He stood and crossed over to the research display. “These articles are all about young people who have disappeared or been killed. The bodies that were found were torn apart, partially eaten. I followed the trail to this area – ” he tapped the map “ – and started looking for the thing that was doing it. These things don’t get noticed until people start dying, Kate. So, yeah, all the things I hunt deserve to die.”

She moved closer to the display and to him. “What about the innocents who get caught in the crossfire?”

“Innocents like you last night? Give me a break. You weren’t there to make an arrest, Deputy Lockley. What I do, I do in secret. I don’t involve others.”

“You ever stake a vampire?”

John managed not to laugh. “Stake? Are you kidding?”

Kate frowned. “Uh…I wasn’t.”

John took a pen from the table and, moving very slowly so she couldn’t misinterpret his actions, he thrust the pen toward her chest as if he were trying to pierce her heart. “To get close enough to drive a stake through a vamp’s heart, you have to put yourself in the danger zone,” he demonstrated. “Not to mention, it takes a lot of strength to drive a piece of wood through flesh and bone. If you miss the heart…you’re screwed.”

Kate shrugged. “I used a two-by-four. Seemed effective to me.”

John grinned. “Yeah, I can see that would do it.” She had the instincts of a hunter. “But seriously,” he added, “I’d recommend a machete next time. Decapitation is a lot safer. So. You coming with me?”

“Where are we going?”

“To find the next evil son of a bitch that needs hunting.”

***

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.”

Sammy nodded.

“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.”

“What else?”

“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?”

“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.”

***

They drove to an empty field a few miles from town for their lesson.

John didn’t bother teaching Kate to aim and fire. She was accurate enough with the .38 that he didn’t need to worry about her aim. A shotgun fires in a cone shape, the buckshot – or, in this case, rock salt – spreading out, so as long as she was roughly on target and not too close, she would hit what she aimed at.

It was her ability to fire more than once that troubled him.

Kate was a quick study. By eight that evening she could open, reload and prime the shotgun blindfold. Her best time was three seconds and she was averaging five, but John was satisfied.

***

Outside the cemetery, John took his bag of supplies from the rear of the truck. “Head to the school and take a look around. If we’re right the children are there, but you won’t be able to find them until the spirit is gone. I’ll call your cell when I’m done. You call me if anything happens. Clear?”

“Sir! Yes, sir!” Kate barked, snapping off a salute with the wrong hand. She knew it was the wrong hand. And she appreciated him saying we.

“Funny,” John growled, but she could see the twinkle of amusement in his eyes. Kate was beginning to like him.

“I’ve got it, John. You can trust me.”

Something flashed across his face and for a moment Kate understood that he didn’t trust easily. John gave a nod that could have meant several things, and tossed her the keys to the truck. Kate caught the keys with a grin and watched him walk away into the dark graveyard.

***

By moonlight the school looked like a haunted house, a great, hulking building towering over the empty grounds. There was sure to be a caretaker, but Kate had seen no sign of a house within the grounds.

She took the shotgun and filled her pockets with rock salt rounds. Was it really necessary? Kate couldn’t help thinking John was over-cautious but she remembered thinking the same thing about her first partner back when she was a rookie cop. It took a broken arm before she’d learned the difference between paranoia and caution and she’d been lucky it wasn’t a broken neck. So she would trust John’s judgement until she had a reason not to.

Kate walked toward the rusted gate and kept to the shadows as she approached the school building. She carried a flashlight on a loop around her left wrist but John had cautioned her not to use it unless she really needed to: the light could draw unwanted attention.

The school building was dark: no sign anyone was around after hours. When Kate reached the main door she  could see the blinking LED of the security system just inside. There was a terrace that seemed to run all the way around the building, so Kate turned away from the door, intending to walk the perimeter first. If I were a crazy, child-abducting ghost, where would I be? she thought, but the question didn’t help at all. She had no clue. John hadn’t been able to give her much guidance about this. He knew what she knew; in fact, Kate knew more about Cecily Grainger than John did because she’d done the research.

If I were the ghost of Cecily Grainger, stealing children to replace the baby I never got to raise, where would I be hiding? Framing the question that way gave her a beginning. It would be a place that the ghost associated with children. The nursery? Somewhere inside the school was the old nursery. It wouldn’t be a nursery any more and Kate had no idea where in the school she might find it, but the ghost might not even see the school. She was probably still moving through her old home, stuck in her own tragic past. So the nursery should be the logical place. Were ghosts logical?

There were other places Kate should search. The site of the old family plot: the place where Cecily Grainger and her son had been laid to rest. The bodies might have been moved but the place would still hold meaning for the ghost. And there was the crossroads. Kate didn’t know what significance the crossroads had to Cecily Grainger, but she remembered that John’s EMF meter lit up like a Christmas tree there. It was what led them to the school in the first place.

Kate suddenly felt very stupid. Of course: she needed the EMF meter. It would tell her where the ghost had been. She was a third of the way around the school building. She decided to go back and do the circuit again. The EMF meter was in the back of John’s truck. She studied the device under her flashlight. It seemed simple enough. She pushed the button that turned it on and immediately the device lit up, squealing. Kate turned around, holding it up. It quieted as she moved. Was that supposed to happen?

Kate closed the truck, locked it and walked back to the school building. She walked all the way around the building, the terrace leading her steps, but she never got more than a quick flicker from the EMF. So much for that plan. She tried the school door but found it locked. Should she break in and do a sweep inside? She had a feeling that’s what John expected her to do, but Kate’s police training was too strong. She needed probable cause to break in. Not legal probable cause: she wasn’t thinking that much like a cop. But some reason, some indication that breaking into the school was the right thing to do. The EMF meter was quiet in her hand.

She would try the grounds first, and come back to the school only if she found nothing there.

What had once been the sweeping driveway of a wealthy mansion was now the school parking lot. Beyond the parking lot, asphalt pathways led to the playing fields in one direction and into a garden on the other side. Kate hesitated, trying to remember where the old chapel had been. She decided to head toward the playing fields; that seemed like the right direction. There was a hedge on Kate’s left side as she walked, trimmed to about shoulder-height. It provided her with some cover, but she didn’t turn on the flashlight. John had stressed that she shouldn’t let herself be seen and she could see well enough in the dark, and the shape of the asphalt beneath her feet provided some guidance: the path was concave, so she could feel when she wandered near the edge. 

Kate walked slowly. Every now and then she stopped and moved around with the EMF meter. The reading wasn’t very strong – just the first three green lights – but it was stronger here than it had been at the school. Occasionally the reading dipped into the red and she used that to tell her which way to go, following the EMF reading like a trail of breadcrumbs.

After a while the trail led Kate away from the asphalt path. Kate felt the crunch of gravel and then the soft unevenness of grass beneath her feet. She saw the dark shape of some building ahead of her, but couldn’t tell what it was.

The EMF meter squealed and spiked to red. Kate stopped, adrenaline making her look around wildly.  She raised the shotgun, shifting to a firing position. The ghost ought to be right on top of her!

She saw nothing and her heart rate slowed down again. Kate set the shotgun down, leaning it against her leg so she had a hand free. She pulled the flashlight out of her jacket and shone it at the building ahead of her. It was a whitewashed brick shed, the window covered with a wooden shutter, the paint peeling away from the wood. It was a tool shed, Kate decided, probably for the school gardeners. The EMF reading seemed to be leading her toward the shed, but she couldn’t see a door on this side. She would have to go around. She shone the light on the ground: it looked uneven, and the grass hadn’t been trimmed for a while, but she saw no obstacles. Kate clicked off the flashlight, pocketed it and headed toward the side of the shed.

Kate reached the side of the shed. The shed threw shadows in the dark and she wished she had three hands so she could use the flashlight, EMF and shotgun all at once. But she needed the EMF and John had convinced her that she needed the shotgun. She would just have to manage in the dark.

It was a mistake.

Kate stepped forward into…nothing. Where her foot should have encountered the ground, she found nothing there. Taken by surprise she didn’t right herself quickly enough. Her momentum carried her forward and she found herself falling! Instinct made her throw out her arms to save herself, and she dropped both the shotgun and the EMF. She heard a clatter as the shotgun hit the ground and in the same instant her knee struck something very hard. The impact of her body on the ground drove the breath from her body.

For a moment, Kate lay still, overwhelmed by the pain. She lay on her side and there was something hard against her back; the wall of the shed, perhaps. She couldn’t think about it then. She drew in a breath of cool air. Oh, god, she was hurt.

Her panic lasted only a moment before her training kicked in. She was hurt, but it couldn’t be that bad. She was conscious and breathing. Still lying on her side, Kate gingerly raised her hurt leg up toward her chest. Flexing the knee sent a fresh dart of pain through her. She whimpered and hated the sound of her own voice. She ran her fingers over the knee, probing carefully, wincing as she deliberately applied pressure above and then below the kneecap. It wasn’t broken. Badly bruised, probably sprained, but not broken. She needed a cold pack and a few days rest…but first she had to get out of here. And before that, she had a job to do.

Kate knew she should call John. He was her backup and he’d told her to call if anything went wrong. But he was likely to be knee deep in Cecily Grainger’s grave right now. He would call her when he was done and then she could tell him she needed help.

First, she would try to do her job.

When did she start thinking of this as her job? It was John’s phrase, and her mind had just picked it up. But it felt…right. Weird as hell, but right.

Where was the shotgun? Kate reached out, feeling around blindly until her hand encountered smooth metal. She ran her fingers along the bore, confirming it was the shotgun. Good. She pulled the gun toward her and reached toward the wall with her other hand. She rolled onto her front and got her good knee under her. Then she used the wall to pull herself upright, resting all of her weight on her good knee. Even manoeuvring herself that far tore a cry of pain from her. She tasted iron in her mouth.

Kate hung onto the wall, her breath coming in short, sharp pants as she fought to control the pain. She could do this. She had to do this.

She picked up the shotgun and turned it around so she was holding the barrel. Using the gun the way she’d use a crutch, and the wall on her other side, Kate managed to get to her feet. Well…foot. Not until she was sure she was steady did she try to put her weight on her injured leg. She shifted her weight carefully, slowly. She could stand. That was a relief: it confirmed her earlier conclusion that the leg wasn’t broken. But walking was going to be a challenge.

First, she needed light. Trying to manage without the flashlight had gotten her into this. She clicked on  the flashlight, examining the ground ahead of her. She saw the EMF meter lying in two pieces. She didn’t have time to regret the loss. Leaning heavily on the wall, Kate half-walked, half-hopped forward. She came to the end of the wall and shone the flashlight ahead. She saw a courtyard fenced in on two sides, with one side open and the fourth taken up by the shed. The shed door was padlocked but stacked along the wall outside the door were a range of gardening tools: she noticed a spade, a grass rake and a hoe among them. Kate hop-walked over there and grabbed the hoe. She turned it around so the metal part was at the top and leaned on the shaft as heavily as she could, testing its strength. It would make an adequate walking stick.

But she still had only two hands. She wouldn’t get anywhere without a staff to help her walk, so that was one hand used up. She had to choose between the shotgun and the flashlight. Kate thought it over. She was injured because she’d tried to manage without light. But John had been absolutely insistent about the shotgun. Her police .38 was useless against a spirit. If it attacked her, she needed the shotgun with its rock salt. Well…the spirit didn’t make her fall. So far she hadn’t even seen it. So the greater danger seemed to be the lack of light.

Her decision made, Kate laid the shotgun against the shed wall and headed on past the shed.

This was stupid. She was no hunter. She was out of her depth. She was hurt and she was alone, hunting ghosts in the dark. This was crazier than anything she’d done in LA.

Kate laughed, a high, almost hysterical sound. She had to laugh or she’d start crying. What on earth did she think she was doing out here alone? 

She must be crazy.

That was when Kate saw her. The ghost flickered into view a short distance ahead of her. Kate saw a woman covered almost head-to-foot in a long cloak. A lady in a blue cloak, she remembered. She couldn’t tell if what she saw was blue, but she saw the pale oval of a face within the dark recess of the hood. This had to be Cecily Grainger. It had to be the ghost she was searching for.

Kate had expected the ghost to be…well…ghostly. She’d thought it would be translucent or white or maybe glow a little. But other than the old-fashioned cloak, the figure looked like a regular person.

As Kate stared, the ghost turned away from her. She began to move, walking slowly away across the grass.

Kate followed. Every step hurt and she had to stop more than once. The ghost moved at a steady pace, but she – it – was getting ahead of Kate. Kate tried to hurry, but she knew she couldn’t catch her. Not this way.

Damn it! She was breathing hard, hurting not only in her knee, but in a dozen other places: her fingers cramped where she gripped her hoe, her back twinged, bruises down her side ached. At last she fell a second time, her good knee buckling with exhaustion. She managed to lean her weight on the hoe as she fell, which lessened the impact and let her take it on the good knee, causing no further damage. She stared ahead at the ghost and knew she was going to fail.

Failure frightened Kate more than anything else. She’d come here to do a job, to save two children. Now, because she’d made a stupid mistake…what would happen to those kids? Why had she thought she could do this alone?

She dropped her gaze to the ground, breathing hard. Tears stung her eyes but she blinked them back, angry with herself. She shook her head. What are you gonna do, Katie? Stay here and cry like a baby?

She raised her head and stifled a scream. The ghost was right there, leaning over her, and Kate had no shotgun to defend herself.

***

Thanks to Kate’s careful research and their earlier recon, John had no trouble finding the Grainger family plot in the cemetery. She had been right: all of the family graves had been moved. He located Cecily Grainger’s grave and started work at once.

It had been a long, hot summer and the ground was hard and dry. Before long, John had stripped off his jacket and was pausing every few minutes to wipe sweat from his face. He missed having Dean at his side: jobs like this went much faster with two doing the digging. But John was fit and though the digging was hard work it was work he was used to. It wasn’t long before he reached the coffin.

This was the tricky part. Usually, you could trust a grave marker, but these bodies had been moved from another location. When that happened, the gravediggers frequently stacked the coffins two or three deep, depending on the number of bodies. John brushed the dirt off the coffin, searching for a plaque or something that would indicate whose remains the box contained. He found nothing.

Of course, that would have been much too easy. John lifted the coffin lid. Although he’d done this a hundred times since he started hunting, he still had to suppress an inward wince at what he was doing. The edges of the wood crumbled under his fingers. The body was old enough that there was no smell…but what was left of the clothing was most definitely male. Damn it!

John straightened up for a moment, rubbing the ache in his lower back, then picked up his shovel and returned to work.

***

The glass hit the wall above her and Katie let out an involuntary scream. Shards of broken glass rained down and whiskey poured down the wallpaper.

 “Katie!” Daddy yelled and she knew he was going to find her. She had meant to surprise him, but he’d come home in such a horrible mood…

She crawled out from behind the sofa. A shard of glass she hadn’t seen pierced her palm and she pulled her hand back with a cry.

By then Daddy was there, scooping her up into his arms. “Katie, what are you doing?” he scowled.

The anger in his voice struck her dumb. She couldn’t explain. She didn’t understand why he was so mad. Was it her fault? She raised her bloody hand and to show him and started to cry.

Kate scrambled back from the spirit, crawling backwards on her butt over the grass. It was a few moments before she realised the spirit wasn’t following.

She – it – stood there, simply watching Kate. Her face was beautiful in a Southern-belle sort of way: a pale oval face with rosy cheeks and blue eyes. It seemed to Kate that she shouldn’t be able to see that face as clearly as she did. It was dark, and without even a flashlight she shouldn’t see the artful curls escaping from beneath her hood, or the way a single tear glittered in her eye. A ghost crying? How was that even possible?

As Kate watched, the spirit flickered and vanished, to re-appear kneeling right beside Kate, close enough to touch.

The adrenaline rush drew a cry of surprise from Kate. She stared into those icy blue eyes. Could the ghost hurt her? Kate wondered. Of course, John had been very clear: ghosts could hurt. They could kill. That was why he was digging up Cecily’s grave to burn her remains. But could this ghost hurt Kate? All she was doing was watching her. She didn’t seem dangerous.

Then the spirit raised her pale hand to touch Kate’s cheek. A shiver ran though Kate’s body and she was

holding onto the railings as if they were the bars of a jail cell and she was a character in an old-style western instead of a gawky twelve-year-old standing on her school bag because she needed to be taller to see. She craned her neck to see further down the road.

Each time a car drove by she heard it before she could see, and stood on tiptoes, using the railings to pull herself up, each time hoping that this would be Daddy’s car. Willing it to be Daddy’s car.

But he never came.

“Stay out of my head!” Kate screamed at the ghost. Her hand, questing blindly, closed over the hoe she’d been using as a walking staff. In desperation she hurled it at the figure beside her, straight through the spirit’s insubstantial chest, like a javelin.

The spirit flickered, but didn’t vanish. And now Kate had no staff. She wasn’t sure she could stand without it.

She needed backup, Kate admitted finally, and fumbled in her pocket for her phone, not at all sure she had time to make the call.

Ice tinkled in the glass of scotch in Kate’s hand. “The old man would like us to believe that he couldn’t care less about all this attention and free booze,” she told the crowd, and got the expected round of chuckles from the gathered officers. “But I know him better than that. He put a lot of years in on the job, and he made a difference in a lot of lives.” She raised her glass.

Someone – she thought it was Jimmy – cheered, and others took up the cheer. Her Dad gave an embarrassed nod of acknowledgment and took his seat.

Kate could tell he wanted it to be over. He always hated these public events, but she knew he was proud of his record. She was proud of him, too, and she wanted everyone to know it.

And now it’s over,” she said to the room as the cheers quieted. “That’s a huge deal, no matter what he says.” Kate looked into her father’s eyes and suddenly, all her carefully prepared words seemed trite and meaningless. “In fact I’m not really sure if he knows what he’s going to do with himself. He forgot how to be anything but a cop a long time ago.” She felt tears sting her eyes, the words spilling out even as part of her recoiled in horror from what she was saying. “And maybe, maybe that’s why I became a cop too. After Mom died, you stopped, you know? It was like you couldn’t stand the sight of me. Her face, her eyes looking up at you. But big girls don’t cry, right? You said, gone’s gone, and there is no use wallowing. Worms and dirt and nothing, forever. Not one word about a better place. You couldn’t even tell a scared little girl a beautiful lie.”

Kate was crying openly now, but somehow she just couldn’t stop. “God, I wanted to drink with you. I wanted you to laugh with me just once, the way you laughed with Jimmy here, or Frank. My best friend Joanne, her mom was soft, and she smelled like macaroni and cheese, and she’d pick me up on her lap and she would rock me. She said that I was good and sweet. Do you realize that you’ve never told me that I’m pretty? Not once in my life?”

Fumbling for her phone, Kate’s fingers closed over one of the rock salt rounds she’d brought along. Salt. Salt would force the spirit to vanish. Would it work without the shotgun? Kate had no idea, but she had nothing to lose. She pulled the small cylinder out of her pocket as she felt the spirit’s freezing touch on her skin.

Involuntarily, she looked up.

It wasn’t Cecily. The face beneath the blue hood hand changed, becoming almost Kate’s own face. They eyes were more grey than blue, the features more square…not Kate’s face, but…

 “Mommy?”

***

John climbed out of the grave and poured salt over the woman’s body, then followed it with a generous stream of gasoline. The scent of the gasoline was sharp and unpleasant. John struck a match and dropped it into the grave, watching the flare as the gasoline caught light.

He stepped back from the grave’s edge then. If he stood too close the light of the fire would make him visible to anyone who happened to glance in his direction and there were houses overlooking the cemetery as well as the road nearby. John took a drink from his hip flask while he waited. He leaned back against a nearby headstone and pulled out his phone. He checked the display for missed calls although he was sure he would have heard it ring. There were no calls. John pocketed the phone and waited while Cecily Grainger burned.

It was at times like this that John’s mind turned to darker things. Every hunt like this one, as necessary as it was, distracted him from the hunt: the hunt for Mary’s killer. When he was done here, he would need to find a job to occupy Dean for a few weeks at least. John needed to get back on the trail, and he couldn’t take Dean into that kind of danger.

Eventually, the flames died down and John returned to the grave. He shone his flashlight into the grave, confirming there was nothing left but ashes. Then he picked up the spade and began to fill the grave in again. This part was easier than opening the grave and the work went much faster. It wasn’t long before he was done. He tamped down the dirt and re-laid the sod. It would be obvious that the grave had been disturbed – there was no way to avoid that – but if no one noticed it, after a month or two you’d never know the difference.

John rubbed his hands on his jeans to get rid of the clinging dust. He packed his tools – spade, salt and gasoline – into his canvas bag, then pulled out his phone to call Kate.

It took a long time for Kate to answer her phone: long enough for John to worry.

When she answered, her voice was tight and breathy. “John? Tell me you burned that bitch!” He couldn’t tell if that was pain or panic in her voice.

“I did,” he answered. “What’s happening, Kate? Can you still see the spirit?” He held his breath: if she could still see it, he’d burned the wrong body.

“No,” Kate said, and her voice still sounded strange. “No, she’s gone.”

The spirit was gone…but there was something wrong. John waited.

“I’ve got the girls,” Kate said, speaking quickly. “Well, they found me, really, but they’re here.” She broke off and John heard her make a small sound of pain. “I need help,” Kate said.

They hadn’t known each other very long, but John knew that Kate had a lot of pride. Asking for help had cost her. Or was she asking under some kind of duress? Did that gasp of pain mean someone or something was with her? Had John been speaking to Dean, he would have known for sure. There were any number of private codes that Dean could have used to indicate things were okay…or not. But he’d had no time to develop that kind of rapport with Kate. He had no choice but to take the call at face value, and hope.

“What’s wrong?” he asked urgently.

“I feel like such an idiot, but I fell, John. I’m hurt bad – I think my knee’s busted.”

Busted could mean anything from a cut to permanently knee-capped. John didn’t ask for details. It was enough to know that Kate couldn’t walk. “Alright, I’m on my way. Are the girls with you?”

“Yes. They’re both alive.”

Alive, he thought, not “fine”. Kate tended to say what she meant; her phrasing worried him. But there was no time to worry about that now. “Are you at the school?”

“Yes. A path behind the playing fields.”

“I’ll find you, Kate. Hang tight.” John put the phone away. Damn it! Why had he sent her to the school alone? And Kate had his truck. He would have to steal a car to get to her.

***

John took a fresh flashlight from the truck, automatically noting what was missing: shotgun, the EMF, salt. Kate had done everything he’d instructed. What had gone wrong?

He loaded a sawed-off with rock salt – just in case – and tucked it under his coat before he headed into the school grounds. He walked across the parking lot and hesitated at the top of the path. He saw no sign of Kate, no light ahead. He called her cell.

“John, hi.” Kate’s voice still sounded odd, but he recognised it now as someone fighting pain. She was hurt badly.

“Kate, I’m at the school. Can you give me directions?”

“There’s a fence on the far side of the playing field. We’re behind it.”

John shone the flashlight in that direction. The beam was strong and he located the fence quickly. “Okay, I see it. I’m on my way.” John had ended the call before he realised he probably shouldn’t have done that. Kate was tough, but she was no soldier. He should have stayed on the line with her. John would have felt foolish calling her back so he did the practical thing: quickened his pace to find her as fast as he could.

“Kate!” he called as he reached the fence.

“Here!” she shouted back.

John followed the sound of her voice and it wasn’t long before he saw her. It was very dark behind the fence, but Kate had propped her flashlight up on something so it cast light over the area. John added his light to hers and could see well enough. Kate was sitting on the ground with her back to the fence and both legs stretched out straight in front of her. Both of the missing girls were with her. Maria lay on the ground, her head pillowed on Kate’s thigh. Her dark hair covered her face so John couldn’t see if she was dead or sleeping. Kate had told him they were both alive, though. Her hand rested in Maria’s tangled hair. The other girl, Gina was sitting up, clinging to Kate’s other side. Kate had her arm around Gina’s shoulders, hugging her close. Gina’s hair was almost exactly the same shade as Kate’s own.

Kate and the girl looked up in the same moment. “John,” Kate said, “this is Gina. She’s okay, I think, just tired and scared. But Maria is sick. She was awake when I found her but now she won’t wake up.”

She was good at giving a report. It must be the cop training. John knelt down beside them while Kate was still speaking. He looked at Gina first, smiling. “Hi. I’m John.”

“Hi,” Gina whispered back. She stared at him, all huge eyes and paleness.

“We’re going to take care of you, Gina. I’m gonna get you to a hospital first and then we’ll call your mom. Would you like that?”

“I want to go home,” she whispered.

John took that as a yes. He turned to Kate. “What about you?”

“I fell by the sheds and hurt my knee. I thought it was just twisted but by the time I got here…” she shrugged.

“You tried to walk on a sprained knee,” John said flatly.

“Yeah.” She sounded embarrassed, and she should be. It was one thing to push past the pain of an injury if you were in imminent danger, or without backup, but Kate should have taken better care of herself. She had backup. She had him.

John didn’t let her see his thoughts. “Which knee?” he asked. He reached out to brush a lock of hair back from Maria’s face. Her eyes were closed and her skin was cool. Concerned, he felt for a pulse at her neck. She was alive, and breathing, but Kate was right: the girl was sick. A cihuateteo drained the life from its victims, but slowly. The children died of simple diseases: a cold that became pneumonia, or flu, or they simply went to sleep and never woke.

Kate gestured to the knee not being used as a pillow. John shone his torch downward. He could see at once that the knee was badly swollen: the denim of Kate’s jeans was stretched tight across the joint. John looked up at her. “You got this far on that knee? I’ll have to start calling you Rambo.”

“Very funny.”

“Learn how to take a compliment.” John probed gently at the knee. With this much swelling it could be broken. If he could be sure it was only a sprain he would have treated it himself. What would he do if this were Dean? When he framed the question like that, the answer was obvious. John would insist that Dean get an x-ray. He couldn’t do less for Kate. The children needed help, too. John had planned to drop the girls anonymously at the nearest ER. It would be much harder to be covert when Kate, too, needed medical assistance.

John turned to the little girl, Gina. “Can you walk, sweetheart?” he asked her gently.

“Yes.”

“Do you think you can help Kate to walk?”

“John, she’s just a kid,” Kate protested.

“I noticed. But I can’t carry all three of you. Gina, what do you think? Can you be strong?”

“I’ll try,” Gina answered, her voice still only a whisper.

Her uncertainty gave John more confidence. If she’d just said yes, he would have worried it was bravado. “Good girl,” he answered. He picked up Maria’s sleeping body. She felt cool, but not cold and he could see her chest rise and fall with her breath. But she didn’t stir as he arranged her on  his hip so he could carry her with one arm. Then he stood and offered his free hand to Kate. “Come on.”

Kate grasped his hand, got her good foot firmly planted on the ground and let John haul her upright. She winced as she straightened and clung to his arm for a moment. John could feel her shaking. Then she nodded. “I’m fine.”

“Okay.” John shifted so that Kate stood on his left, with her injured right leg on his side. “Gina, go stand on the other side of Kate. Kate, lean most of your weight on me. Keep your other hand on Gina’s shoulder and lean on her if you need to.” He waited for Kate’s nod of acknowledgement. “Gina, sweetheart, we’re gonna walk real slow. Like a three-legged race. Have you ever done that?”

“Like when you tie your feet together?” Gina asked.

“Just like that. You need to make believe you’re tied to Kate and stay in step with her. Okay?”

“Okay.”

John slid his hand around Kate’s waist to steady her and she held on to his shoulder. Together they began the long, slow journey back to the truck.

***

John parked within sight of the hospital, but didn’t drive into the grounds. Instead he shut off the engine and turned to his passengers. “Kate, do you trust me?”

Kate was cradling Maria in her arms. The child still hadn’t woken. “Yes,” she answered. “I trust you.”

“What I’m going to ask you to do will be painful, and it’s probably not good for that injury. But I believe it’s necessary to protect the job we do. Can you follow my orders, without question?”

Kate frowned, absently stroking Maria’s hair. “I don’t know. Tell me your orders and I’ll be able to answer.”

It wasn’t the simple yes he’d wanted, but John accepted it. “First, your cover story. You were walking near the school when you heard Maria calling for help. You followed the sound and discovered the girls. Tell the truth about how you fell and injured your knee.”

“It’s not a very convincing story,” Kate objected.

“No, but there will be no evidence to contradict you. Simple is better than complicated and realistic. Kate, you’re a cop. If they question you, stay calm and tell as much of the truth as you can without mentioning me or ghosts. If they actually arrest you, use your phone call to let me know and I’ll have a plan B. But I don’t think that will happen.”

Kate nodded. “Alright.”

“I want you to try to walk to the hospital from here. I know you can’t make it,” John said, raising a hand to forestall Kate’s attempt to interrupt him. “You only need to go a short distance. Gina will run ahead and find someone to help you. They’ll be caught up in helping you and Maria and won’t think to ask how you got this far until much later, if at all.”

Kate looked as if she wanted to argue, but she simply said, “And you will be…?”

“I’m going back to the school to make sure there’s no sign you were there. Then I’ll head to the motel and wait for you, or your call. Can you do it, Kate?”

She set her jaw, already anticipating pain. “Yes,” she answered grimly.

John walked around the truck to open the door for Kate. He took Maria from her while Kate climbed down. She cried out once, but finally stood on the sidewalk and took Maria back from him. Gina climbed down without help.

John knelt on the sidewalk to talk to Gina. “Gina, I want you to run to the hospital. You’ll see a big glass door  with lights on and probably lots of people inside – that’s the emergency room. Go in there, find a nurse or a doctor and tell them you need help. Don’t say anything else, just you need help. Then bring them here to Kate. Do you think you can do that?”

Gina nodded. “Yes.”

John gave her an encouraging smile. “Off you go then. Fast as you can.”

Gina sped off toward the hospital.

John turned to Kate. “I know I’m asking a lot…” he began.

“No. It’s a good plan. A painful plan, but I know why you don’t want us seen together.” She glanced down at Maria. “Will she be okay?”

“I don’t know,” John answered honestly. “I hope so. I’ll be waiting for your call.”

Kate smiled, though the smile was more of a grimace. “Go on. Get out of here. I’ll be okay.”

How did she know he’d needed that reassurance? John nodded. “Kate,” he said, as he walked back to the drivers’ side of the truck, “you did well out there. Be proud of yourself.”

“Thanks.” Kate tried to take a step forward. She managed to stay upright but he could tell she was hurting badly. It was okay. Gina would bring help.

Satisfied, John climbed into the truck and left them there.

***

It’s strange, the things you miss when you’re sick or hurting. For Kate, it was Starbucks espresso with hazelnut syrup. She ordered one for herself and a double espresso for John, plus a selection of sandwiches because she hadn’t eaten in what felt like forever. The barista, who had already remarked on Kate’s obvious injury (the crutches were hard to miss), told her he would bring the order to her table.

Kate’s knee wasn’t broken. She had damaged the tendons and cartilage and torn muscles. The doctor at the ER had given her something for the pain and insisted she stay overnight, because they couldn’t fit a knee brace until the swelling went down. While she was waiting for the x-ray results, Kate had called the police about the children. She knew that the hospital would have called already, but by contacting them herself she established herself as a fellow officer and gave them a chance to check her out. It meant that when the police came to the hospital, they were more disposed to believe her.

Kate told the story John had given her, embellishing just enough to make the story seem real. If she’d been the cop instead of the witness, she would never have accepted such a steaming pile of bullshit. The deputy she spoke to, however, seemed to accept her story. He asked a couple of sharp questions and clearly thought she was lying about her reason for walking past the school so late at night, but he didn’t arrest her and he didn’t seem to think she was into anything shady.

When she was done with the deputy and had been admitted to the ward, Kate called John to let him know what was going on. Then, her duty done, Kate closed her eyes and let the sedatives do their work.

In the morning, Kate’s knee was sore as hell and purple with bruises, but the swelling was down. A doctor fitted a brace on her knee and gave her a pair of crutches, a prescription for pain meds and a long lecture about keeping her weight off the leg while it healed. He also made her promise to see a physiotherapist when she got back to her hometown. Kate agreed to everything he wanted and the hospital discharged her before noon.

Before she left the hospital, Kate asked after the children. She wasn’t allowed to see them, but was told they were both alive and “improving”. That worried her a little, as she’d thought Gina was okay, but she was neither a relative nor a cop in this town so she had no right to press for more details. The girls were alive: that was good enough for the cop in her. Kate knew you couldn’t expect every case to end in happily ever after. Putting some bastard behind bars couldn’t undo the damage they’d done. But you knew each arrest meant a few people were a little safer and that was enough.

Kate called a cab to take her back to the motel.

John opened the motel room door before Kate could knock. She knew he’d been watching for her. Or perhaps he was watching for trouble.

Kate smiled a greeting. “Hi, John. Miss me?”

He stepped back to let her into the room, not responding to her attempt at levity. “You look like hell,” he remarked.

Kate knew she did. Her clothing was a mess: the hospital staff had sliced open one leg of her jeans in order to get them off her injured leg. Now she wore the torn jeans over her leg brace, the lower part of the denim flapping around her calf. Her shirt was okay, but the jacket was dirty and her hair was unwashed and a mess, since she had no hairbrush or comb with her at the hospital. She didn’t care. She manoeuvred herself into the room, still awkward on the crutches.

“The police asked me to come in to answer a few more questions but they bought my story,” Kate volunteered.

“That’s good.”

Kate reached her bed and sat down with relief, propping the crutches against the wall nearby. “No,” she disagreed, “it’s not. I fed them a pile of crap and any decent cop should have known I was lying. That they bought it means they think they know who took the girls, so they didn’t listen too closely to my story. They’re going to pin this on someone.”

John looked grim as he sat down on the other bed. “Not our problem, Kate. We can’t tell the truth, so the rest is up to the system.”

She shrugged off her jacket. “I guess,” she agreed unhappily.

“Do you know about the children?” John asked gently.

Kate nodded, though she didn’t: not to her satisfaction. “They told me both girls are alive.”

“Gina is fine. She has a fever and hadn’t eaten for days but those are both things they can fix. Maria is still comatose. They haven’t figured out why. I can show you the hospital reports if you like.”

Kate stared. “How…?” He’d been so insistent about them not being seen together she couldn’t believe he’d impersonated a doctor to get all that. Though, she realised, she was pretty sure he’d pull it off if he tried.

“I called a friendly hacker. The internet makes this job so much easier than when I started hunting.” He leaned forward a little, looking into her eyes. “How are you, Kate?”

“No permanent damage and my insurance will cover it,” Kate shrugged. At least she had insurance; she suspected John didn’t. “I guess I screwed up my first hunt,” she said.

“No, you didn’t.” John shook his head slightly. “You saved the children, and the cihuateteo won’t be back. That’s what this job is about, Kate. Saving lives. I’m not saying you didn’t make mistakes, but you got the job done. That’s a win.”

“You’re right.” Kate managed a smile. “God, yes. It’s a win.” Gina would be okay. Maria might be, too. It was a good result. Hell, it was a better result that most cops got from a child abduction case.

“Usually at this point I’d suggest going out for a beer, but…” he shrugged.

Kate smiled back. “Will you settle for a celebratory coffee?” she suggested.

Which was how they ended up in Starbucks, sharing a corner table with a snakes-and-ladders game painted on it, and with Kate’s crutches propped against the window beside them.

Kate met John’s look across the table. “You were wrong about one thing.”

“What’s that?” His eyes twinkled with humour, but he didn’t smile.

“It wasn’t my first hunt. The first ghost, but… Well, someday I’ll tell you about the zombie cops on patrol in LA.”

“It sounds like quite a story.”

“It is.” Kate fell silent as the barista approached them with a tray. He set John’s espresso and the plate of sandwiches on the table but handed Kate’s coffee to her directly. Kate smiled her thanks, but kept the eye contact brief. She didn’t mind a little casual flirting but she wasn’t in the mood for it today. She sipped her coffee, watching with her peripheral vision as the barista walked away. Hot, sweet espresso with the not-very-subtle flavour of hazelnut. It was just what she needed.

“Tell me,” John asked, “do you think this life is for you?”

Kate had been expecting the question. “Not if I’m gonna get banged up like this every time,” she answered with a grin. “But something tells me that’s not how most hunts go.”

John finished his espresso quickly, knocking it back like a shot of whiskey. “Not all of them, but more than you’d think. There’s no such thing as a hunt without risk. If you decide to hunt, you’re going to get hurt again. Maybe worse than…” He gestured vaguely toward his own knee, as if she needed help to get the point.

“And I won’t have decent insurance if I quit my job,” Kate added.

“Well…that depends. You can’t be a hunter and a cop. Too much of what we do involves doing things that are technically illegal. But there are ways to…” he hesitated, searching for a phrase. Finally, he settled on, “…to make an honest living and still do this job.”

Kate wondered why he chose not to do that, if it were so simple. “Like what?” she asked.

“Whatever suits your skills. I know hunters who run their own businesses, either as solo operations or with family so they can take off whenever they need to. Some go for jobs that involve a lot of travel: sales reps, for instance. And others just pick up minimum wage work wherever the job takes them. I know one woman hunter who spends six months working in Vegas as a dancer and saves enough to hunt the other half of the year.” He shakes his head. “It ain’t for everyone but it seems to work for her.”

Kate grimaced. “Yeah. Well, I’ve done my share of undercover work but I think I draw the line at dancing in my underwear.”

Most men after a line like that would have given Kate a long look to let her know he was seeing her in that underwear, or less. To his credit, John simply nodded. “I figured,” he agreed. Then he looked at her, studying her, but not in a way that made Kate uncomfortable. “Okay, seriously. How about private detective? A lot of ex-cops do it and it would be a good cover for anywhere you need to go.”

Kate remembered telling Angel, The thing about detectives is that they have resumés and business licenses and last names. Well, she had two out of three and the third might not be too difficult to obtain. It certainly had possibilities. She finished her sweet espresso and reached for a sandwich. “I want to do it, John. I’m going to hunt.”

“Why?” he asked.

Kate had a feeling he was asking why the way a teacher would ask: not accusation or censure, but simply interest. “Back in LA,” she explained, “after my father was killed, I tried to go after the evil in the dark. I had no idea what I was doing, not really. Any time a call came in with anything…weird, I was there, looking for…I’m not even sure what I was looking for. Proof? I already knew it was real.”

“You mind telling me why you’re here examining a crime scene that wasn’t assigned to you?”

Kate gave Kendrick her best stone-face. “It looked interesting,” she answered, as if her presence were completely routine.

Kendrick wasn’t fooled. “Right,” he said sarcastically. “You’ve heard the rumours, haven’t you?”

“What rumours?” Kate asked, knowing perfectly well. She’d heard that this girl woke from a year-long coma and just walked out of the hospital. She knew that didn’t happen: a comatose patient could wake up, sure, but muscle atrophy, tendons shrinking and general being sick would prevent anyone walking out the way this girl apparently did. And then she just vanished. Kate wasn’t sure what kind of demon the girl really was…but she was pretty sure she wasn’t human.

“Come on, Kate,” Kendrick pressed. “Everybody knows you’ve gone all Scully. Anytime one of these weird cases crosses anyone’s deskyou’re always there. What’s going on with you?”

Kate wouldn’t dignify that with an answer. She look up at Kendrickdamn the man for being so much taller than she was!and let him see how tired she was. “Scully is the sceptic.”

“Huh?” 

“Mulder is the believer,” Kate explained with exaggerated patience. “Scully is the sceptic.”

Kendrick actually scratched his head, like a puzzled cartoon character. “Scully is the chick, right?”

He had to be trying to irritate her: no one was this dense. Kate kept her voice even. “Yes. But she’s not the one that wants to believe.”

“And you wanna believe.”

She was tired and stressed and not thinking clearly enough to come up with a lie. She began to walk away from him. Over her shoulder she said. “I already believe. That’s the problem.”

“They started calling me Scully,” Kate went on.

“Cops!” John scoffed. “No imagination.”

She couldn’t help smiling. “But they were right. It was like an obsession. And the more I learned about…that underground world, the less I knew. I got all mixed up. I couldn’t tell good from evil, friend from enemy.” She swallowed and looked up at John. “I screwed up. I was screwed up. But I think the reason it drove me crazy was that I couldn’t make what I knew fit with being a cop. I started to see the supernatural in everything, and maybe I was right, but I couldn’t do anything about it without endangering my career.” She laughed suddenly, surprised by how bitter she still felt. “Well, I don’t have a career now and I won’t make the same mistakes again. Now I want to find what’s out there and stop it.”

John was silent for a long time. Finally, he nodded. “Good. You’ll have to let that knee heal first.”

“Yeah. Silly to quit my job while I can get paid sick leave.”

“I’ll give you some names, people who can help you. People to avoid. You’ll need someone to show you the ropes at first.”

“Not you?” Kate felt oddly disappointed. She’d come to like him, and she trusted him. After everything she’d been through in LA, she didn’t trust easily.

“Kate…” he began.

“No, it’s okay.”

“Kate, I’m still looking for the thing that killed my wife. It’s taking me a long time but I learn a little more every year. When I close in on the son of a bitch… I’m not prepared to put anyone else in danger. Not even Dean.”

***

Palo Alto, California

There were six kids in the group, crossing the square together. They seemed to be a friendly group: one young man hand in hand with one of the girls, another girl smiling as she talked with the tallest man in the group. Even if Kate hadn’t seen his photograph, she would have had no trouble picking out the tall one as John’s son. He paid attention to everything around them. He saw the truck, and Kate in the driver’s seat. His eyes moved past her, unconcerned, but she knew he would remember her if she hung around. He even hung back a little, placing himself at the back of the group: a protective position. She wondered if he was armed. She saw no sign of it, but he was too far away for her to be sure, and he wore a loose-fitting jacket and baggy jeans that could easily have concealed several weapons.

Then Kate looked at John, watching from beside her. At once, she wished she hadn’t. Kate had known this man for such a short time; they were strangers, really. Yet she felt she knew him, or at least understood him. They could be friends, perhaps, but they weren’t there yet. John was good at hiding his thoughts and his feelings, but not in this moment. Everything he felt was raw on his face as he looked at his son, and Kate couldn’t look away, the way you can’t tear your eyes from a car wreck.

Finally, the group was out of sight, and John opened the truck door and got out. Kate slid across the seat to the passenger side as he walked around. Neither of them said anything. John turned the keys in the ignition and turned the truck around.

Kate wished she’d insisted John drive her straight home instead of agreeing to this. He’d asked for her help, but didn’t explain. Now she got it. He’d needed her as camouflage. 

Kate couldn’t remain silent any longer. “This is your relationship with your son?”

John kept his eyes on the road. “It’s not your business, Kate.”

“No,” she acknowledged. “It’s not.” Except he’d made it her business by bringing her along. “John, I know what it’s like to have no real communication with my Dad – ”

“Oh, Jesus!” John turned the truck into the verge with a screech of tyres. Another car’s horn honked loudly as it passed them. John switched off the engine and turned to face Kate, his eyes glittering with anger. “If you’re gonna butt in where you’re not wanted, at least talk like you. Not like Oprah.”

Kate held her ground. “Okay. This is me. Go talk to him, John. It won’t kill you to say hi.”

John stared grimly ahead. “I can’t. I can’t say hi. Not unless…”

“Unless what, John?”

John’s expression was back to his usual carefully unreadable mask. “The day Sammy left…the only reason we didn’t come to blows is because Dean got in between us. We both said things. The kind of things you can’t take back.”

“It won’t matter. He’s your son.”

“Yes, he is,” John agreed, but it sounded like he meant something else. He glanced back to the road, the way they had come, then shook his head. “You don’t know how much I want to go back there and talk to my boy. But he’s made his choice and he’s safer here than he would be with me.”

“Safety isn’t everything, John,” Kate tried, but even as she spoke she knew she wouldn’t get through. John was too damned stubborn.

The cihuateteo showed Kate her father, but it hadn’t shown her good memories. It made her relive the times she was afraid of him, though her Dad never hurt her or abused her. It showed the times when she’d felt abandoned, though even as a kid she’d understood that sometimes the work of a cop was more important than a silly school pageant. With the cihuateteo’s touch, Kate relived the very worst memories she had of her father…and then it pretended to be the mother she’d lost so long ago.

She looked down, hoping John couldn’t see the thought that suddenly occurred to her. John was wearing his battered leather coat and when Kate dropped her gaze her eyes fell on the bulge of his journal in the inner pocket of the coat. He’d shown her that journal when he’d been explaining to her what they were hunting. She remembered the drawing that fell out of the journal: a child’s drawing of an angel. And she remembered John telling her that a cihuateteo had taken Dean from him once. The connection was suddenly clear, and she knew what the cihuateteo had been for Dean. Shit.

“Kate,” John said, his voice gentle now, “what is it?”

Kate steeled herself to meet his eyes. “You’re right. It’s none of my business.”

She saw the faintest hint of a smile touch his lips before he said, “But…?”

It was an opening and Kate took it. “If it were my business, I’d tell you what a child really needs from a father is to believe he sees her. Or him. I don’t know anything about your relationship with Sammy but I know that today, you see him. Not who you want or expect him to be, but him. You should show him that, John, because one day, it’ll be too late.” She fell silent, aware that she’d said too much.

“The way it was for you,” John answered.

“Yeah.” Kate shook her head to dispel the memory of her Dad’s body on the floor of his apartment, a vampire bite on his neck. The father who had used her friendship with Angel to get information for drug-dealing demons. And Angel, who even as Kate wept over her father’s body, tried to make it all about him.

Kate loved her father more than anything…but she’d never known him at all.

“Exile is exile, John. Especially when it’s from family.”

John started the engine. “I’ll take you home,” he said, and Kate knew that was all the response she would get from him. Perhaps it was all she deserved.

***

Epilogue

Nebraska, Six Months Later

Kate had spent most of her life in California. She loved the sunshine state with its long beaches and Pacific surf, although she rarely found time to enjoy the beach. She loved the desert, too, with its huge vistas of rock and sand. She’d spent one summer at Lake Tahoe with its tall pines and mountain views, back in her college years. California was a land of contrasts: if you drove the length of the state you could pass through everything from arid desert to vibrant, smoggy cities to pure-aired green valleys.

So by the time she reached her destination, Kate was heartily sick of the endless grass and cornfields of Nebraska.

The building that was her destination had been bright and welcoming once, before years of hot sun and cold winters faded the paintwork to dull, greyish tones and the timbers to match the dusty ground. She looked up at the sign above the door. Someone with high hopes had painted that sign in red and pink and yellow. Someone ringed it with lights so it would shine out into the darkness of the evening. Now only about half of the lights worked and the paint was old and peeling. Someone didn’t have those high hopes any longer.

The thought made Kate consider her own choices. She was giving up a lot, and knew she might regret it. If the eight weeks sick leave she’d had to take waiting for her knee to heal hadn’t taught her that hunting came with serious risks, nothing would. It had made her take a step back from her decision, to consider it more carefully. But it hadn’t made her change her mind.

She couldn’t go on, knowing what was out there and doing nothing about it.

She killed a vampire serial murderer in LA. She killed him so that no other cop would have to create a wall filled with images of bodies with crosses carved into their cheeks. She killed him so that he wouldn’t keep killing. It was a good thing, and she had no problem taking the flak when, as far as LAPD was concerned, she’d let a serial killer escape. After all, what was she going to do: take a pile of dust down to forensics?

John Winchester, with his straightforward, black-and-white view of the world Kate had struggled with for so long, made her see her mistakes in LA in a different light. Perhaps Angel wasn’t evil, but he helped evil to thrive. She would never return to LA, so Angel specifically wasn’t the issue, but Kate was clear now on where the line should be drawn. And she couldn’t draw that line as a cop.

Kate left her car beside a battered old Ford pickup. There was no parking lot as such, just a few vehicles left in front of the building with a half-hearted attempt at order. She checked her gun and slid it into an inner-pants holster from which she could draw fast if she needed to. She didn’t expect to need it, but was going in prepared. She climbed out of the car. Her knee didn’t even twinge.

From where she stood beside her car, Kate could hear the murmur of voices from within. For a moment her resolve wavered and she almost climbed back into her car. Then she straightened her shoulders and walked up to the half-open door.

At first glance, it was no different from a hundred other roadside saloons. In her quick glance around the room Kate noted two pool tables: one had a game in progress and the other was being used as an actual table, with what looked like a map spread across the green baize and several people poring over it. There was a bank of the usual coin-operated games along the wall nearest the bar; no one was playing. She saw perhaps thirty people, mostly but not exclusively men, nursing drinks and grouped in twos and threes around the room.

The noise level dropped noticeably as Kate walked in. Though no one openly stared at her, she could feel their scrutiny like a blanket settling around her body.

Kate walked toward the bar, doing her best to appear relaxed. She started to get that itchy feeling between her shoulders that you get when someone’s behind you, and is armed. There was a woman behind the bar. She was leaning on the polished wood, apparently deep in conversation with another man who sat on a bar stool with an empty shot glass in front of him.

The woman looked up as Kate got close. “What can I get you?”

Kate hesitated. “Lemonade.” She heard a sound from the man beside her and suspected he was stifling a laugh. Great. All she needed was a pissing contest right now.

The woman simply nodded and produced a glass. “Ice?”

“Yes, thanks.” Kate paid for her drink and sat down on the nearest bar stool. She didn’t touch her glass. “Uh…are you Ellen?”

The woman quickly covered her surprise and turned toward Kate, her eyes openly appraising. “If you’re a cop, let me see your badge,” she demanded bluntly.

The man on the next bar stool stiffened at the woman’s words and Kate was aware of others now openly looking her way. Most of the conversations around them had stopped.

“I was with LAPD for a long time,” Kate volunteered. “I probably still look like a cop. But I’m not. Not any more.” It was an effort to keep her eyes on the bartender and not look around. “My name is Kate. Kate Lockley.”

A man appeared on Kate’s other side. He moved silently, so Kate didn’t notice until he was right there. It was only the movement of the bartender’s eyes that warned her. Kate jumped a little as he slid up to her side, her heart rate increasing.

“Down, boy,” the bartender said, and it didn’t sound like a joke.

“Just looking for another beer,” the man answered. His voice was low and calm. Kate was probably just imagining the undercurrent of menace.

The bartender opened a bottle and stood it on the bar with a thump. “One beer. Now go back to your table, Gordon, and quit tryin' to intimidate my customer.” Her eyes returned to Kate before the man moved away. “I’m Ellen Harvelle,” she confirmed. She looked at Kate, considering several questions before she settled on, “Why do you ask?”

Kate found she could breathe again. “A friend gave me your name,” she began.

“What friend?” Ellen asked sharply before Kate had a chance to say more.

Kate had been about to explain, but instead she simply answered the question. “John Winchester.”

This time there was no mistaking Ellen’s surprise. Her eyes widened and she glanced past Kate to someone else, then met Kate’s eyes again. “John?” she repeated, her voice softer.

Kate nodded, though she knew it wasn’t really a question. “He told me I could trust you,” she said, “and that you might be willing to help me.”

“I might,” Ellen conceded. “Depends what help you need.” She gestured sharply. “No, don’t tell me now. Enjoy your drink. We’ll talk when this place is a little quieter.”

“Okay.” Kate picked up her glass.

“And relax,” Ellen added. “Any friend of John’s is welcome here.” She moved off to serve someone else.

Kate smiled an acknowledgment, but she would have bet good money that Ellen was going to make a phone call before she came back to talk to her. Conversations around her gradually picked up again, and Kate felt a little better. It wasn’t much, but she felt she had made a beginning.

A good beginning.

~ End ~


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