It wasn't one of Dean's better days.
The arm tightened around his throat, squeezing his windpipe until the pounding in his bruised crown echoed and boomeranged. The guy had brained him out of nowhere with the butt of his gun, dropping him like a stone. Dean had been too busy blinking away a kaleidoscope of colours to notice the arms grabbing at him, too busy shrinking from the roaring in his ears to feel himself being pulled upright and too busy trying to stop his stomach from bursting like a squashed balloon to register his brother's panicked shout.
Dean felt the barrel of the gun prod him below his ribs, urging him backwards as surely as the grip around his neck did. His stomach dropped as the unexpected movement caused him to lose his footing. He choked out a cough before he could scramble to right himself, his momentary lapse adding to the pressure against his Adam's apple.
"Steady now," the voice was breathless against his ear, scratchy like an old record. "No funny business!"
Dean wasn't laughing at the cliché, and by the look on Sam's face, standing several paces away, the kid wasn't splitting his sides either. No, Sam was looking distinctly unamused. The younger man's features were taut, grim, his eyes flashing furiously. Dean met his brother's gaze and wished he hadn't. He hated it when the kid needed to go all Schwarzenegger to save his worthless ass. Especially when Dean had fallen for the oldest trick in the book, and especially when hooking up with Billy on this gig had been his idea – even if the hunt had been Sam's. And especially when he could see the frantic concern that sat just behind Sam's livid façade.
"Let him go!" Sam barked, jaw clenching as he raised his gun and drew a bead on what Dean assumed was Billy's forehead. What he hoped was Billy's forehead.
"You're not gonna shoot me," Billy wheezed, his breath tickling against Dean's neck and making him cringe. "I'll blow another hole through your brother before you can even blink." But there was a wobble, somewhere, in the other man's voice. Dean couldn't say he blamed him; Sam was looking feral.
"Now, I want that mask, and you're gonna give it to me." Bill's voice hardened, and he tugged Dean backwards again, his meaning clear.
Don't even think about it, Sammy! Dean wanted to growl, but the elder Winchester's protest never made it past his lips as Bill choked him once more. He saw Sam jerk in response, but the kid stayed true to his training, his aim never wavering.
Three days earlier...
"Sammy, you know how it is...monsters we get, people are just whacked! I'm still not hearin' anything that makes this our kinda deal," Dean half shrugged, one elbow resting along the Impala's open window as they cruised along the dusty Texan highway, heading toward Arkansas despite his reservations.
"She had everything to live for, Dean! She had a family – three kids – a good job. Everyone described her as being happy with her life. So...what, she just wakes up one day and decides to drive the four of them off the edge of a cliff?" Sam leaned forward earnestly, getting into his stride in a way that was destined to end with Dean caving in and going along with it anyway.
"Sam, it sucks. It does. But crap happens–" Dean tried before being immediately cut off.
"Some of the reports say she was acting weird before she drove off in the car!"
"Uh, yeah, 'cause she was about to go kill herself and her three kids," Dean tossed back, his shoulders tensing for the umpteenth time as he readied himself for another battle. Sam had won the first clash, sure, but Dean figured best two out of three was still an option.
He got a bitchface in return. "No, Dean. Our kind of weird. Look man, I just...I got a feeling about this one."
Dean groaned internally when the bitchface was replaced by doe-eyed zeal. He was pretty sure he was about to lose battle number two. Then a thought struck him. "Wait, I thought you said you didn't have any visions?" He felt his body stiffen as it occurred to him that his brother might have been lying to him. Sam's psychic hocus-pocus never failed to set his teeth on edge.
The younger man heaved a theatrical sigh, sounding uncannily like a sulking teen. Not so far from the truth, Dean rolled his eyes. Sam had been a huffing, puffing, pouting, nightmare of a teenager, long having perfected the art of the bitchface before he'd hit puberty.
"I didn't have a vision, Dean. It's just, you're always talking about your hunter's intuition–"
"Yeah, except I wouldn't call it somethin' as wussy-ass as that, mostly because I'm not a girl!" Dean snorted and shook his head with a mischievous smile.
The bitchface was back. "Well, whatever. The point still stands." Sam, it seemed, was not about to be baited. Pity. The kid sighed again, raising his palms in an open gesture; conciliatory. Dean tried not to pull a face. He could tell this wasn't going to go well for him. "Look, apparently the woman went to a garage sale the day before, and since then she was acting all secretive." Sam pulled a dog-eared newspaper from his book bag, rustling it noisily until he found the part he wanted. "Her husband said she kept going into some kinda trance, muttering something under her breath that didn't make any sense. Even had her checked out at the hospital and she was fine. You can't tell me that sounds normal." He looked at Dean, the very picture of scholarly logic and reason.
Dean pursed his lips. Blinked. Adjusted the volume on the radio. And blew out a defeated breath. Dammit. "I guess not." Best three out of five?
"We've taken gigs on less than that–"
"Nobody likes a gloater, Sam," Dean growled and jacked up the volume once more, ignoring the way his little brother smugly settled himself back into the chair and closed his eyes. Well, Dean would just have to ponder his payback all the way to Arkadelphia.
"Look, I already told the cops everything I could," Neil Parrish's sigh was flat, his eyes lifeless as he gave FBI Agents Gibbons and Hill the weary once over. He was unshaven and uneven, his features lopsided and droopy, reminding Dean so strongly of the cartoon dog that he almost expected to hear the man grumble that makes me mad!
Parrish was standing in the doorway in rumpled pyjamas that hung in limp swathes from his wiry frame. The hallway beyond was dark and musty-smelling. "I can't even think what the FBI would wanna know about Marsha and–" the man swallowed, pausing to compose himself as the tendons on his neck sharpened and his eyelids started to flutter.
"We're very sorry for your loss," Sam stepped forward, fully embodying the compassionate professional. It wasn't an act, Dean knew, which was one of the main reasons he always allowed his brother to take the lead in these kinds of situations. Not that he couldn't be sympathetic, he just...fumbled with it more than his kid brother. A fact he'd die before admitting.
"We'd just like to check out a few details, if you don't mind." Sam continued, holding the bereaved man spellbound. "We're not at liberty to say too much right now, but any information you could give us would be a big help. I understand that this must be difficult for you–" Those friggin' eyes. How anyone could believe Sammy was an FBI agent with that narcotic gaze of his...
"No, no...of course, please come in," Neil made a vague gesture behind him, lulled into stepping back to allow his visitors passage.
"Thank you," Dean flashed a closed-mouth smile as he stepped into the gloomy corridor.
"Uh, I'm sorry 'bout the mess..." Neil began, the robotic dullness in his voice betraying the fact that the Winchesters were not the first people he had apologised to, and that he was clearly not sorry at all. Dean couldn't say he blamed him. The Impala had been a dumping ground for all manner of things in the aftermath of their father's death.
"No problem," Sam assured him, following their host's direction into the living room, Dean not far behind.
The elder Winchester examined their surroundings as he gingerly sat down beside his brother on the snot-green sofa, and wished he hadn't. The smiles of young, sparkly children sunbeamed down at him from all four walls, garlanded by cards of condolence and sympathy. Vases of discoloured flowers stood around the room, wilting long past their shelf-life as they dripped dry, brittle petals onto mantelpieces and dresser-tops. He started to get what Sam had been saying from the start. This had been a happy family. Too happy.
"Uh, can you tell us about what happened the day before your wife...died?" Sam hesitated, cautious, and Dean could tell he was walking a semantic minefield. He shifted in visible discomfort, and Dean realised his brother was feeling just as overwhelmed by the unexpressed outpouring of grief in the room as he was.
Neil ran his teeth across his bottom lip and scratched at the stubble on his chin. "Like I told the cops...Marsha went to a garage sale." He snorted. "She'd been real excited 'bout it. One of the oldest houses in the city. Old lady that lived there died not long ago. Family was clearin' out a' town. Lotsa old junk to sell, y'know?"
The brothers nodded encouragingly. They knew.
"Yammered on 'bout nothin' else for days. That was my Marsha..." he drifted off, a terrible grief flickering in his eyes before he hastily shuttered it away. "She went off to the sale, came back couple hours later an'...well, it all changed after that."
"What do you mean?" Dean leaned forward, the shoulders of his monkey suit tightening uncomfortably.
"It was weird. She was real...urgent when she came back. Agitated. Wouldn't tell me what was wrong. I asked her, did she buy anything, and she said: 'no...no', all vague and spaced out, and then she disappeared outside. I wasn't real sure what to make of it, so I left her to it awhile."
"Go on," Sam's features softened as he nodded, seeming to sense the same reticence Dean had. "I'm sorry, I know this is hard."
"Well, a little later the kids come runnin' in sayin' that mommy was actin' all strange. I went out to the back yard to see her, and she was...I dunno how to describe it, she was just in some kinda trance. I waved my hand in front of her eyes and she didn't even blink. Then she started mutterin' somethin'...Lord, I dunno what."
"Do you remember anything about it?" Dean asked.
"Uh...I don't think–" the man started to shake his head.
"C'mon, you gotta remember somethin'. A word. Anything," Dean pushed, more forcibly than Sam would have liked, if the mild glare he received was anything to go by.
If Neil noticed, however, he gave no sign. "Why would that matter?" He queried blandly.
Sam shot Dean another disapproving scowl before swooping in to save the day. "Like I said, we aren't at liberty to go into it right now, but every piece of information helps."
"Okay," Parrish seemed to accept Sam's stock response. "It sounded like another language or somethin'...Let me see if I can..." He scratched his chin again, the sound sandpapery in the silence. "Mee-co-as-key, yeah, that was it. Mee-co-as-key, somethin', somethin', kwa-key." His eyes drifted heavenward for a moment before they returned to his guests. "Lack-ah, that was another one. That's about as much as I can remember. Weird, huh?" He chuckled bitterly, "I thought she was having a seizure or something, so I called an ambulance."
"That must have been strange," Sam was nodding, grim-faced. "Can you tell us what happened after that?"
Parrish's harsh laugh rang out with a hollow, sombre note. "Well, turned out it wasn't a seizure. They did one of those brain scan things. Nothin' showed up, so they sent her to see a shrink. But he just came and said somethin' about her just being anxious and then he sent her home." He shook his head, sending his rubbery features wobbling.
"She was better after that," he continued with a shrug. "Acted like nothing happened." The man stopped then, eyes rolling around the room, pausing on the photographs. Dean noticed the façade slip again, despair turning Parrish's eyes molten. "When I look back now, though...the kids, they just couldn't settle with her. How I could let her just take them...? Why I didn't think to watch her more closely after that...?"
"Sometimes people you care about do things you don't expect," Sam murmured, eyes sliding towards Dean and then skittering away. The elder Winchester winced internally. Sometimes the kid could be as subtle as a sledgehammer. But Dean couldn't think about John Winchester right then, he just couldn't.
"I can't find anything in any of the usual languages, Dean," Sam huffed in frustration, pushing the laptop screen down with an angry flick and getting to his feet. He looked ungainly and precarious after so many hours of sitting as he wobbled to the motel window, like a foal taking its first few steps. He pulled the flimsy voile curtain aside and looked uselessly out at the patchy parking lot, a tarmac-covered wasteland that had broken out liberally in raggedy weeds. Exactly what the kid expected to see, Dean wasn't sure. The motel had little in the way of aesthetics beyond the wonky, flickering signage and Lego-standard brickwork. "I mean, I even asked Bobby, and he had jack!"
"Well it wasn't like the guy gave us much to go on," Dean pointed out from his reclined position on the bed. He'd loosened off his tie and kicked off his shoes but hadn't managed to progress as far as a shower. He wasn't quite ready for the greasy bonanza of limescale and lukewarm water that awaited him. "'Sides, I think I got somethin'," Dean announced, lips approaching a smirk as Sam turned back towards him with surprised expectancy. He chalked up a mental point.
"Down at the cop shop?" Sam queried, crossing the room on stiff limbs to sit on the other bed. The covers were multi-coloured and bright, making the younger man appear as if he had rainbows shooting out of his ass.
"Yeah," Dean sat up, a leering grin crossing his face at the memory of his visit downtown. "Brandi had a lot to tell me, including her phone number and her cup size." At the bitchface, he relented. "Okay, not that last one...that was just a guess!" Sam's disapproval deepened into a large V on his forehead. "Alright, alright, don't get your tighty-whities in a bunch, Sammy. She told me the officers who found Marsha Parrish's car wreck also found somethin' else..." he paused for the suspense, licking his lips.
Sam, long used to his older brother's penchant for the dramatic, merely arched an unimpressed brow.
"Okay, fine!" Dean puffed out, deflated at his brother's lack of enthusiasm. "Apparently they found some old mask."
Sam blinked and tilted his chin back. Yeah, that had pretty much been Dean's reaction when the lovely Brandi had whispered it conspiratorially in his ear. Well, aside from the way his downstairs brain had responded. "A mask?" Now the kid was intrigued, eyes widening and fingers twitching against his denim-clad knees – no doubt itching to get back to his computer. Dean smiled a fond smile. "How old? What did it look like?"
Seriously? "I dunno, Sam!" Dean rolled his eyes. "Brandi wasn't exactly an expert. Old. That's all she said. Old."
Sam was pursing his lips, clearly dismissing Brandi's expert opinion. "Which could mean anything."
Not that Dean disagreed, he doubted Brandi had more than two brain cells to rub together. He cocked his head in acknowledgement but said nothing.
Sam stared at him a moment, eyes searching his big brother's features, waiting for some kind of pronouncement. Dean looked impassively back, delighting in the way the kid's irritation began to grow at the continued silence. Any moment now...
"So, we gonna bust in and get it?" Sam threw his arms wide, voice leap-frogging several octaves.
"Can't." Dean returned, deadpan, holding all the cards and enjoying it.
"Why not?" Sam slid up another couple of octaves.
Dean leaned forward, voice turning mysterious, as though there was a flickering campfire between them instead of a threadbare carpet. "'Cause it's gone walkabout. No one knows where. Apparently it was in evidence lock-up one night, gone the next morning." Dean gave an exaggerated shrug.
"What?" Sam pinched his brows. "It was just gone?"
"Last person into the evidence room was some officer called Erikson. Never turned up for his shift today." Dean grew serious as he met Sam's gaze.
"So, we go look for him, right?" The younger Winchester shot his brother a superior glance and began to rise from the bed.
"Well, thank you, Captain Obvious!" Dean glared back, irritated, as always, by the implied slight against his intelligence. "I already checked out his apartment. Dude wasn't there. None of his neighbours remember seein' him since yesterday. No clue where he is."
"Wait, you were just gonna go there alone and–?" Sam flopped back down, spearing his big brother with an angry, parental glower.
"I'm a big boy, Sammy!" Dean interrupted, in no mood to deal with irritating, over-protective little brothers. "I can tie my own shoelaces and everything!" Seeing another impending bitchface, he attempted to head it off at the pass. "Look Sam, we don't know if this guy even took the mask, or if the mask is even cursed. There wasn't any point in draggin' you away from geekboy heaven for a chat with Cap'n McCluskey."
Sam seemed somewhat mollified by this, though a glint of frustration lingered in his gaze. "Okay, fine. But you gotta admit...a woman gets a mask in her possession – I'm guessing she probably bought it at the garage sale – then drives herself and her kids off a cliff, then it disappears from evidence lock-up, along with the last guy to see it...It sounds a little weird, right? What if this mask is cursed?"
"Could be," Dean nodded, "guess you'll need to get your geek on and find out!"
"With what, Dean? Because Arkadelphia cops can apparently just empty the evidence locker whenever they want–"
"I got a photo, Sam," Dean's voice was calm and quiet as he interrupted, narrowly averting disaster.
"I got Brandi to copy a photo of the mask they found. I can do research too, you know," he finished, a little more huffily than he'd intended.
"Uh, well..." Sam looked at him in helplessness for several seconds, a vague, unvoiced apology fogging his eyes. "Give it here!" He snatched the photo easily from Dean's loose grip, and the elder hunter let him; he'd already examined the mask at length.
Sam's pupils dotted from side to side as he examined the photo. Dean had already studied it at length: the roughly-hewn, weathered wood, almost green in the bright light of the camera flash; the shape reminding him of a theatre-mask, pointed chin and squared-off forehead; the grimacing mouth with bared, pointy teeth; the primitive, jagged zig-zags that patterned its edges.
"Well, I guess I have to agree with Brandi," Sam glanced up, meeting Dean's eyes. "Thing looks pretty friggin' old."
"Yeah. But you know, I kinda feel like I've seen it before..." Dean began, a smile starting somewhere deep. He'd wanted to have fun with this the instant he'd laid eyes on the photo.
"You do?" Sam's brow bunched up quizzically. Then he saw the twinkle in his brother's eyes, and just like that, it dawned on him. Zero to bitchface in less than a millisecond. The psychic wonder knew exactly what Dean was thinking, and exactly what the next few days were going to bring.
Dean's grin finally made it to his face.
"No. Don't say it Dean. I hated that movie!"
Sorry, Sammy, too good an opportunity to waste.
"Ssssssmmmooookin!" Dean grinned, Cheshire-style. And just had time to duck the lobbed pillow.