Dean started into alertness as the opening riff of Money for Nothing growled into the silence of the Impala's interior. Not that Dean had fallen asleep, or anything. Nope. He'd been completely committed to the job...
And his coffee had run out an hour ago.
He'd been staking out Erikson's apartment for the better part of the night, a veritable feast for the eyes which had included a skittering raccoon, a drunk slaloming his way from lamppost to lamppost and an overheard argument from a couple on the third floor of the brickwork building. That last one had been interesting enough – Dean reckoned the dude would be on the couch for a couple of days – otherwise, the night's entertainment had been soporific at best.
This better be good, he muttered to himself as he hefted his phone to his ear. He'd been enjoying a dreamland rendezvous at the Playboy mansion. Minus Hef. Not that he'd been asleep, of course. "Yeah," he meant to drawl, but it came out in a jaw-cracking yawn. Smooth.
"Sleeping on the job?" Sam was halfway between amused and irritated.
"Might as well be," Dean sighed. "Scopin' zero here, dude."
"Out of caffeine, huh?" A mocking sympathy. The little bastard.
"This a social call, Sammy? Or have you actually been earnin' your keep?" So Dean was cranky when he'd had neither sleep nor coffee. Sue him.
"Hold on a second, Dean. Coffee's just about ready!" There was a crackle, some shuffling and the clinking of a mug. "Ahhh, that's better!" The words were shaped like a smile.
"Saammmm..." Dean let out a threatening growl, wishing it was possible to reach through the cell receiver and smack the kid upside the head.
"Alright, alright!" Sam chuckled, and then ruffled some papers. "I think I found our mask."
"You have?" Dean raised his eyebrows, impressed. There was nothing his little brother couldn't ferret out when it came to research.
"I cross-referenced the mask's description with the snippets of speech we got from Marsha Parrish's husband–"
Jeez, he made it sound so friggin' easy!
"This thing is Aztec, Dean. Aztec!" Dean could picture his brother practically bouncing up and down on the spot with excitement. It was something the kid had done for as long as he could remember. He had a fleeting memory of a six year old Sammy fidgeting and stamping his feet on the motel floor as he waited to show his big brother the prize-winning project he'd just brought back from school. He smiled, recalling the way Sammy's eyes had danced. Their father, of course, had done little more than toss a dismissive grunt at it. Then he'd trudged out into the night.
Dean's smile vanished.
"The language...I couldn't work out the exact phrase, but I picked out a couple of words that could have been 'death' and 'kill'," Sam, oblivious to Dean's whistle-stop tour down memory lane, was continuing in the background, voice vibrating with excitement.
"Good work, Sammy," Dean felt his lips curve upwards once more as he gave the desired response. Some things never changed. "So...this thing's cursed?"
"Yeah, but way more powerful than we've ever seen before. This is ancient stuff, Dean. Friggin' Aztec ancient," he qualified with scholarly aplomb, as if Dean hadn't heard him the first time. "God only knows how it ended up with that old lady, but I'm willing to bet it was kept in some kinda curse box."
Dean nodded to himself, it made sense.
"The curse was supposed to bring death and destruction to the wearer and those around them. It's a little like demonic possession, the more emotionally vulnerable the person was, the more quickly it worked." Sam continued. "It was designed to bring about the wearer's inner fears in the most violent way possible, and in those days where military power was everything...Well, you give one to an opposing leader, and watch the whole army implode."
"Jesus," Dean murmured, vision darkening as he imagined blood, burning and screams.
"This thing might be over five hundred years old, Dean. We've never dealt with a curse that ancient before. Who knows how it might have gotten corrupted over the years?" Sam's voice was filled with horrified awe.
"Yeah, that's a comfortin' thought," Dean scrubbed a hand across his chin. He shifted in his seat, well aware that if he stumbled across Erikson now, he'd have no clue what he was getting himself into. That, and he needed to stumble across Erikson right the hell now, or some serious crap was about to go down. "You got any idea how to neutralise this thing?"
A heavy, weary sigh. "Not yet. But I'm working on it. I called Bobby again, got him working on it too." There was a pensive silence, and Dean could sense that his brother was building up to something. "This guy is like a ticking time bomb, Dean. I kinda feel like we should do something, alert the cops or..."
"And tell them what, Sam?"
"Yeah, that's what I thought." Dean sighed, "look, it doesn't sit easy with me either, but we don't have a choice." He leaned his head back and clenched his eyes shut, hoping it would stop the tiredness from whiting out his vision. "So, what do we do about it?"
There was an uneasy silence.
"I haven't exactly figured that out yet," Sam admitted, and Dean could visualise him running an agitated hand through that unruly mop he called hair. "But Bobby's got his eye on this too. Hopefully between us we can dig something up."
"Wish it was as easy as diggin' somethin' up!" Dean snorted, thinking fondly of how simple their hunting lives used to be. A nice, easy Salt'n'Burn...Those were the days.
"Yeah," came the quiet agreement.
"Well, at least we know one thing..." Dean began, hoping to blast away the thick fog of tension that hung over the cellular airwaves.
"Oh yeah, what's that?" Sam Winchester, innocent as ever.
"This thing is shapin' up more and more like–"
"Dean, I swear to god, if you say somebody stop me one more time, that picture of you kissing the Kenny Loggins poster is going on the internet!" Sam all but howled, clearly at the end of his tether. Then again, Dean had been quoting lines from The Mask all evening before he'd left to stakeout Erikson's place, and that had been before he'd started periodically texting them to Sam as soon as he'd parked the Impala. Hell, he'd had to pass the time some way.
The elder man froze as he realised what his brother had just threatened. "You promised you wouldn't!" he whined. "It wasn't my fault that friggin' ghost was a die-hard fan!"
"Can't claim ghost-possession once that gets out, dude." Sam was not to be budged.
"Fine!" Dean spat, annoyed that his little brother had seen fit to spoil his fun. "Bitch," he muttered, and not kindly.
"Pleasure doing business with you," Sam returned smugly, ending it with a supercilious "jerk!"
Dean rolled his eyes, already readying his thumb to end the call.
"Dean!" His thumb hovered, halted by the soft urgency in Sam's voice.
"Yeah?" He grumbled.
"If Erikson shows, you call me, alright?" Yes, mom.
"Sure, Sam," It was an easy lie.
"I mean it, Dean." Why did Sam always see through him so quickly? "We still don't know what this guy is capable of, never mind the fact that we don't have a clue how to deal with this mask once we get our hands on it."
"Okay, Sam!" He relented, throwing his free hand up even though Sam would neither see nor appreciate the gesture.
"Good. Oh, and no more falling asleep, dude!"
Dammit, the little bitch had hung up before Dean had a chance to respond. He glared at the phone in disgust before tossing it down onto the passenger seat.
He glanced at his watch – three AM – and sighed. It was going to be a long night.
It was the slamming of the apartment door that woke him properly this time. Dean jerked in his seat with a scratchy groan, automatically raising a hand to rub at the knot of tension in the back of his neck. He felt as if he'd swallowed a carpet, his water having gone the same way as the coffee several hours previously. He gave his head a rough shake, vision blurring momentarily as his brain recalibrated.
And then he saw him.
"Well, well, well..." Dean murmured. His eyes followed Erikson as he shuffled with ominous purpose towards a murky, crap-coloured Ford sitting a hundred metres down the street. The car looked as dozy as Dean felt.
Dean kicked himself. Dammit, Erikson had nearly been in and out without him even noticing. The kid was going to love this. Sonofabitch! It was lucky Erikson's exit hadn't been nearly as stealthy as his entrance. All friggin' night Dean had needed buttresses to prop his eyes open and the bastard had managed in and out as soon as he'd fallen asleep. He checked his watch: ten thirty. Jeez, a lot later than he'd thought.
He turned his gaze back to Erikson, determined that he wasn't going to screw up this time. The man was carrying a large black duffel which swung in time to his unsteady gait. It looked heavy. The cop's clothes dripped from his wiry frame as he moved, his jeans scruffy and torn, his flapping shirt grey and mucky. Hair rumpled, a couple of days of overcast stubble and a twitching mouth. All he needed was a styrofoam cup and Dean would have stopped to give him a dollar.
Erikson stared straight ahead blankly, looking unaware and vague. Dean's hand went to his gun, checking for the umpteenth time that it was still there and still within easy reach. He paused, uneasy. Should he take the guy down right now? Before Erikson had the chance to do anything?
The hunter had his hand on the Impala's door handle, ready to open, but a mother was meandering on the sidewalk across from him, her two little girls scampering and giggling, wielding lurid-coloured plastic ponies. Further down, an elderly couple were marching along, putting the world to rights as they gesticulated and opined about the state of today's Arkadelphia.
Erikson had reached his own car and was getting in. Dean sighed, his muscles unclenching minutely. He was more than a little relieved. He didn't even know for certain that Erikson still had the mask. No, he couldn't do anything until he knew the man was definitely dangerous.
Besides, Sam was right; even if he got the mask, what the hell would he do with it? He wanted to think he wouldn't be affected by it like Erikson and the others, but he knew enough about supernatural objects and had experienced too many of them to let his own pride get in the way.
He waited until Erikson had driven past him before he roared the Impala to life and pulled away from the kerb. The older couple shot him twin scowls as he screeched past.
"Show time," he told the Impala as they pursued their target. The Chevy seemed to rumble in agreement. "That's my girl!" He grinned.
Dean could have called his little brother there and then. Of course he could have – should have, in fact. But the elder Winchester would forever maintain that he didn't have his cell handy until the journey was well under way, or indeed, until it was over. In any case, what would be the point in calling Sam when Dean didn't know exactly where Erikson was going. He followed the Ford's unhurried pace for several miles, always trying to stay a couple of cars behind – not that Erikson was likely to be paying much attention – until signs for the local mall started popping up like corporate weeds.
The elder Winchester pitched his brows. What the hell did Harvey Keitel want at the mall?
Sure enough, the rusted up clunker took the next exit off the freeway and turned into the mall complex; a sprawling metropolis of gleaming glass and luminous white buildings flanked by rolling suburbs of parking lots. Dean normally avoided such places, unable to handle the oestrogen overdose, but it was an endless source of amusement that Sam seemed to manage just fine. This time, however, Dean was more edgy. It would be too easy to lose Erikson here. The cop could immerse himself in the hordes of shoppers before Dean had time to blink, and the hunter had a bad feeling that he was about to do just that.
For once, Winchester luck was smiling on him, however, and he found a parking space just one row over from where Erikson had haphazardly manoeuvred the Ford. Dean slithered out of the Impala, pulling out his cell as he did so, and stalked after the cop. Erikson was still carrying the duffel, the sight oddly chilling and portentous. Dean spied several young families also heading in the direction of the mall entrance and shuddered.
"Yeah?" Sam sounded bleary when he answered Dean's call. Clearly the kid had also indulged in a lie in that morning.
"I got 'im," Dean announced quietly, gaze never leaving the straight-legged zombie shuffle of his target as they weaved through the mosaic of cars tiling the lot.
"What?" All traces of tiredness evaporated. "He came back to the apartment?"
If Dean could have groaned aloud, he would have. "No, dude, he left the apartment."
"I musta missed him going in, Sammy, but I got him comin' out," Dean skipped past his monumental screw-up, focussing on giving his brother the most important information. "Followed him to the, uh..." he glanced at the mall sign, even though he'd seen a million of them pass by while tailing Erikson. "Riverfield Mall."
"What?" How did Sam manage to make a bitchface out of one word? It was anger, frustration and concern all rolled into one. Dean was sure his brother was going to give himself a hernia one of these days. "What do you mean, you followed him to the mall? What the hell happened to 'Sure, Sam, I'll call you as soon as I see him'?"
That was actually a pretty good impression, Dean would have to give him that.
"Aw quit your bitchin' Sam!" was what he said instead. He squinted as the sun's glare bounced off the mall's enormous glass frontage and hit him square in the eye, temporarily losing him sight of his mark. "There wasn't time. 'Sides, I'm callin' you now aren't I?"
"Dean–" Sam's tone told him in no uncertain terms that he was in deep trouble when his little brother got hold of him, but Dean cut neatly across him. He'd deal with that later.
"Sam, he's headin' inside, and I don't know what he's plannin', but it can't be good. I'll keep an eye on him, but you need to get your ass over here!" Erikson didn't even pause at the dizzying array of signs and storefronts as they passed through the revolving door, while Dean frowned a little in disorientation. Women were pushing past him in droves, many dragging poor, reluctant men behind them, men who gazed longingly at the exit. Dean could relate. He friggin' hated malls.
"Yeah? And how am I supposed to do that?" Sam snapped in irritation, but there was movement crackling down the line; the kid was gathering supplies, probably throwing on his jacket and galumphing out of the motel room.
"I dunno, steal a freakin' car, Sam!" Dean hissed, wincing as several shoppers cast a suspicious eye in his direction. "Use that college brain of yours."
The elder hunter continued to follow Erikson through the shifting crowds, stepping onto the escalator just as the cop reached the top and strode from view once more. He cursed under his breath, his argument with Sam had cost him valuable time.
"I don't believe this!" His little brother was still freaking out in the background. Girl.
"Sam, just get here!" Dean demanded, barely suppressing his frustration. "Oh, and make sure you're packin'." He added, sotto voce, ending the call before the kid could argue further and hurrying up the remainder of the escalator stairs. He ran a gauntlet of shopping bags and packages, narrowly avoiding being decapitated by a swinging purse but taking a direct hit to his thigh from a jabbing walking-stick. When he reached the top, he whipped his head to and fro, trying to catch sight of Erikson.
To his left, a group of pockmarked, pasty teenagers were having a slouched conference over a Starbucks breakfast. To his right, an harried-looking couple were sitting down with a McDonald's breakfast, trying to shush their wailing child. By Pavlovian conditioning, Dean's stomach instantly started rumbling, but he ignored it as he looked beyond strollers, walker-frames and brightly-lit storefronts. There was no sign of Erikson.
Dammit, he'd lost him. He'd freakin' lost him!
And that was when the first shot rang out.
There was no moment of silence, no shocked pause or paralysed intake of breath. The screams were instantaneous.
A split second later and it was pandemonium; the crowds of shoppers scattering and stampeding like startled cattle, the thundering of their feet drumming in time to the ringing in Dean's ears. The elder hunter pivoted wildly, trying to locate Erikson, who surely had to be the shooter, but his view was obscured by whipping hair, bludgeoning shopping bags and a blur of multi-coloured clothing as the crowds fled. The sea of terrified faces seemed to get faster and more indistinct as mass hysteria set in.
Dean barely had time to draw breath before another shot rang out, then another. And another.
Holy crap! He felt his heart explode into overdrive, his blood rushing distractingly in his ears. He had to do something. The more people ran, the easier they were to target. Erikson had hundreds of people pulled together into the largest sitting duck Dean had ever seen.
"Get down!" he yelled, "Get down!" He could hear his cries echoed by a security guard several hundred metres away, gun already drawn and spinning like a compass needle. Some of the shoppers heeded the warning and ducked into nearby shops, or behind planters and benches, their horrified gasps and squeals filling the static air. Many others continued to flee, however, and Dean swore. He wanted to get his own gun out, but it was too risky with the trigger-happy guards running around. He needed to get to the cursed cop, and fast. But first he needed to actually locate him.
Cover. He had to find cover. He was fast becoming a sitting duck himself the longer he stayed on the main mall thoroughfare. Desperate, Dean swung his head back and forth, trying to see anywhere that wasn't already crammed full of people. Another shot cracked out, shattering a shop window somewhere behind him and setting off a blaring, pulsing alarm.
Now knowing for sure the direction the bullets were coming from, Dean turned and began hurrying towards a free-standing stall selling trinkets and novelty cell phone covers. Two men were peering out from behind it, staring wide-eyed at him as he made his dash to safety. He was about five metres away when a bullet whined past him and struck an elderly man, felling him instantly, blood splaying out onto the pale, tiled flooring beneath his prone form.
"Sonofabitch!" Dean growled through gritted teeth, skidding to a halt and backtracking to the fallen man. He ducked another bullet, feeling its heat sear the top of his head as he moved. Dropping to his knees beside the injured man, he grabbed for a pulse as bullets continued to fly. "Hey! Can you hear me!" He called into the man's ear as he felt the ropey pulse beneath his fingertips. Receiving no response, he gulped, knowing he was going to have to drag the man out of the line of fire.
He took a precious second to scan his surroundings. Some people were still attempting to run, others were peeping out fearfully from makeshift hiding places, others still had been hit but were being tended to by guards and brave civilians. For the old man, Dean was his only hope. He threaded his hands through the man's armpits and lifted his upper body as much as he dared, beginning to edge him backwards with slow steps.
The young hunter grunted with exertion. As wispy as the older man had looked, he was a hell of a lot heavier in the flesh. Dean hauled him towards the stall, glancing backwards to be sure of his path. He could see that the two men there were watching him intently, joined by several others; ready and waiting to receive Dean's wounded burden.
Close, so close now. But several paces from relative safety, Dean's boots slithered on something wet on the ground. Blood? he thought instantly, and stumbled, the injured man nearly slipping from his grip.
Dean took just a second too long to recover.
When the bullet slammed into his shoulder, it was more of a dull thud than a searing burn. But it sent him reeling backwards with a surprised "Guh!" The back of his head rebounded off the floor with a crack, sending a shower of sparks shooting across his vision. Then a strange paralysis seemed to take over, seemed to leaden his limbs and turn his thoughts to sludge. Everything dimmed, the world around him fading. For several moments he didn't know where he was, or who he was, or why he was. Then there was pain, a gathering crescendo of white hot agony that picked up speed with every passing second. His shoulder ignited and a fault-line of pain cleaved his skull.
It took his breath away, and he gasped helplessly. But one thought shone through the fog in his mind: he needed to get away. He couldn't afford to waste a second.
He started to move, to push himself up, but he was too slow. Shots continued to rain down and he stalled, dazed, trying to figure out which way to turn. Then multiple hands were grabbing at him, pulling him backwards. The effect on the gunshot wound fuzzed his vision out and he fought to keep his eyes open as he was dragged, his gaze drifting heavenwards. And that was when he saw him, Erikson, now a floor up, gun mercilessly in hand.
The grotesque mask covering his face.
It was his last coherent image before his eyes fluttered closed, and it was one he knew he'd never forget.