Author: Guede Mazaka
The next hit splintered a foot-long chunk out of the door, making her scream. She scrabbled back against the wall, her nails peeling up long strips of paint. They started to bleed. She clutched at the floor instead, trying to find something, anything to use to defend herself, but the one solid thing was a hairbrush and it skipped away from her frantic hands. “Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God, no--”
Something dark and oily flashed before the hole in the door, then blinked a mad yellow eye at her as she jerked as far into the back as she could. She opened her mouth to scream, but her whole body was too rigid with fear to let the sound out. She was crying, and her pants were suddenly disgusting warm and wet, and the acrid smell of urine wasn’t nearly enough to cover the odor drifting in from the other room.
The eye disappeared. She let out a little shriek while yanking her knees up to her chest; they jittered against her chin so her teeth clattered. Her mind was whirling around and around, and she didn’t—she couldn’t—
Memory. Old creaky pews, her grandma glaring down at her with bleary eyes, and the priest talking in a reedy screech.
“Oh—” she stuttered on her own breath “—Lord, I mean, God, God in heaven, hall—hallowed be thy—thy--Name--”
She couldn’t hear anything. It was so tempting to just reach out and tap on the door with her foot, just give it a push and maybe the thing would be gone, maybe everything was okay after—
* * *
“Tell them I’m all right, and that I love ‘em,” John said. He shifted off the foot he had braced against the rickety door of the phonebooth and it rattled in the brisk night wind. “I’ll call again tomorrow night. Should have a good idea of how long it’ll take me by then.”
*All right.* Jim paused awkwardly, the gap only partly filled in by the rustle as he adjusted his collar. *John, maybe you can try to call earlier, when the boys are awake and can talk to you. They’re a little old now for me to be putting them off like I—*
A truck went by John and pulled into the motel lot on the side across from his, trailing the odors of alcohol and half-rotted grass behind it. The driver parked it rough, brakes grinding painfully as inside the cab, silhouettes whooped and fell carelessly over each other. One door, then the other spilled out a pack of young teenagers, flush-faced and bright-eyed in the dim orange light of the lot lamps.
“This isn’t the kind of job where I get to make the hours, Jim. I explained that to them.” John checked his watch and glimpsed something moving at the edge of his vision. He looked up and spotted a middle-aged woman, face lined with tired resignation, loitering at the corner of the sidewalk. She threw the occasional glance his way as she dragged on her cigarette, one hand in her pocket and obviously jingling change. “Bye, Jim.”
The other man inhaled, but kept his peace. *All right, John. God go with you.*
God wasn’t any closer to John than he had been before Mary’d been taken, and in fact probably had had the sense to draw back a couple miles since then. Though he didn’t let Jim in on that; Jim was a good man, knew what to do with a box of salt and a gun, and if God was what got him through the dark, then he was doing better than John was.
After hanging up, John stepped out of the booth and paused to pull up the lapels of his collar against the brisk wind. He shifted to let the woman who’d been waiting on the corner to go by him, then turned when she made an uncertain move towards him.
“Hey. Want one?” she said after a moment, offering her cigarette pack. “It’s a cold night.”
“I’m good, thanks.” John picked out the last purchase of the night from his coat-pocket and pulled down the brown paper enough for her to see the bottle’s label.
Her mouth twisted in wry recognition. She nodded, then gave a half-shrug as she stepped into the booth. “Not a good idea to mix poisons, nope.”
“’night,” John said, already turning away. He still had a lot of work ahead of him, so he walked fast across the lot.
* * *
John stood under a tree at the edge of the lot and watched the yellow tape flutter in the breeze. The police had cordoned off the entire yard and then laced up half the windows with tape just for good measure, as if it was going to keep anything important out. Though he supposed he had to cut them some slack: this town was so small it didn’t have its own registrar, but instead was bundled in with two other nearby towns. Been a while since they’d had any excitement, he reckoned. This one had been a good mile away from the one-street wonder that was the downtown. He doubted the police had anybody to spare for guarding it overnight and he didn’t want to call any attention to himself yet, so he turned around to go back to his truck. Then paused when his heel sunk into a softened patch of dirt.
He was under a tree, old and gnarled with knotty roots pushing up everywhere. And this had been the third bloody unsolved murder in a month. He stopped and dug in with his heel, then with his toe when he felt something hard. Eventually a thin white line appeared in the dry brown dirt and he bent down to pick it up. It was a bone, long as his forefinger but skinny as a paperclip and curved. Rib, but from a squirrel or something like that.
John snorted to himself and tossed it down, only to spot something else in the dirt. He got down properly on his knees and stubbed his fingers into the ground till he’d turned up a bit of black cloth knotted around a paper scrap, which had had writing on it but was too old to be legible. Half-rotted piece of wood, which when he rubbed his thumb along it to get rid of the dirt, yielded up too much smoothness to be natural.
He took that with him, but kicked the rest back into the hole and stomped the dirt back over it.
In town, in the diner with one newspaper and two copies of other newspaper articles in front of him, he carefully scrubbed at the bit of wood with a dampened paper towel. It looked like the handle to something—maybe a hairbrush. One side of it had had some pretty scrolling carved into it, though it was so worn now that he couldn’t even see that; he had to feel it with his thumb.
“Gonna drink that coffee, honey? First cup from a fresh pot, so I wouldn’t waste it,” said the waitress. She was fortyish, with faded blonde hair and a twelve-year-old’s smile for all that her lower teeth were crooked. Nametag said Julie. Ring on her left hand.
“Thanks, I will. I’m just letting it cool some. Burned my tongue on a cup from a roadhouse thirty miles west of here last night.” John was careful with his own smile, and moved his hand where his own ring could be seen and the wood fragment couldn’t. He broke promises without a second thought nowadays, but he still took the making of them seriously. And he tried not to make them too easily, not to let people expect more of him than he could do. “Sorry to hear about the tragedy today.”
Her face immediately softened and she took a seat at a nearby table, giving her skirt an efficient brush-down. She wasn’t meaning anything much, John decided after seeing that. Just bored, and maybe a little worried about things. “Yeah, isn’t it? Honest to God, I don’t know what the world’s coming to now, with good people like them dying so horribly.”
“Did you know them?” John asked.
And boom, he had a well of information. Small town, everybody knew everyone else. The first and this last one were husband and wife, while the second one had been from a different family. Good, unremarkable people, except for the odd drunken fight that spilled into public or the inappropriate comment made here or the whispers about the wife’s long face in church.
“I remember they were always arguing, or at least Billy Martin and Johnny Sanchez were, over a land dispute, and it got real hot a couple months ago. You see, there was a third family that’d gone down to just the old father—shame how the young ones always run, isn’t it? It’s like they got no sense of respect for what raised them.”
“Yeah,” John nodded, raising his mug. The coffee was fresh, but brewed from too-old beans and on the bitter side, and the filter hadn’t been too good because when he rubbed his tongue against the roof of his mouth, it felt gritty. He hid his grimace by rubbing his mouth.
Julie sighed and put up her hands, then let one arm come down to rest on the table. She absently wriggled one foot out of her low-heeled pumped and spread her toes, then shuffled the shoe back on. “Well, what can you do? This town is on its way down, no doubt about that, and me, I wanted my girl to do better. She got a chance out…but it’s just like they forget about us. I’d just like a phone call every now and then.”
John frowned into the cup and shifted his weight on the hard plastic bench. The heat from the coffee started to get his wedding ring too warm, so he moved the mug to his other hand and spun the ring around a few times to cool it down. “What happened with the third family? They all get into some land fight?”
“Oh. Oh, well…old Pinol got too tired, I guess, of dealing with that big field of his all by himself. He up and sold out to Sanchez, and apparently Johnny didn’t like it,” Julie said. She startled, then looked up as the bell above the front door rang. A graying, stocky brunette about her age waved at her through the glass; Julie beamed, then put her hands on her knees and hiked herself to her feet. “Sorry, but I’ve got to step out for a minute. I’ll just be on the sidewalk, so feel free to give a holler if you need anything.”
“Thanks.” It sounded pretty innocuous, all in all. Not that John couldn’t believe an old-fashioned rural vendetta couldn’t spring up around something like that, but it was the same old story that could be found in thousands of towns. Maybe it’d end up being an explanation for some damn fool messing around with powers he shouldn’t be touching, but at any rate, it wasn’t enough to tell John what exactly was behind the deaths.
He reached into his pocket and took out his wallet, then paused once he’d cracked it open. He glanced over his shoulder at Julie, who was leaning out the front door with one hand holding the door open. The warm sunlight softened the wrinkles, but drained the color from her hair till it looked like its probable real gray. Her pumps looked scuffed, with a tiny tear along the edge of one. She would’ve made somebody a good mother, a good grandmother, but it was like she was slowly sapping away where she was.
* * *
*Dad! Dad! Pastor Jim said you weren’t going to call till later!* Dean said, so excited John could hear Jim’s poor floorboards groaning. *So what’s going on? Do you know what the monster is yet? Can you kill it?*
“Calm down, Dean. One at a time.” John had to smile, though he was running on the late side. If he wanted to make the Martins’ house after nightfall, check it out, and still have time to drive into the next town to break into the registrar’s office, he’d have to hustle. “How’s Sammy?”
Dean inhaled, a little hiccup of a breath. He took a moment after that to answer. *Sam is okay. He’s sleeping now…Pastor Jim took us out and had me practice punching and Sammy knot-tying, and then we went on an herb-walk, and Sammy’s all worn out.*
The line crackled once, then settled down. Still, out of habit John scanned the parking lot behind him, and then looked hard at the fluorescent light above his head. It didn’t flicker, and he wasn’t getting that prickle between his shoulders. “Good. Sounds like you’re having fun. Have you boys eaten yet?”
*Yeah. Yeah, Pastor Jim made meat ‘n taters. Don’t ask me what kind of meat, though. I’m glad there was gravy,* Dean said, dropping his voice to conspiratorial. *I did fifty push-ups today too, Dad. And Pastor Jim even sparred with me a little.*
“Yeah?” A slight wave of unease did pass over John at that, but he knew it was irrational and pushed it away. He’d rather be around to teach his sons all the points of fighting, but that wasn’t an option and Jim was a careful man who wouldn’t take Dean or Sam faster than they could go.
*Yeah. Dad…so what about the job? Are you okay? Do you need any help?* Something was rattling nervously in the background again, undercutting Dean’s voice. His eagerness was getting an edge to it, making John start to tap his finger on the top of the pay-phone. *Dad, can I do anything? Please? I’m not so little now…Pastor Jim tried to lift me today and said he couldn’t ‘cause I was too heavy.*
John felt his throat tighten and slowly breathed through it, willing himself against the plea in Dean’s voice. “I know, Dean. Listen, I love you, and tell Sammy I love him, too. I need to get to work now.”
“But there’s something out there hurting people, and I have to figure out how to stop it. I know you’re growing up, Dean—” away where John couldn’t see “—but you’ve still got a long way to go. And Sammy, too. You got to watch him since I can’t. We can’t both be gone. You understand?”
After a long pause, Dean’s voice came through again, stiff and small. *Yes, sir.* He took a quick breath. *Dad? Be…be careful, okay?*
“I’m never anything else, Dean. Good night, son. Love you,” John said.
He hung up and left his hand on the phone for a moment, listening as the gears chunked and clinked inside. The sun was hanging just above the horizon, big and red with a faint, there-not-there halo around it. Astrology was one supernatural discipline that John hadn’t really found much of a basis for, at least not the way people usually meant it, but even so, he didn’t think it was a good sign. For regular people, anyway.
* * *
Like John had thought, nobody was watching the house. He guessed this town was rural enough for people to not yet be worrying about joyriding teenagers sneaking into places like murder scenes. People still respected death out here—didn’t think it was entertainment, or something to be shoved under the carpet no matter what, or just more names crossed out on a list.
The newspaper had said that Rachel Martin had been found in an upstairs bedroom. John went in the back door and into the kitchen, where he paused to get a sense of the house’s layout. He could see a room with a washer to his left, and a couple front rooms straight ahead, and judging by the average sizes, there probably were three bedrooms upstairs.
He’d chosen the shotgun over the handgun: this was hunting country, and while it’d still be a bit thin on plausibility, he could always claim he’d seen something from the road and come inside to check it out. At the moment, John didn’t hear or otherwise sense anything, but he thumbed the safety off the shotgun anyway.
He noted some houseplants on the sills of the windows in front as he moved towards the staircase. They looked healthy.
Yellow evidence tape cobwebbed the staircase. For a moment, John contemplated cutting it, but on the other hand, he had a feeling that this was one case the police were going to be long in giving up. So instead he got a good hold on the railing and did his best to inch upstairs without disturbing the tape too much.
The windows on the second level didn’t let in as much light as on the first floor, so John took out the flashlight at that point. When he clicked it on, the white circle of light appeared on a fresh bloodstain on a doorway a few yards away from him. He pressed his lips together and watched the light, but it didn’t flicker. He’d been planning to scope things out and then bring in the EMF meter to do a sweep, since he still hadn’t figured out how to make a smaller version of the damn thing and it wasn’t exactly easy to fire a shotgun one-handed. But all that tape would make that a pain in the neck, so he’d settle for the more low-tech approach right now.
John slowly eased into the bedroom with the stained doorframe, flashlight stacked on shotgun. He walked the whole room around before coming back to the doorway and systematically checking the bloodstains with a strip thermometer. The black plastic strip was about as reliable as the weatherman during a Midwest fall, but if it was a ghost strong enough to leave wall-to-wall blood splatters, then it’d leave cold spots strong enough to register.
But he didn’t find any cold spots. He quickly paced out a grid across the room, but didn’t run into any that way either. His flashlight’s power didn’t waver.
The newspapers had theorized an insane maniac—a prison was thirty miles away, but no escapes had been reported—a wild animal attack indoors, and a punish-the-good Samaritan attack by a wandering robber. Signs of a struggle were evident, but it was all inside: broken mirror, overturned chair, bedclothes tossed to the floor. The windows weren’t broken, their latches were still in one piece and when John opened one with a handkerchief over his fingers, the sill was clean inside and out.
John closed the window and stood back where his light couldn’t be seen from the ground outside, thinking. He idly looked around the room again, then paused and looked closer at the closet door. It was open and he’d checked the closet along with everything else, but it’d seemed fine from up close. But here, where he was standing, the moonlight and the shadows did some funny things.
He went over to the door and started carefully pushing at one of the panels till he felt something give way. It got stuck and John paused to slip the flashlight into his coat-pocket, then pushed harder with his knuckles. A big strip of wood suddenly came out, accompanied by an odd grating sound, like tires trying to get traction on a wet road.
The strip stayed caught by the bottom so John had the time to pinch it between his fingers and carefully work it out. It left a splintered hole, and some of the long thin needles of wood had obviously been bent by a violent force before the piece had been carefully put back into place. Even then, it should’ve been more obvious…John turned it in his hand, then squinted at some kind of residue that was coming off on his palm. He took out his handkerchief again and rubbed it all over the wood. Then he thought a second, and then slotted the piece back in place.
It wasn’t such a good fit now. Whoever had put it back had smeared its sides with a dark sticky substance that had filled in the mismatches. Though dark as it was now, it hadn’t been a moment ago when John had looked at the door and seen nothing but a solid blond panel.
He wrapped up the handkerchief to keep the residue on the inside and stuck it in his pocket. Then he went to shut the door and his foot struck something. A wooden hairbrush with the handle snapped off. He picked that up and pocketed it as well.
* * *
A couple miles down the road from the Martin house, John pulled over and got out. He dug around in the back till he found an empty beer can, whose top he carefully cut out with a knife. After wiping its inside dry, he stuffed the handkerchief in it, set it on the truck’s running board and then set a match to the handkerchief.
He immediately stepped back, but then he had to move back again because the smell was so strong—it was burning out his lungs. John coughed, threw his arm over his nose and mouth and coughed again, feeling his throat scream as he had to inhale, before stumbling to the front and grabbing a bottle of water.
It was holy and he hated to waste it—but maybe he’d need it to be holy anyway. He doused the can good, then whirled about and staggered two or three yards away to clearer air. He gasped and put his hands on his knees for support.
A light breeze was going and a couple minutes later, it’d blown away enough of the smell for John to try retracing his steps. He still could smell the stink scorching out his nose, but he could stand it enough to grab the can. Its sides were almost painfully hot…too hot for a tiny flame that’d only been going a couple of seconds.
He got a look at the inside while he was burying it under a layer of salt and lots of dirt, and a big part of the handkerchief had charred to a gooey blackish substance. No…John aimed the flashlight at it and saw the goo had some red in it. Which settled it: sulfur.
John stood there for a minute or so, still breathing in the stinging smell but thinking of a different time he’d had that tearing up his lungs. His jaw hurt, but he didn’t stop himself from clenching his teeth. Seemed like there was metal burning up around his left ring finger, too.
With a snarl, he kicked dirt into the hole. And then again and again, till it was full up and he was just grinding on it with his heel. He didn’t stop for a while, till suddenly his lack of breath caught up and punched him in the gut, quick reminder that he was an old-timer with two kids and not slinging hand-grenades into the jungle. He was ducking them.
* * *
Later, glass bottle cooling his hands, he smiled sourly at himself and his overblown ranting. His wife was dead. His two sons were sitting with a reverend, bless his heart, who was well-meaning and friendly but who knew more about exorcism rites than about what went through little boys’ heads. And John, slumped here in his hotel room, wasn’t learning much about that, either.
“Fucking demon,” he muttered. He snorted in disgust and grabbed onto the whiskey with one hand and onto the chair-arm with the other, and levered himself out of the chair.
The room swayed a little, but John got over to the desk at the other end all right. He set the bottle down and fumbled on the wall-light so he could look over the notes he’d cribbed while in the registrar’s office. Place was so old-fashioned that it still had a mimeograph machine instead of a copier, and he hadn’t had the time or the will to figure out how to use one of those.
He started recopying his notes, trying to sort them into categories. After the first couple lines, his knees started to hurt and he kicked out the chair, then sat down while downing another swig of whiskey. The haze started to come down when he remembered and took out the wooden pieces, then tried fitting them together. Handle and brush clicked like that strip had in the door.
John took another drink.
* * *
He dreamed of Mary. An old memory, from their honeymoon, her bare feet slender and pale and cradled in green grass blades. Something bothered him through it, some sense that he needed to be grateful, and when he woke up and was aware enough to think ‘at least it wasn’t her death again,’ he also thought he wasn’t that grateful.
Goddamn it, he missed her.
* * *
Billy and Rachel had been the only ones left in their house. Johnny Sanchez had left a wife and an extremely elderly mother behind. John drove by and saw the wife, still a head-turner despite the broad white ribbons in her hair, sweeping the front porch. She kept her back straight and bent from the waist, moving the broom in quick, efficient gestures. The pillars of her porch were ringed with braided corn-leaf ropes and corn-leaf dolls, marking the season to somebody. It’d only been a week and a half, but she was trying to carry on, keep her head up and not succumb to grief.
After a second, John put his foot back on the accelerator and cruised on by, heading for the graveyard instead.
Johnny Sanchez was buried near the west corner of the lot, away from the shade and the sun was high so that John could see how the grass was already infiltrating the dirt mounded in front of the tombstone. Epitaph: ‘A Loving Life Ended Too Soon.’
John glanced around, but it looked like he had the place to himself. He got down on one knee and let the strap of his duffel bag slide off his shoulder, then unzipped it to take out the EMF reader. After switching it on, he moved the body of it to sit halfway along the right side and then picked up the wand. The box was already whining at him like a beaten dog, and he only had to move it once over the grave to get a convincing signal. This place was red-hot with supernatural traces, even if it didn’t look like—
After a second, John leaned over and switched off the EMF reader. He bagged it before he got up and walked over to look more closely at the small bouquets in holders set into either side of the tombstone. Something was niggling at his memory, and after some prodding, he did get it to yield up angelica. But that was as far as his own brain got, and so he ended up toting the EMF reader back to the truck and then toting his herbal guide out to the grave.
Agrimony: curse-reversal. Angelica: all-purpose warding off of evil. Celandine or buttercup: warding away of witches. The ferns might just be decorative, but they also were commonly used to keep off the effects of a jinx or curse. And having them all in one place on top of the EMF readings did raise John’s eyebrows.
He started away, then had a thought and came back to look at how the grass was growing on the grave. A few green sprouts had started in the middle, but the grave edges stayed clean; John bent down and dug at the dirt there, then touched his grimy fingertip to his tongue. He grimaced and wiped at his tongue with the back of his hand. Salty.
* * *
Mrs. Sanchez opened the door while calling behind her in Spanish, sounding tired and strained. A cranky, wheezing female voice replied curtly, and then was followed by the creaking of wheels on wooden floorboards. Sighing, Mrs. Sanchez finally turned to face John. Her expression was faintly annoyed, but it quickly changed to wary surprise.
“Hi, my name is John Winn,” John said. Not the most creative of aliases, but he still felt uneasy about denying his own name. He knew it was a practical matter and all he needed was a little more practice at it, but he figured he’d work his way up to getting that comfortable with lying. In the meantime, he’d stick with something he wouldn’t have a problem remembering. “I’m sorry to disturb you, Mrs. Sanchez. I’m a reporter from Hillsboro—”
“Then you did mean to disturb me.” She didn’t start to close the door, but her face firmed up a little. “Which paper?”
John winced, then hoped she’d take that for social discomfort. He had only a vague memory of what the papers for the neighboring town were and just crossed his fingers. “The Gazette. I…I am sorry, ma’am, but the news…”
“Well, you have to report on what’s going on. You had a bit of a drive to get out here. Come in.” She turned to let him pass, then walked behind him to shut and lock the door. Apparently John had lucked out.
She introduced herself as Angela and set them up with small cups of tea in the kitchen, which was clearly a formality she felt she needed to go through. Then she briefly left, saying she needed to settle her mother-in-law in for an afternoon nap and then she could talk.
John pulled out a chair from the dining table, but instead of sitting took a good look around the place. The kitchen was shining clean and neatly ordered to within an inch of its life. It looked cheery enough, but beneath that cheeriness was something that raised John’s hackles. Though not in a demonic way, he had to acknowledge; he thought more that Angela wasn’t hiding her grief when she was in here.
His eyes wandered over to the broad window that dominated one wall, and the brass plant rack that was filled to bursting with flowerpots. Agrimony and angelica. No celandine or ferns, but she could’ve gotten them at a florist’s. He remembered driving by the darkened streetfront of one when he’d been coming back from the registrar’s.
“All right, what did you want to know? Are they running another article because of this last murder?” Angela came back into the room and sat down at the table. She drew the teapot over to herself and began to lift it before she saw her filled cup. A flicker of irritation and sorrow went through her face. She withdrew her hand from the pot and picked up the cup with both hands, sipping at it.
John came and sat as well. He pulled out his notebook and a pen.
“No tape recorder?” Angela said, idly curious.
“I work a little on the old-fashioned side,” John replied, racking his brains. He smiled to stall for some time. “Tried the recorders for a while, but I was always pressing the wrong damn button. These old workhorses are more reliable for me.”
She looked at his notebook when he tapped it with his pen, but not without any change in expression. They sat in silence for a few moments.
“Well…so what kind of reaction did you have to the death of Rachel Martin?” John finally asked.
Angela seemed a little surprised. He hadn’t started with any of the usual questions about how she was feeling or what her husband had been like. He’d figured she seemed like she’d already had enough of those and she was looking for a reason to ask him to leave.
“It’s a tragedy. I heard—it was horrible how she died. So many losses in such a short time…I don’t know what this world is coming to.” She ran her fingertip around and around the rim of her cup, looking blindly at the tea inside. Then her eyebrows knitted together. “But…I thought you wanted to ask about…”
“Your husband. The…the deaths do sound very similar.” John moved his elbows out, jerking at his arms to get his sleeves sliding down them. The folds still caught up around the joint and tightened into the flesh.
A small frown appeared on Angela’s face. “Do people think they’re connected? I know we haven’t had anything like this in years—since I can remember, but…”
She didn’t go on after a moment, so John raised his eyebrows. “But?”
“Well…I heard Rachel and Billy were…were torn up. Bitten. Like animals had attacked them.” Angela shuddered and looked down at her hands. “But my Johnny, he…it wasn’t an animal that killed him.” Her mouth twitched. She glanced cautiously up at John. “I…listen, I’m no ghoul, I even turn off the TV if the news wants to show some bloody picture of some poor person who got killed. But I butcher chickens and things for dinner, okay? I know what it looks like when you cut somebody with a knife. And somebody cut—they cut my Johnny all up.”
“That’s…that’s not what the police have been saying. They just make it sound like it’s all the same horrible thing that’s been killing folks,” John said.
The look on Angela’s face was hard to characterize. It wasn’t all that surprised, but at the same time it was contemptuous. Well, not exactly that. Something else. “Well, I think you’d know more about what happened to Billy and Rachel than me, but I just know that wild animal isn’t what happened to Johnny.”
“You think he was…deliberately killed, then? Murdered?” John struggled to look appropriately shocked. He’d never been an actor, and even before Mary’s death, he’d had his introductions to the dark side of man. “Why on earth would anybody do that? Was your husband disliked?”
“Is that what people are saying?” Angela asked, sounding a little edgy. She put up one arm and rested her chin on her hand.
Those plants came to mind. Them and the corn-leaf dolls, which hadn’t struck John as much before, but he’d handled a poppetry job last year and he should’ve picked up on them as a possible clue. “No. Nobody really understands it—seems like your husband didn’t have any real enemies. Nothing like that.”
“Oh. I would’ve thought…” Angela glanced at her tea, then up at John. She was thinking real hard about something. “Well, you are a stranger. But it was big news a couple months ago…we bought a piece of land that bridges from our old boundary line right up against the back of Billy Martin’s, and he didn’t take that too kindly.”
John felt his eyebrows go up, then scrambled for a covering excuse. “I…ma’am, I just drove from the Martin house. That’s some spread.”
“Yes.” She smiled wistfully and put her arm down, then brought the cup up for a sip. “Well, Johnny and I, we don’t have kids. But last year we decided to make Raúl—my cousin’s younger boy, nice and smart and he’s not getting anything from her family—heir. He’s been to agriculture college and we talked to him, and he seems like he’ll respect the land. He wants to carry it on right, so we wanted to make sure he had a good start.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not following. I…did you just want to make sure he got a lot of land, or was something going to happen to that piece of land that’d damage your property?” John asked.
Angela blinked, then seemed to accept his ignorance. “No, it’s water rights. There’s a good spring and stream that starts up on the land we bought and comes down between ours and Martin’s property, and we wanted to make sure Raúl didn’t ever have to go to court just for drinking water. There was a case in the next county over…”
She shook her head, her mouth twisting in disgust. She didn’t add anything after that, and John didn’t dare ask about what had happened in that case. He could guess well enough, anyway, for all that he’d managed to avoid farming while living in farming country.
“Oh, did you want more water?” Angela asked, suddenly noticing John’s glass.
“Oh. Oh, no, thank you, ma’am. And I think I’ve got plenty, so thank you very much for your time,” John said, extending a hand.
She had a good, firm shake. It was clear Angela Sanchez wasn’t the kind of woman who’d lie down and take misfortune.
* * *
Billy Martin’s grave had been buried on the other side of town from Johnny Sanchez. It was under a tree and it had gotten a pretty thick sprinkling of grass, but standing at the foot of it made John feel a little uneasy. He pulled up his collar and looked around, then bent down to dig at the soil. Tasted a little salty. Nobody had left flowers that John could see, but the grounds did look neat and clean, so maybe the groundskeeper taken away the old wilted ones.
Then again, John wasn’t sure that Billy Martin would need the flowers. He might’ve gotten the wrong people upset, but overall he seemed to be a victim. He…
John blinked, then stepped back as a tiny head peered at him from around the next tombstone over. He went back several yards as the squirrel slowly slinked out from behind the marble slab. It stopped and sat on its haunches, nose twitching as it stared at him, and then it dropped down to do a run-around of Billy’s grave and then a leap onto the tree-trunk. Squirrels were on the stupid side, but that seemed a little complicated. It stirred something in John’s mind.
Billy had died first, but Johnny had gone only three days later. Besides, Pastor Jim had said that you could ask demons to time it for a certain day, that they were one of the few things with enough brains for that.
Fifteen minutes later John was back at Billy Martin’s grave with a pudgy, half-heartedly growling ten-pound mutt in his hand. He looked around really carefully before he set the dog down on one side of the grave, giving it an awkward pat, and then went around to the other side. “You’re gonna go right back to your yard in a minute, boy. Just give me a little hand here.”
The dog stared at him. Chomped methodically once. Of all the…John felt pretty damned stupid stealing a damn dog—temporarily, he reminded himself. Temporarily.
He tugged on the leash and the dog transformed from lazy to rigid: it dug its feet into the ground just on the side of the grave, eyes wide and ears flattened. Another, slightly harder tug had it suddenly reversed to lunge away, choking itself something silly while whimpering for all it could.
“Okay, okay, boy, that’s it. That’s all I needed,” John muttered, running back around to scoop up the poor thing. It whined and buried its head in his arm, shaking like a leaf.
* * *
Later that night, John sat in his truck a little down the road from the Sanchez house. He was sorting through his bullets, loading up clips, when something white flashed at the edge of his vision.
He looked up and saw a woman crossing the road. She was too mauled to be recognizable, but that more or less identified her as the deceased Rachel Martin. John slammed the clip into his pistol and tucked it into his belt, then grabbed his shotgun from the backseat. He knew from the heft that it was still loaded with salt.
Rachel Martin didn’t seem to be paying any attention to him, but John still kept his distance. And his wits: he noticed that the grass where she stepped was crushed down. She was solid. A zombie or something, not a ghost.
Only one light in the Sanchez house was still on, but just as Rachel reached the front step, it started to flicker, then went off. John was about ten yards back, handgun trained on Rachel, and he thought he heard somebody inside exclaim in dismay.
A dim, wavering yellow light slowly appeared in another window. It was moving at the speed of a person walking, so it was probably from a candle. And then a candle was lit right against the closest window to John; he hastily ducked behind a tree, then looked. A wrinkled, baleful old woman glared out at him. Then she disappeared.
By then Rachel was at the front door. She stopped and her head cocked grotesquely to one side so John could see something glistening in her neck…tendons, maybe. She slowly raised one hand towards the door, then paused, her fingers curling away from the wood.
The moving candle upstairs had disappeared from view. The one that’d lit up the old woman suddenly flared hellishly, intensely yellow as John looked at it. He grimaced and ducked his head, rubbing hard at his eyes to try and get over the blindness quickly.
A scream of rage whipped out and something splintered bad under a hard hit. John looked up and squinted, but he still had too many dots dancing in his vision. He cursed and squeezed his eyes shut hard while lunging forward, but only a second later he heard a second scream, a cry of pure fear, and he opened his eyes again even though he still could barely see. Something tripped him up and he started to go down flailing before yanking in his arms; maybe he’d break his fall harder that way, but better that than accidentally giving his arm to a thing that’d rip it off.
A third scream, this one with words that he didn’t understand. Spanish, he realized after he’d jumped the steps. His vision was back now, but the inside of the house was darker than the outside and he needed yet another precious moment to adjust. So he listened for the noise, for the crashing banging smashes and for the hard thump of feet.
Kitchen. John slid quickly along the wall, watching the shadows flash on the floor, then threw himself into the doorway. He saw silver coming at him and ducked. “Son of a—”
“¡Dado!” someone shrieked. Angela. She wasn’t yelling at him.
Something ceramic shattered on the floor, the sound somewhat muffled. When John raised his head, he saw spilled dirt--flowerpots--and then he saw the wide black gashes on Rachel Martin’s back. Rachel had her hand raised, but abruptly bent over and clutched at her face so John could see Angela’s furious, terrified face next to a fistful of flowers.
The next moment, Angela had thrown the flowers, but though Rachel shuddered when they touched her, she shrugged them off as if they were water. She raised her head again and snarled, low and feral.
John put two bullets in her, choking down his reflexive repulsion at doing it from the back. Geneva Convention and the honor code of fighters—whatever the hell that was—didn’t really apply here. Rachel staggered forward at the first one and John stepped into the kitchen, firing the second one at an angle so Rachel went slamming into the counter instead of into Angela. She threw up her hands, one of them screeching its nails across the counter, then slowly slumped down.
Angela stared at John, shocked into silence. She hesitated when he waved her over, but came at the second gesture. “What…you…”
“Silver. Salt. Need it,” John hissed. He hadn’t loaded up on silver bullets since he hadn’t suspected a werewolf. Which Rachel wasn’t, but silver would hurt her long enough for them to get outside.
He looked wildly around, then spotted a big old-fashioned salt-cellar and yanked it off so hard the lid went flying to crash into Rachel’s head. She’d been beginning to move again and she hissed as that momentarily stopped her. Then she howled when the salt and salt-cellar hit her, staggering back towards the kitchen door. She fell against it, clawing out, and ripped out the door handle. Something clicked and when she took a shaky step away, the door slowly swung open.
“Here!” Angela said, waving something.
John looked over and saw a heavy sterling silver serving spatula, the kind that had probably graced half a dozen weddings in the family. He nodded. “Throw it when I say. Can you do that?”
Rachel lunged and he shot her again. She glanced off the half-open kitchen door, which thankfully swung out instead of in so she ended up smashing against the screen door, making its metal frame groan.
“Now! Throw it at her chest!” John snapped.
Angela shrieked in fear, but did as she was told. It was a great throw and the point of the spatula solidly hit Rachel in the chest, clunking against bone. But then it stuck there, flopping insecurely up and down as Rachel freed herself from the ruins of the screen door. John cursed and jerked up his pistol, getting ready to fire again, and then something shredded Rachel.
She’d already been badly gashed and torn up, but she damn near fell down in strips. Her eyes rolled and John thought he saw a real, human flash of terror in them before her head went down.
“Knives. Oh, my God, thousands of knives,” Angela moaned. She grabbed at John’s arm, then clutched herself against it. She was shaking so hard John couldn’t hold his gun steady.
“What the hell was that?” John swerved them further into the kitchen, stepping into the thickest patch of the salt scattered on the floor. He heard and felt a shard of the salt-cellar crunch beneath his foot. “Angela. Angela. Goddamn it, what did you call up?”
She shook him. “What do you mean? I didn’t do any—oh, madre de Dios, mi suegra--”
Angela pushed away from John and went for the kitchen doorway, heading towards the staircase. But John, looking over her shoulder, saw something dark move up the stairs and leaped forward to drag Angela back. “Wait!”
She swore at him, then hit his shoulder, saying something in Spanish. Then she tried to go for the stairs again, but fell back against him when a high, thin scream came from the upstairs room.
John belatedly remembered the mother-in-law. But she was probably gone…he gritted his teeth against the harsh taste of failure, of death, and quickly dropped to push the salt out around them till they were standing in a circle. For good measure, he grabbed some of the flowers from the broken pots and put them around the edge, and then he stood up just as Angela grabbed him about the waist again. She was looking out into the hall.
A dark shape stood there, and he didn’t think it was dark just because there wasn’t enough light. It wasn’t shaped right. It didn’t hold steady, either. It was wavering like hot air above a flame.
Angela pressed her mouth into John’s shoulder and shivered, then stiffened and stepped slightly away, though she stayed inside the circle. “Who are you?”
“The one your mother-in-law called up against Billy and Rachel Martin. The one Billy Martin asked to make your husband regret every breath he’d ever taken,” it said. Its voice seemed to come from all around, rasping and slithering at the outside edge of the salt-circle.
It added something in Spanish that made Angela raise her fists before sinking back against John. “What?” John hissed.
“It said—said my mother-in-law, she thought she’d get a black dog so she got a black dog. And Billy Martin wanted a nasty young man with a knife, and…and it wants to know what I want to see,” Angela said.
John bit back something nasty of his own and thought fast. The salt was holding it back…what had Jim said about degrees of demonic power? Never mind—John started chanting the one exorcism ritual he remembered and the demon flinched, then made the air whoosh up all around them. The salt circle held, but the wind—
Angela joined in, and her grasp of Latin seemed a bit better than John’s. They got nearly all the way through it when suddenly the wind died down and everything seemed quiet. That didn’t mean much, but they couldn’t stand here all day…John thought about the other deaths, about how Billy Martin’s had happened when his wife was in another part of the house, and then disentangled Angela from him and cautiously stepped over the salt line.
He didn’t stop saying his Latin. Angela started to falter, but started right up again when John gestured. Nothing happened to him, and John didn’t think Angela’s mother-in-law would’ve sent it after her so he pulled her by the arm out the front door and down to his truck. And drove them to the nearest church, chanting all the way till he’d picked the lock and gotten them inside.
* * *
*Most demons are bound by rules,* Jim said. *They can wreak a lot of havoc within them, but…well, you’re probably safe. You didn’t give your real name to anyone so they couldn’t have passed it along. The name’s the important part. Gives you power.*
“Thanks.” John hung up before Jim could scold him for not calling in two days, then turned to Angela.
She’d just come from upstairs and was holding on tightly to the terrier she’d borrowed from a neighbor’s yard. Dangling from her crossed arms was a rosary, and another one was around her neck, and a third was coiled around her right ankle. “It tried to run away as soon as we got in the room. Bristled up and hissed when I got near my mother-in-law’s body.”
“I thought so,” John said. Animals didn’t like coming near a witch’s body. “I went all around and I can’t find any part of Rachel Martin’s body. I think maybe your mother-in-law asked the demon to take her back to where she should be, the morgue or what-have-you.”
“My God,” Angela tiredly muttered. She tucked the dog, which was silent and shivering, closer to her and righted one of the chairs knocked on the floor, then sat down in it. “Well, I’ll talk to the priest. When they bury Rachel, I’ll dress down the grave like…I don’t know, if my mother-in-law caused these deaths, then I don’t want to take her words, but…”
John could understand that, but he wasn’t sure what else to say. Salting and burning would destroy a ghost, but Rachel Martin hadn’t exactly been one. He didn’t know enough to say if that’d do it or make things worse. “She did seem to know what she was doing.”
“But why did Rachel come back?” Angela idly toyed with the crucifix hanging from her arm.
“Well, tradition says that if you’re killed by a witch, then sometimes you come back as…it differs. Some say vampire, some say a zombie type of thing…it seems like they buried Billy pretty quickly so your mother-in-law could dress his grave, but they were suspicious about Rachel and kept her back for more investigation.” After a moment, John went on. “Your…husband’s grave was dressed, too.”
She looked at him, and very slowly, her face crumpled as if someone had scraped out the supports from behind. Her going for her mother-in-law like that had done a lot to convince him, but that pretty much sealed the deal. But some things still stuck out at him.
“You knew…you knew to throw those flowers, and you know exorcism rites,” John slowly said.
Angela glanced sharply at him, then sighed heavily and put her hand against her forehead. “Oh, I can’t blame you. I know, I do…I even half-believed them before all this. Say my prayers when I throw water out the door…that’s what it’s like out here. Between my mother-in-law and old Martin Pinol…”
“The man who sold you that land.” John frowned, trying to remember something that was itching at the back of his head.
“He was a devil. A little like his namesake. Old and mean and full of stories about evil. He’d come over here a lot during the siesta and talk, so maybe he was lonely under all of that. They say he had a wife and kids, but that must’ve been a long, long time ago, since he’s been the only one over there since I’ve been here,” Angela said. She shrugged and stroked the top of the dog’s head; it craned around to lick at her fingers. “Johnny and his mother liked him for some reason. Wanted me to be nice to him, but I don’t know…that seemed to end up like a competition with Martins like everything else. Billy talked to him, too.”
She looked away, towards the broken screen door, biting her lip. Her hands were shaking a little bit, and the white streaks in her hair seemed much wider than before.
“I don’t know if I want to give Raúl this land, now. Maybe I’ll just donate it to the Church—it’s been so cursed,” Angela whispered. “Nothing but miscarriages, no husband now…and I didn’t know Johnny at all…he might’ve been part of that evil, and for what? God can’t save his soul now.”
“I’ll stay to help take care of your mother-in-law for you.” John didn’t know what else to say.
* * *
They buried the mother-in-law in the fields. Angela said the older woman had rarely gone out, though she was capable of walking and used the wheelchair more out of laziness than anything else, and so it’d be easy to say she’d gone to stay with relatives.
She told John as much as she knew while she was dressing down the grave, and then the spot where they’d buried every suspicious item in the house that John could find. He listened carefully and took notes, filling up another three pages in his notebook that Mary had brought him one day after he’d complained about having to hold his tongue at work.
“Here,” she’d said. “Write it down in here and get it out of your system. We can’t have you exploding on some poor body somewhere down the line.”
“We?” he’d said.
And she’d grinned and put her hand on her belly, and said, “And maybe you’ll remember to put in something about this one so we can remember when all the special moments happened.
Missed her, he thought, and closed his eyes so he missed the first time Angela told him thank-you. The second time, he shrugged it off and told her he was sorry about what had happened to her, and then he went off to the truck. Seemed like he was done here, just about.
* * *
*Dad, Dad, Dad,* Sammy said tearfully. Disappointed, accusing, grateful, a thousand emotions mixed up in that little voice.
“I’m gonna be back soon. I’m okay, Sammy. I’m coming back for you and Dean.” John bowed his head and clenched his fist till his ring dug into his flesh. He pushed his thumb into the tight coil of his fingers till he just grazed the ring, then pushed harder at it.
He talked to Dean for a bit, then long enough to Jim to summarize the job for him. Jim thanked him for taking care of it and swore by the Bible that he’d have the copies of those Vatican demonology books in by the time John got back. John had almost forgotten why he’d come out here in the first place.
Afterwards he finished packing up. He was taking the notes down from the hotel room when he stopped and looked closer at one sheet, which was the notes he’d cribbed on the land deal between Sanchez and Pinol. He’d doodled an odd-looking symbol besides Pinol’s name, and now that he was really thinking about it, he remembered that that had been the signature. The clerk had neatly printed Martin Pinol beneath it. John hadn’t thought much of it at the time because the town was so rural and people had said Pinol was old, so he could plausibly have been illiterate.
He called Jim back with a quick question. Jim did have an answer, seeing as he had enough Latino members in his congregation to have heard the same stories Angela had been talking about. Martin Pinol was a folktale name for the Devil, or for a devil.
* * *
The road out of town curved around what John now knew was the edge of Martin Pinol’s old lands. No other car was on the road, so he just stopped where he was. He kept the engine running. His truck had enough protection on it, though just in case, he had holy water and salt ready.
John put his hands on the wheel. He licked his dry lips. “Martin Pinol.”
Nothing happened outside, but he did notice that there was a hazy ring around the moon.
“Martin, I lost my wife to some bastard like you. I don’t think it was you, but I bet you know who it was. And you let them know something—you let them know that John Winchester is coming for them. To hell and back if I have to.”
This wasn’t all that smart. John knew that. He knew but it needed doing, he needed it said and in the air and concrete, to stamp out where he stood and where he was going.
He put the truck into drive again and started off. The road curved and as he followed, he thought he saw something in the fields—somebody standing there, watching him go. But they weren’t there when he looked back, so he turned around and kept going. He had his sons to get back to.