art_savage (art_savage) wrote,
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SPN fic - Highway Chile - 1/1

Title: Highway Chile
Characters/Pairing: Dean, gen
Rating: R for language
Word Count: 10,816
Disclaimer: All the witty disclaimers are already taken. Sam and Dean, alas, do not belong to me.

Summary: While investigating a series of apparent drownings, Dean gets reacquainted with his old friend, Murphy's Law. Stanford-era solo hunt.

A/N:Written for pdragon76's wish list in the Fall Fandom Free-For-All. This thing took a lot longer than I'd planned, but at least it's still technically fall.

I've taken some liberties and combined elements of myths from different cultures. Please forgive me if I've committed some grievous anthropological error. Also, I apologize to the good citizens of Price, Utah for besmirching the reputation of their fair city. I'm sure that in real life, it's a very nice place to live.

Title from the Jimi Hendrix song of the same name.

As always, thanks to my beta/partner-in-crime/enabler, laurie_bug. Thanks also to roque_clasique for checking up on me to make sure I was still alive, and to whoever nominated my story The Wind Remembers Their Names for a Salt & Burn Award.


--


If there was one thing Dean would say about Price, Utah, the dump lived up to its name.

He pressed his back against the cold cinderblock wall, knees drawn up to his chest. From somewhere down the hall, past the holding cells, sallow fluorescent light leaked in through a small shatterproof window set high in the thick steel door. He could just make out the outline of the stainless steel sink and toilet. The only sounds that reached him were distant, muffled: the murmur of voices, a chuff of a laugh, the occasional rumble of a passing truck. He was the only occupant of the cells tonight, alone in the echoing dark.

Better than the alternative.

He dragged in a deep breath and regretted it, gagging at the stink of piss and despair. He shuddered. Squeezed his eyes shut. They'd taken his watch, but he knew it had to be hours till daylight. Maybe by then he could convince the hick sheriff of this hick town that he'd had nothing to do with the recent string of mysterious deaths.

He just hoped it wouldn't take another body to do it.

--


The Impala rocked in the wake of a passing truck. Dean jerked awake, blinked at the gray morning light. Knew it was time to move.

He'd been on the road for four days. Pay-at-the-pump gas station runs. U-Scan checkout lanes in vast anonymous supermarkets. A credit card trail, a silent cell phone, all the way from Tallahassee. He'd made Utah late last night, center line blurring as he rolled down the window, cranked up the radio to stay awake. When the rumble strip woke him the second time, he pulled over, curled up in the backseat with a blanket that smelled like the Impala's trunk: gun oil and old books, cedar and sweat and sage. Now he was cold and stiff, an ache behind his eyes.

He sat up, rubbed his eyes. Stretched, taking stock. The shoulder he'd popped in Florida still throbbed, a deep muscle burn. Everything else was old pain, the war wounds that acted up in the cold or the rain. His right hip and knee. Lower back. His hands, busted too many times in too many fights. Left collarbone, cracked years ago when the spirit of a crushed coal miner tossed him into a gravestone.

He unfolded himself from the backseat, stretched on the side of the road. Another eighteen-wheeler blasted past. The wind ripped at his clothes, laced with the scent of exhaust.

He thought he'd stopped about an hour past Moab, which meant another hour to Price, maybe two if he stuck to backroads. He waited for a couple of cars to pass, then stepped behind the Impala for a quick piss. Zipped up. Watched his breath cloud. The horizon was lightening to lavender. Over the mountains, the sky was still dark, speckled with stars. He picked out Orion's Belt, Leo, Cassiopeia.

Sam could've named more.

He slid back behind the wheel, keyed the ignition. If he started out now, he'd make Price before most folks had even rolled out of bed to eat their Wheaties.

--


When he croaked "single" to the clerk behind the desk at the National 9 Motel, he wasn't particularly surprised to realize it was the first word he'd spoken in five days.

--


The blond woman watched the row of green lights on the baby monitor rise and fall, in time with the soft whuffling rhythm of the infant's quiet breath. Dean kept his eyes on her hands, the jerking motions as she twisted a tissue again and again, dissolving it into shreds.

"I just keep thinking" – she hiccupped a sob – " maybe if I'd – "

"Don't," Dean said. "There was nothing you could have done."

Maryanne Jacobs accepted the handful of tissues he pulled from the box, too many, really, but he was always at a loss when women cried. She blew her nose, loudly, and looked up at him with swimmy eyes rimmed in red. "I know. Intellectually, I know. Emotionally, not so much."

Dean nodded, handed her some more Kleenex. He tried to meet her eyes. Couldn't. Fixed instead on a spot just over her shoulder, a blank of white wall. "I'm sorry for your loss." The words grated, inadequate. "I hate to bother you at such a hard time, but any information could be helpful, no matter how strange or trivial it might seem."

"I'm afraid I don't understand," Mrs. Jacobs said with a sniff. "Why does the Department of Natural Resources want to know about my son?"

Dean leaned forward, though he suspected his air of sympathy and carefully plotted line of bullshit would go unnoticed. "We've been conducting studies of the Price River," he said, "trying to secure funding to remove debris and make it safer for recreation. As you know, there have been an unusual number of deaths along the river in recent months. We're hoping that concrete evidence of the manmade dangers will help convince the powers that be that something needs to be done."

He waited while Mrs. Jacobs honked into another Kleenex. This case was turning out to be one of the bad ones. The Jacobs' four-year-old son, Zachary, had drowned in the Price River a week ago today, swept away by the rushing current of spring rainwater and snowmelt. The boy's face, cherubic, framed by bowl-cut blond hair, stared out from a dozen pictures scattered around the family room. Playing with a stuffed elephant, grinning in the arms of his father, propping up the dazed pink bundle of his baby sister.

Mrs. Jacobs paused to wipe her nose again. "Zach loved the trains," she began. "From that spot in the canyon, you can watch them go by all day. We'd been there plenty of times before. It was a nice place for a picnic. Especially this time of the year, when the weather's getting warmer and the grass is starting to green up. You can still see the snow up in the mountains. Just pretty, you know?"

He nodded. Plucked a few more Kleenex for her.

"Zach knew better than to go near the river. He was so smart for his age. He knew if he put his toy boats in the river, he'd lose them in the current. I never had to worry about him getting into trouble." Her eyes strayed from the baby monitor, fixed on the floor. "I just turned away for a minute, to get some more juice for the baby. And when I turned back, he was just – gone."

"Do you remember anything out of the ordinary about that day?" Dean addressed the wall. "Maybe strange sounds? Weird animal tracks? Even unusual problems with cell phone reception?"

That jarred the grief, got a frown. "Not that I remember. What would that have to do with anything?"

Dean pasted on his best reassuring smile. "We're just trying to make sure we have all the data, all possible variables. If there are other factors involved besides the river's inherent danger, that could be used against our case."

Christ, what a line of nonsense. The lies left a bad taste in his mouth.

Mrs. Jacobs didn't seem to notice. She nodded, brow furrowing. "I don't think it really was anything," she started, "but I do remember I kept hearing something in the weeds down by the water. Probably just the wind. But I kept looking, expecting to see an animal, a coyote or something. Other than that" – she shrugged – "nothing unusual at all."

"That's all right," Dean said. "In fact, that's actually good." He flashed a weak smile that went unseen, Mrs. Jacobs' gaze trained again on the baby monitor. On the other end, the child snuffled, sighed, quieted once more into deep and even breath.

--


White tile and stainless steel gleamed under fluorescent lights. Dean stood before an OCD-organized desk, the guard post that blocked entry to the county morgue, taking shallow breaths to avoid the sharp disinfectant smell, the underlying hint of decay. He was glad that Zach Jacobs' body had already been released. This was a grim enough place without having to see the sad, still shell of a dead child.

He pocketed the press credentials he'd made up an hour ago, a rush job at the local copy shop. "What can you tell me about the Jacobs boy?"

The attendant on duty was a reedy guy in his mid-twenties, tattoos peeking out from the sleeves of his blue scrubs. A name badge identified him as Brian Williams. He raised an eyebrow, tugged at an earlobe. "Well, you know, the cops really don't want that report getting out. Not to mention the fact that it's confidential information. I could lose my job over something like that."

It seemed obvious to Dean the guy was angling for a bribe, but another part of the statement caught his ear. "Wait a minute. I thought this was a simple drowning. Why would the cops want to keep that under wraps?"

"Why would a reporter care?" Williams grinned wide, trailed his hand across a file folder sitting on the desk.

Son of a bitch.

Dean had a little over three hundred dollars left from his last lucky visit to a pool hall. He forked over a third before Williams was satisfied. He expected the guy to take a little walk, leave him alone with the file. Instead, he found himself leaning over an autopsy table, leafing through the findings with the attendant's eyes on his back. Creepy little douchebag.

What he read in the report didn't quite prepare him for what he saw in the accompanying photos. Zach Jacobs had been pulled from the river missing his fingernails. His teeth.

Missing his eyes.

Dean forced himself to study the photos, the empty sockets and mottled skin, the bloated and bruised face. In one image, a gloved hand pried at the boy's mouth; the gums looked raw, savaged.

Dean turned to find the attendant watching him. "This is what the cops want to keep quiet? The teeth and all?" He waved a hand back toward the file.

A slimy grin was smeared across Williams' face. Sick fuck. "I know. Wild, right? Wasn't a fish took that kid's teeth."

"So they think – what? That some" – human – "psycho killer did this?"

"Fifth one like it in the last year. At first they figured fish got to the eyes, and the teeth and fingernails were a fluke. Now they're thinking Hannibal Lecter, you know?"

Great. Nothing like small-town cops hunting a serial killer to fuck up an investigation. Dean scratched at the back of his neck. "Think I could get a look at the files on the other victims?"

"I don't know." Williams rubbed at his scraggly moustache, grinning all the while. "I've probably given you too much already."

Dean sighed. Reached for his wallet.

--


The Impala was made for driving streets like this.

Time had stopped along Price's Main Street sometime around 1963. Old brick buildings, Italianate and neoclassical, mixed with art deco and stolid modern storefronts. Dean motored past gaudy signs in bright neon and backlit plastic, restaurants and shops, springtime displays behind plate glass, the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum. Like the car had a homing beacon, a memory or instinct of its own, he ended up pulling into Sherald's Burger Bar. You could order at a window and sit at an outdoor table, or wait for a carhop. The place was perfect.

He'd worked through lunchtime and was starving now. He ordered a burger, fries, and a strawberry shake, and sat at one of the picnic tables, facing the street.

He'd hit town with nothing more than coordinates, but after a couple hours at the Price City Library, he'd found what he was here for. Five deaths over the last nine months. He'd compiled a list of the victims that morning, then returned to the library after his visit to the morgue. He had a stack of photocopies and printouts to show for it, not to mention a bitch of a headache.

The victims didn't seem to fit any pattern – different ages and genders, economic and educational backgrounds. All white, but that didn't mean much in a place like Utah. Some of the victims were Mormons, but others were descendants of the Greek and Italian immigrants who'd come to work in the area's mining industry. Dean wondered how the cops would explain the apparent chaos of the "crimes" – or the fact that most of the victims had been snatched while in the presence of other people. It wasn't the first time civilians had slapped the serial killer label on a supernatural being, of course. Far easier to believe in a human monster; the evening news offered nightly proof that those were real.

Dean wasn't sure which job was harder: searching for a serial killer that didn't exist, or for a monster that wasn't supposed to. The list of possible suspects was migraine-worthy – nixes, nymphs, kelpies – not to mention your average vengeful spirit. Every culture had a few water creatures to choose from. He had plenty of ideas, just needed time and more information. There was still enough daylight to visit the scene; maybe that would help narrow things down.

He ate slowly, then sat for a while nursing his milkshake. Across the street, kids clambered through the gerbil-tubes of a McDonald's playland. Their shrieks and laughter carried through lulls in traffic. Dean drummed his fingers on the tabletop, tried not to imagine the before-and-after of Zach Jacobs' gap-toothed grin. He wished he had some backup on this one, someone to catch anything he might miss, but this time if he fucked up, there was no one to clean up his mess.

He was starting to think that was exactly what his dad had in mind.

--


The last light of the day cast long shadows; the riverbank's mud sucked at Dean's boots with each step. He slogged along the river's edge, EMF meter in hand, searching rocks and brush and scattered weeds – so far, coming up empty. A few times, the hair on the back of his neck pricked up, but each time he stopped and looked around, he saw nothing, heard nothing.

He wasn't getting shit from EMF. He left the meter on but pocketed it to concentrate on the ground. The river rushed by in eddies and swirls, frothing around jutting debris: splintered branches, railroad ties, discarded track and rebar. The railroads had dumped tons of garbage, leftovers and rejects, after completing the tracks nearby. That crap had helped his cover story, but Dean knew it could pose a real problem if he needed to do any recon by boat, or worse, if he got dumped in. Getting slammed up against that shit by the whitewater would suck pretty hard.

The only tracks along the banks belonged to humans and their machines: bootprints and tire tracks, the rescuers and ATVs who had searched for Zach Jacobs' body. Most of the nearby vegetation was trampled, but Dean figured these were the weeds Maryanne Jacobs had described – the reeds and tall grasses could certainly hide a coyote or other animal. He wandered down the river a ways. Spotted some tracks that were definitely canine. Coyote or search dog? Just a stray? No way to know.

In the other direction, he found the remnants of the Jacobs' picnic. Trampled, muddy napkins, a crushed juice box. Closer to the water, a few child-sized handprints.

He crouched at the water's edge to examine a muddy handprint. Zach Jacobs'? Odd, maybe, though not unlikely. Kids liked to play in the dirt, after all. Hell, he could recall some pretty spectacular mud pies when Sammy was that age.

His grin was fading before he even realized it was there.

--


The motel room was done in pukey shades of brown and green, little paisley turds covering the bedspread and curtains. Fresh from the shower, Dean sat on the edge of the bed, curled his toes against the hard beige carpet, listening to his dad's phone ring inexorably toward voice mail. "This is John Winchester…"

It was all he'd heard of his dad's voice since Florida, since that rasped "Get some sleep" – which Dean knew was as much of an order as anything the man ever said. So he'd taken the Vicoprofen shoved at him and tried to find a position that didn't jar his shoulder too badly. He'd fallen asleep to the silhouette of his father cleaning guns at the room's wobbly table, moonlight washing pale over flat black and stainless steel. Woke the next morning to find his dad's stuff gone, some coordinates scrawled on the notepad left on the bedside table. When he checked the map, found himself pointed toward Price, he had to laugh. He was damn sure paying, all right.

"…If this is about 11-2-83, page me with your coordinates."

"Hey, Dad," he said after the beep. "So, I'm in Price. Looks like we're dealing with a water spirit or creature of some sort. But, uh, I guess you knew that already. I went out to the river today, where the last kid drowned. Didn't find anything. So I guess I'll be hitting the library again tomorrow."

He stared down at a cigarette burn in the carpet. "Um. Hope everything's going okay. Just gimme a call if you need a hand." Or, you know, cannon fodder. Whichever. "I'll keep you posted."

He hung up. Stared down at the phone for a moment before arranging it on the nightstand next to his favorite .45. Knife under the pillow, a line of salt at the door.

Just in case.

He turned on the TV, volume low. Turned out the light. Peeled back the covers and sprawled out. He flipped through the channels for a bit before settling on the Food Network, the perfect mindless background noise.

It was the first night he'd spent in a bed since Tallahassee. Forking out cash for a room never made much sense when he was by himself, when he wasn't working a case. Unless it was freezing, he didn't mind sleeping in the car. Good for a quick getaway, and the Impala was pretty much home, anyway.

He kicked at the blankets to get his feet free, shifted a bit, rustling around. His shoulder ached, and now the rest of him did, too, the muscles in his back and neck overcompensating. Couldn't get comfortable.

For a fleeting moment, he thought of pulling his clothes back on, finding a bar. It wasn't even midnight. But he couldn't risk letting his guard down, not in the middle of a hunt, not without someone to watch his back.

The TV murmured on, the low drone of speech, the occasional clink as a chef stirred or scraped a bowl. A sliver of light filtered in from the parking lot. He stared up at a water stain on the ceiling. Kicked at the scratchy blankets, punched the flat pillow into shape. Reached for his phone, flipped it open, checking the display.

Plenty of battery. Plenty of bars. Not that that made any goddamn difference. He'd learned the hard way after Sam left: it was never a problem with the phone.

--


He knew what kind of day it was going to be when the motel manager stopped him on his way out to the car. His Visa card, or rather, Bruce Dickinson's Visa card, had been declined for another night's stay.

Dean had other cards, but all under other names. He forked over the cash with a mournful look at the rest of his rapidly dwindling funds.

Then he saw the article at breakfast, over scrambled eggs and hash browns, a photo of EMTs wheeling a gurney toward an ambulance, a bold headline two inches high: Second drowning in eight days.

He signaled the waitress for his check.

--


"Department of Natural Resources?" The middle-aged man blinked behind wire-rimmed glasses, ran a hand over wispy strands of hair pasted across his bald pate. He leaned forward, peering at the laminated card Dean held out, another Kinko's job that identified him as Steve Harris, inspector for the Water Resources Division. After a moment's further scrutiny, the man nodded. Stepped back to let Dean inside.

The humanities department of the College of Eastern Utah was deserted but for Mitch Curtin's office; it had taken Dean a while to remember it was Sunday morning. He glanced around the cramped room: bookshelves crammed full, books stacked on the floor, books tilting along the windowsill. He took the seat Curtin indicated, an aluminum and black vinyl chair facing the cluttered desk.

Curtin sat behind the desk, shuffled through some papers, tapped them into a stack. "Thought I'd try to get some work done, try to get my mind off things." He gave a wry smile, a little shrug. "But freshman comp essays are hard enough to read on a good day."

Dean returned the grin, feeling like more of a fraud than ever. "I really hate to bother you at a time like this." He repeated the spiel he'd given Mrs. Jacobs. "Can you tell me what happened yesterday?"

Curtin had spent his Saturday kayaking with Nick Spirtoff, a friend and fellow professor. Only Curtin had made it home. He pulled off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose. "We'd finished the run down from Price Canyon, and we were just kicking back with a few beers before my wife would bring the Suburban to pick us up. It was just starting to get dark.

"Nick thought he heard something – a wounded animal, hiding in the brush, maybe. He went down to the water to take a look. He yelled back for me to grab the flashlight, and while I was rummaging around, he, uh – must have fallen in."

Curtin smoothed down his wisps of hair. "I thought he was just messing around at first. Playing a prank. Figured he'd jump out from behind the rocks or something, you know? Scare the hell out of me. But."

"But he wasn't joking."

"No." Curtin shook his head, watched Dean with watering eyes. "I never even saw him go in. Just heard the splash. And that was it. This time of the year, the river runs so fast – and with all the debris…"

"Poor guy never had a chance." Dean didn't have to fake sympathy. Hell of a way to go. "Tell me, Mr. Curtin. Did you see or hear anything unusual yesterday – maybe some sign of what led Nick down to the water?"

"Well, I didn't hear anything at first. But when I was looking for the flashlight, I could have sworn…"

"What?" Dean leaned forward.

"This probably sounds ridiculous." Curtin grimaced, blushed a little. "But whatever it was that Nick heard – it sounded just like a baby crying."

--


They were getting to know him at the Price City Library. Dean nodded and smiled at the middle-aged soccer-mom librarian, glad he didn't look as much like a vagrant as when he'd first come in yesterday morning.

He'd spent the day before getting acquainted with the periodicals department, searching newspapers for information about the river's victims. Today he hit the local history section, looking for legends and folklore.

As crazy as the damn Mormons were, Dean was pretty sure he could skip over their part. All native tribes had some fucked-up lore, and it was a safe bet that at least some of it was true. This area was the traditional home of the Ute tribe, and the Uintah and Ouray Reservation covered large parts of neighboring counties. He remembered his dad meeting a contact on the eastern part of the reservation a few years back, shopping for obscure roots and herbs. It was little more than a hunch, but it was a place to start.

He hit the jackpot with a book called Ute Tales. Bizarre legends of Coyote and Rabbit and Dove, complete with incest, cross-dressing, and sex change. One story even explained why dogs sniff each other's butts. As entertaining as that was, the creatures described in other tales were more likely what he needed. It was well past lunchtime when he found it: one of many accounts about water babies.

The book transcribed interviews and oral history recorded by an ethnologist in the 1930s. There were several versions of the water baby legend, but all had the same gist. The creature lived in or near water. Sometimes it was described as a beautiful woman who seduced male victims, but more often, it was said to look like a human child or a dwarf. Its cry perfectly mimicked a baby's, and it used that sound to lure victims to the water.

Dean recalled similar legends from other cultures. Some of these things wanted companionship or revenge; others just wanted food. Either way, heeding their cries generally didn't end well. He sidetracked for a bit, following the thread through a half-dozen motley cultures. He found variations on the theme in Morocco and Russia, speculations that tales of sirens and lake monsters had evolved from such myths. Legends in Mexico and Central America told of the ahuizotl, which lured its victims with a cry – and enjoyed the delicacies of human fingernails, teeth, and eyes. Christopher Columbus had reported a similar creature in Jamaica. All pieces of the same whole, tales that shared elements of the truth, the way every culture had a story of a great flood.

Now that he was on the right track, he didn't want to stop. He pulled out every research trick he knew, wildcards and Boolean bullshit. Accessed databases with six different library cards and college IDs, each made out to a different name. Asked himself, What would Sammy do?, in hopes of channeling his inner geek. He found plenty of rehashings of the legend, but not a goddamn thing about how to kill it.

Fuck. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. Another day with nothing to show for it but a headache. He fished his phone out of his pocket, scrolled through his contacts. He could call his dad, who probably knew more about this case than he'd let on, but suspected he'd only dig himself deeper. He'd save that as a last resort.

Didn't mean he couldn't use other contacts. One way or another, he'd get this done on his own.

--


"So you're John Winchester's boy." The man exhaled the words in a stream of smoke that hung in the neon light.

"Yeah," Dean grinned. "But don't hold it against me."

He met the Ute at a bar in Helper, one of the few places along the main street still in business. Pete Duncan was the root guy John had used before: mid-thirties, tall and thin, with shoulder-length black hair that shone in the smoky blue light. Though he lived on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, Dean suspected there was some Caucasian in his ancestry. His face was a little too sharp, skin a shade too light, to be a full-blood Ute.

He cracked a smile at Dean's joke, raised a hand to signal the waitress. Once they'd ordered a couple of beers, he asked, "So what can I do for you?"

"Been looking into some drownings along the Price River," Dean said. He paused while the waitress dropped off two bottles. "I'm thinking it might be a water baby."

"Hmm." Pete took a long swallow of beer. His face stayed flat. "Could be. What do you want to know?"

Dean downed half his brew in one go, only briefly questioning the wisdom of drinking on an empty stomach. "Well, I found a bunch of versions of the legend, oral history kind of stuff." He waved a hand at his stack of research: computer printouts, photocopies, Ute Tales. "What I really need to know is how to find it and how to kill it."

"One-track mind, you hunters. Always with the killing." Duncan shook his head. "Is there a pattern to the locations?"

Dean shuffled through his research till he came to the detailed map he'd folded into a smaller square and marked up with a red Flair pen. The location of each death was marked with an X, each X numbered in chronological order. He pushed the map across to Duncan. "Looks like it's moving roughly downriver, but most of the deaths seem to be concentrated around this area." He tapped a finger on the spot.

"Price Canyon." Duncan nodded absently, fished a pack of smokes from the pocket of his flannel shirt. He tapped one out and lit it. His hand started toward his pocket again, then changed course and offered the pack to Dean.

Dean nodded thanks, lit up.

"Lotta new construction in these areas." Duncan pointed at a few spots on the map. "Might be why your water baby's acting up now. If it got squeezed out of its usual territory, well – it's just like a mountain lion dipping down into backyards to eat housecats. Price Canyon is pretty deserted, except for those crazy whitewater junkies, so it's as likely a place as any for the thing to hide."

"Kayaker got killed yesterday had just finished the Price Canyon run."

"Then that's where I'd start. Look for caves or animal dens. Of course, if this sucker's getting territorial, it might come right for you."

"Great." Dean lifted his beer to his lips, was surprised to find it empty. He signaled the waitress again. "So what do I do when I find it?"

Duncan shrugged. "Never had to dispose of one, myself. Hell, I've never even seen one. Supposedly, you can get 'em to leave people alone. My grandmother told how she'd leave offerings for them. A pinch of tobacco or some food, things like that. But with it coming into more populated areas, that might not be an option."

"Can they even be killed?"

"Sure. One version of the story says you can kill it by taking it out of the water and making it dry out over a few days. In another, a guy just fought one off and was able to beat it to death. They're corporeal. Just like any other animal out in the desert."

"But they are supernatural, right? I mean, you can't appease a rattlesnake or a coyote with tobacco."

Duncan nodded. The waitress dropped off two more beers. Both men watched her hips sway as she walked away. "Suppose so," Duncan said, turning back to Dean.

"Think it'll take something special to finish the job?" Dean took a swig from the fresh brew. "Iron or silver, something like that?"

"Dunno. Either one works on a lot of things in a lot of different cultures."

He would have rather had an answer nailed down, but Dean figured he could work with that. He had both iron and silver rounds, silver knives, some wrought-iron spikes salvaged from an old Victorian garden fence. Good deal. "Well, hell, Pete," he said. "Lemme buy you dinner. Least I can do, since you came all this way."

They had a fine, greasy spread of mozzarella sticks followed by burgers and fries. Dean switched over to Coke, part of his mind already turning toward the hunt: where to park the car, what to pack. He could get to the scene of yesterday's drowning well before full dark. Though the water baby didn't seem averse to daylight, maybe the appearance of a lone and vulnerable victim plus the cover of dark would help lure the thing out quicker.

Duncan seemed like a good guy, a deadpan sense of humor Dean could get behind, full of stories about crazy hunters. It was rare these days Dean spoke to anyone besides his dad or victims or witnesses. He found himself smiling for real, for the first time in a long time.

Then Duncan asked, "So what's John up to these days? Been a few years since he came around. You two hunting separate?"

Dean shrugged. "Nah, just once in a while. Cover more ground, you know?"

"What about your brother – Sam, right? Way John told it, you two were joined at the hip."

"College. Stanford." As much as the words still hurt, he couldn't help the note of pride. "Got himself a full ride."

Duncan whistled, raised his eyebrows. "Smart kid, huh."

"Damn straight. Pre-law, of all things." Dean traced a finger through a ring of condensation on the table. Tried to smile. "Guess he figured me and Dad need all the legal help we can get."

Just as well that they were finished eating; Duncan seemed to know he'd hit a nerve. "Well, I best let the great white hunter be on his way. Thanks for dinner."

"Thanks for the info," Dean said. "I really appreciate it."

"No problem. I owe John a favor, anyway."

Duncan threw down a few ones to cover the tip. The late afternoon sun caught the glint of the keys in his hand as he pushed open the door.

Dean drained the dregs of his Coke, wondering how long it would be before Sam's absence didn't ache like an open wound, before he could forget Sam's voice telling him maybe he shouldn't call again.

--


Dean found the scene with little trouble, a spot north of the Price city limits, closer to Helper. He stood on the riverbank, squinting into the setting sun. The day had been bright and clear, but now clouds were moving in. A cold wind whipped at his face.

Nothing odd or out of place. Still, something felt off. He walked the river's edge, watched the water froth and swirl. About twenty yards downstream was another dam of debris, twists of rebar rising up from the current.

He'd parked the Impala about half a mile away, hidden by a rise in the land, a stand of scrub brush, the twisted branches of a lightning-killed piñon. No sense attracting unwanted attention. The duffel slung over his shoulder held iron spikes, silver and iron blades, a squeeze bottle of lighter fluid and a round container of Morton's salt for good measure. The .45 tucked at the small of his back was loaded with alternating silver and consecrated iron rounds. A silver knife was sheathed at his belt.

He wandered the riverbank as the sun sank low, long shadows stretching out before him. The dusk was anything but quiet: the constant roar of the river, the occasional clank as he shifted his bag, the night insects beginning to sing. The air smelled clear, clean, a hint of sage and pine, rot and wet earth, the faint sweet scent of the water. He breathed deep, letting the cold air burn his lungs. Felt good to be outside in a place like this, between the solid presence of the mountains and the river's graceful dance. There were definitely worse places for a hunt.

He couldn't put a finger on what changed: a subtle shift in the air, a prickling feeling of being watched. He went still, listening, concentrating on his peripheral vision.

The first time he'd felt this, at the scene of Zach Jacobs' death, he could pass off as coincidence, paranoia. But he knew when to listen to his instincts. This thing was out there, and it was good at hiding. And tracking. And killing.

He turned in a circle, scanning the landscape. The wind whistled down from the canyon, biting cold now that the sun was going down. His eyes watered; the tips of his ears had gone numb. He flexed his fingers, drew his gun as he moved toward the canyon – kept it aimed at the ground but ready to go.

He heard a splash behind him, too big for a fish, but by the time he turned, whatever it was had gone. Cold tendrils of fear snaked down his spine. Nothing like being stalked to set your teeth on edge. He backed up the riverbank, away from the water, slowly lowered his bag to the ground. Raised the gun.

Nothing.

The last thing he wanted was to get trapped in the canyon. He stepped sideways a few paces, wondering if it would come at him now, or if it would wait till he let his guard down.

He stood stock still, breathing silently through his mouth. A minute or two ticked by. Maybe "helpless victim" was the way to go. Still watching the water, he tucked his gun away. He headed back the way he'd come, all the while acutely aware of the distance to his duffel, hands kept open, ready to go for the gun or the blade.

Something rustled in the grasses behind him, toward the highway. What the fuck? No action in the water. How had the thing gotten around him? He didn't turn, held steady, twitched a hand toward his belt.

That was when the voice boomed behind him: "Freeze! Sheriff's Department!"

Dean froze. If there was one thing he knew how to do, it was follow orders.

--


Two deputies, big guys, the kind of bulk that was good for bar brawls and crowd control. Dean got a quick glimpse of their silhouettes before the Mag-Lite in his eyes blinded him and the commanding tone advised him to face forward. He obeyed, and a second later was down on his knees in the river mud, hands laced behind his head.

One of the cops frisked him. Found the knife, then the gun. "Jesus H. Christ," the cop drawled. "Would you look at this, Charlie?" Dean winced as the cop jerked his arms behind his back to cuff him, pain spiking through his shoulder. Shit, so not good. He worked at breathing deep to quell his panic.

The flashlight's beam jumped as Charlie joined his partner. "Holy shit, Butch. Think we really got him?"

So very, very not good. Cold fear gripped Dean's gut.

"Looks like," Butch said. "The sick fuck."

A subtle shift of sound was all the warning he got before Butch cracked him in the back of the head. His vision blanked, and then he was down, face-first in the mud. A boot caught his bad shoulder, prodded him over onto his back. He bit his lip holding in the cry. When his sight cleared, he blinked up at the flashlight's beam, the two shadows looming above.

"Get up," said the shadow on his right, Butch. Dean rolled in the mud for a dizzy moment before the shadow on his left, Charlie, grabbed a fistful of his jacket and hauled him to his knees. He swayed there, squinting up into the light.

"Roger Trim was a friend of mine," Butch said, words spoken through clenched teeth. The shadow leaned down into the light. Dean caught a glimpse of glittering, angry eyes before the cop held up Dean's knife, flashing silver. "Is this what you used on him?"

No chance to answer. Butch's other fist reared back, cracked him in the face with the butt of a gun.

With the butt of his own gun.

Things went black for a few seconds. Dean came to on his back in the mud, one leg folded awkwardly beneath him, Butch kicking the shit out of him. Steel-toed boots caught his hip, his ribs. He rolled, brought his knees up to protect his belly. Everything else was screwed. He tried to use his cuffed hands to cover his kidneys, got a couple of busted fingers for his trouble.

It must have been the stupid girly sound he was making, a pathetic involuntary whine ripped from deep in his throat, that persuaded Charlie to intervene. "Butch! Jesus, come on, Butch!"

The cop backed off, but Dean stayed curled in on himself, unable to do much more than breathe and hurt. Through the haze of pain, all he knew was the cold and wet of the mud, the river's low, dull roar.

--


Dean supposed he could understand the strip search, but really, there was no need for things to get so…invasive.

And okay, maybe it wasn't the most opportune moment to joke, "Christ, the least you could do is offer a reach-around."

Maybe he should take the handsy cop's advice, learn when to keep his mouth shut.

--


Alone in the echoing dark, Dean pressed his back against the cold cinderblock wall, knees drawn up to his chest. From somewhere down the hall, past the holding cells, sallow fluorescent light leaked in through a small shatterproof window set high in the thick steel door. He dragged in a deep breath and regretted it, gagging at the stink of piss and despair. He shuddered. Squeezed his eyes shut.

His clothes were still damp, caked with mud and blood. The first thing he'd done once they'd taken the cuffs off was straighten out his fingers, the pinky and ring finger of his left hand. Pure dumb luck it wasn't his gun hand. The left side of his face was swollen, cheekbone probably broken. Must have made for a great mugshot. His shoulder hurt like a bitch, but was still in its socket. The rest was just bruises, but damn, did he hurt.

He'd fucked this one up but good.

There wasn't any real evidence against him – wasn't much evidence, period. He had to hope that reason would win out, that there was some cop high enough up on the ladder who was fond of procedure and logic. Then again, this wasn't just a drunk-and-disorderly – he was apparently an Official Suspect, in crimes so heinous that Miranda didn't mean a whole lot.

A door slammed in the distance, near the booking area, if Dean's internal compass was right. He tensed, waited, but no one came. He let himself relax a tick, but kept watch on the slight shifting of shadows at the crack around the door.

He'd been smart enough to leave all his ID in the car, save for his press credentials, thinking it was the only cover story that might make any sense. It was a solid enough identity: clean record, up-to-date driver's license. A call to his "editor," one Robert Singer, would confirm that he was a freelancer for the Lawrence County Journal.

He knew he was okay on the .45 they'd found on him. Most gun nuts and survivalist types had Utah concealed carry permits, and he was no exception. Utah was one of the few places that would issue permits to nonresidents, and it had reciprocal agreements with a lot of other states, so your average Unabomber could stay legal throughout his travels. He could probably get busted for the knife, but any charge was likely a misdemeanor. They hadn't found his duffel yet, but if they did, it might be a problem.

If they found the Impala, he was fucked.

He listened as a truck rumbled past, a low diesel grind that shook the walls. The Carbon County Jail wasn't the worst place he'd ever spent a night, but something about being locked up made him crazy, made him want to beat against the door till he or it broke.

He caught himself grinding his teeth. Forced himself to breath evenly, if not deeply. Panic sure as shit wouldn't help.

According to Dad, that was his problem: letting his emotions get the best of him. It was why he did dumb things like telling Cassie about the big fucking secret. Like calling Sam without thinking about the time difference.

Even that hadn't entirely been his fault. After spending most of the night in a hospital waiting room, fresh from the terror of watching Dad nearly get eviscerated by a pissed-off, scythe-wielding spirit, blood still caked under his fingernails, he'd just wanted to hear Sam's voice. Maybe he should've explained, but he didn't want Sam to worry. And maybe he should've remembered it was four in the morning in Palo Alto. But really, how the fuck was he supposed to know it was time for end-of-the-quarter exams? Not like Sam kept him up to date on the academic calendar.

And that was how this whole mess had started, wasn't it? Sam telling him not to call back. Dean letting himself get all Lifetime-movie about it, letting himself get distracted on their next hunt, the black shuck in Tallahassee.

He'd had one simple job: keep the thing corralled behind the treeline, make sure it didn't make a break toward the park less than a mile away, where the Barfield family reunion was well underway.

No black shuck in the potato salad. Got it.

Simple, right?

He'd tried to chase the thing down but took a header into a creek bed. He was lucky he'd only popped his shoulder. Lucky his dad had been close enough to take a shot.

To clean up his mess.

Fuck, this was getting him nowhere, his thoughts running in circles. He pressed down hard on the bruise on his hip, let the pain clear his head.

Eyes closed, he pictured the highway north out of town. Maybe when this was all over, he'd pay Bobby a visit. Forget about Sam for a while. Forget about Dad. Just work on some cars and play with the dogs. Sit on the porch, talking shop, drinking beers.

Hell. Who was he kidding? If he got out of this mess, there was still the hunt to finish. And if he got out of that mess, he'd be back on the road. Catch up with Dad, if the bastard ever answered his phone. There'd be more miles and more hunts, and maybe he could put this shit behind him. Try not to fuck things up.

He snorted a laugh. Price. Yeah, real fuckin' funny, Dad.

--


When they sprung him early the next morning, Dean was surprised and more than a little suspicious. Aching and stiff, he waited while a greasy deputy handed his belongings back. Belt and shoelaces. Watch, ring, amulet. Knife and gun – he guessed that permit had paid off. He checked his wallet before pocketing it. The last of his cash was gone. He tried to glare at the deputy, but it probably wasn't too effective considering this was the same guy who'd felt him up the night before. All he got for his trouble was a tobacco-stained smile.

He barely took the time to pull on his coat, clomped outside in unlaced boots, laces still clutched in one fist. Found Pete Duncan waiting out front, leaning up against a lamppost, arms crossed over his chest. "Goddamn." Duncan whistled low, unfolded his lanky frame from its slouch. He led the way toward an old Ford F-100 done in robin's egg blue with patches of rust-colored primer. "They didn't fuck you up too bad, did they?"

"Nah." Dean hoped Duncan didn't notice his shivering. "Not too bad."

The morning wasn't too cold, but Dean couldn't stop shaking. He leaned into a patch of sunlight while Duncan drove him back to the motel. Things were quiet in the cab, low grumble of the engine, jouncing rattle as the truck picked up speed. Creedence played low on the radio, "Down on the Corner." Wind whistled through a bad seal on the passenger-side window. With the smell of old vinyl, the press of cool glass against his cheek, it was almost like home.

At the door to his room, Dean couldn't get the damn key from his jacket pocket, a zippered compartment on his left side. His broken fingers wouldn't work, his whole hand hot and swollen. He listed against the jamb while Duncan fished around for him, finally got the door open.

Duncan dropped the key on the dresser. "You got a first aid kit?"

"In the car." Which was still out at the goddamned river.

Duncan nodded, went back to his truck. Returned a moment later with a Plano tackle box that opened to reveal three tiers of supplies: everything from mysterious twists of dried herbs to a box of Spider-Man Band-Aids. Dean could smell anise and sage, garlic and cloves.

He sat on the edge of the bed while Duncan probed at the back of his head. Big hands found a knot Dean hadn't even known was there – "Ow! Dammit!" – must have been where ol' Butch had first cracked him last night. Duncan cleaned the accompanying wound, the cut on Dean's swollen cheek. He prodded Dean's ribs till he was sure nothing was broken, splinted Dean's fingers, all without saying more than a couple of words: "Shirt off. That hurt?"

When they were done, Duncan set the room's coffeemaker to work without adding any grounds. When the pot was full, he poured a cup of hot water, added a pinch of dried leaves from one of the herb bundles. "Drink this." He handed the brew to Dean. "Tastes like cow piss, but it'll help with the pain and swelling."

Dean wondered how the guy knew what cow piss tasted like. Decided not to ask.

He took a sip. Made a face. "Christ, that's awful." Duncan laughed, a dry husk of a sound. Dean watched as the Ute packed up the tackle box. "Hope you didn't go to much trouble getting me out."

Duncan shook his head. "They'd mostly decided to cut you loose, what with the receipts you had showing you were clear across the country when that kid died. Then they called Bobby Singer, who confirmed your Pulitzer-worthy reportage." He snapped the box shut. "Then Bobby called me, asked me to pick you up. Finish that tea."

Dean did as he was told, drained the tea with a grimace. Picked at the mud caked on his jeans while Duncan returned the kit to his truck. When he came back in, Duncan took a look around the room. "You got anything needs packed?"

Dean shrugged. "Bag's always ready to go."

"Good. Your car still out at the river?"

Dean nodded.

"Get your stuff together. I'll give you a ride out there. Probably best you get out of town."

The Impala was right where he'd left it, and Dean nearly wept with gratitude for the fact that something had finally gone right. He chucked his duffel in the trunk while Duncan took an appreciative stroll around the front end, nodding in approval at the car's clean lines. When he came back around, he asked, "You okay to drive?"

"I'm good."

Duncan gave him the fish eye for a moment. "Don't stick around, kid, send someone else. You don't need the trouble."

Dean nodded but didn't say yes or no. "Hey, thanks for this, man. I owe you one."

"No you don't." Duncan fished around in his shirt pocket, came up with a glassine envelope filled with herbs. Tucked it into Dean's own pocket. "Just tell John we're even."

Before he drove off, Duncan leaned out of the pickup's window. "Pinch of that stuff in boiling water twice a day," he called. "Trust me."

Dean raised his hand in a wave, watched the truck jounce over the rutted dirt track and back up to the road. The motor's grumble faded slowly, audible for what Dean figured was a few miles, the sound bouncing back off the granite enclosing the valley.

In the silence afterward, Dean sagged against the Impala's bumper. The sun was starting to warm the day, the temperature creeping up into the fifties, but he still felt cold. Around him, the stand of scrub brush and dead trees rattled in the breeze. Off to his right, the river's current was nothing more than a distant whisper.

He hiked the half mile down to the riverbank, cautious, but not too worried in the daylight. The duffel was right where he'd left it, though as muddy as he was. He slung it over his good shoulder, clanked his way back to the car.

He caught a glimpse of himself reflected in the driver's side window: mud clumped in his hair, left side of his face one spectacular, swollen bruise. No money left for a room. He was skittish about trying another card while he was still in the area.

And no matter what Duncan advised, Dean knew he was not leaving this hunt.

He scrubbed a hand through his hair, got rid of most of the mud. Stripped down to his skivvies, found a change of clothes resembling clean. It would take a few hot showers before he got the smell and feel of the jail off his skin, but this was better than nothing.

After a breakfast of beef jerky and tepid bottled water, he wrapped himself in the stained plaid blanket and crawled into the backseat. He breathed deep, working through the pain, walling it off in his head and willing himself to relax. He was within spitting distance of sleep when he realized the flannel shirt he'd balled up under his head was actually one of his dad's, worn soft and smelling of leather and cheap motel soap.

Christ, maybe he should wrap up an alarm clock in one of Sammy's old sweatshirts, be all set.

Pathetic, he had time to think before he drifted off.

--


He didn't remember his dreams, but when Dean woke, his face was wet, his shirt twisted tight around him and drenched in sweat.

--


A crescent moon was rising to Dean's right, mosaic shards of light shifting and glimmering on the river's surface as it rushed past, a muddy, frothing roar. Mud squelched underfoot, sucked at his boots.

Unless last night's action had scared the water baby away, there was no way the thing hadn't tipped to his presence. Gun in hand, he plodded toward the canyon. The soreness and aches had faded to an echo. His skin tingled with the feeling of being watched, the first tendrils of adrenaline snaking through his veins.

Near the mouth of the canyon, he heard a slick sound dogging his steps, but each time he turned, the riverbank behind him lay empty. He moved on, wondering if the thing would bother luring him with its cry or just go on the attack.

A skittering sound to the left. Nothing there. When the sound came again to his right, Dean didn't turn, stood as still as he could, waiting and listening.

The thing slammed him before he even heard it move, a good eighty pounds crashing into his bruised ribs. He went down hard, all his air driven out with a grunt. For one panicked moment, he rolled in the mud, struggling to draw breath. By the time he managed to suck in a painful gulp of air, the water baby sat on his chest, a cold, wet weight.

The thing tore at his face and chest with short claws. It was small, child-sized, like the stories had said, but heavy and strong. Its skin drew the moonlight, fish-belly pale. Its wet black hair dripped onto Dean's face, into his eyes.

He threw up his left arm to block the claws. The heavy canvas of his jacket split with the first slice. He'd held onto his gun, brought it up, squeezed off a shot. A last-second blow threw off his aim; the bullet cracked off into the night.

While the thing was busy clawing at his gun hand, he got in a couple of good hits with his left. He ignored the pain that spiked down his arm from his broken fingers, busted the thing a couple more times, and was able to clamber out from under it. He scrambled to his feet, panting, and took aim.

At nothing.

The thing was gone, vanished into the darkness. Dean spun, searching for any sign of it.

It launched at him out of nowhere. The gun slipped from his bloodied fingers, and then he was falling again. This time, he hit the water, not the mud.

The shock of cold stole his breath. He was gasping for air before he realized he was under water, bobbed up to the surface a second later, coughing and sputtering. The swift current swept him downstream, ducked him under. He fought his way back up.

The only weapon he still had was the knife, but that wouldn't matter if he drowned or got snagged on the debris. A branch shot past, caught him in the side. Jesus. If his ribs weren't broken before, they damn sure were now. He looked for something solid to grab, to halt his momentum. Reached out, got his hand on something sharp, cold – rebar, maybe? The current jerked at him, straining his bum shoulder. He hung on tight.

Dean groped at his belt, drew the knife, half afraid his cold-numbed fingers would lose it to the current. He bobbed, battered by the current and all the crap that went with it, hanging doggedly to his scrap metal even while it cut into his hand. He dodged another log, whipped his head around, searching for any sign of the water baby. He only caught a flash of white before it slammed him again.

He heard his shoulder pop before he felt the pain: a flare of agony, incandescent. The river's roar swallowed up his yell. He lost his grip.

He had time for a quick breath before he went under. The water baby clutched at his legs, dragged him down, held him there. He forced his eyes open against the icy water. Couldn't see much beyond the silt. The water baby was a vague blur of white in the murk.

Lungs burning, he lashed out with the knife, felt it connect, a nick to the creature's arm. His second try was better, a long slice. Blood bloomed from the wound. The water baby screeched, the sound horrible even under water. It let him go. They both shot up to the surface.

Dean retched up a lungful of water. The current pulled at him again, tearing at his useless left arm. He kicked out, managed to snag himself in a cove of debris – not safe, but at least not being swept farther downriver. He coughed and gasped. Waited.

The water baby dragged him down again, hugging his waist, but the silver must have worked, must have weakened it. Its grip didn't seem as strong; it couldn't quite get him down to the bottom.

Dean hacked at the thing blindly, hoping for one good shot, and got it. With the fourth or fifth strike, the thing went suddenly stiff, thrashed against him. He drove the knife in deeper. Twisted. The water baby screeched and twitched, then went still. The river ripped the thing away from him, knife still buried in its back.

Dean fought back to the surface, his clothes and boots so goddamn heavy. The current swept him farther downstream, dashing him against rocks and debris, ducking him under. He was too tired, too cold. Couldn't fight anymore.

It was probably a lucky break, though it sure as fuck didn't feel like it at the time: He slammed up against something solid, and stuck there. The frigid water pushed and pulled, but he stayed put. After a few moments' desperate breaths, Dean twisted around, got a good look at where he was.

He'd gotten hung up on a bank of debris that nearly spanned the width of the river. Railroad ties and scrap iron, logs and rocks and trash. He rested for a moment, caught between two railroad ties, teeth chattering. Every part of him that wasn't numb hurt like a son of a bitch. Drowning was starting to sound like a pretty good idea.

Then again, he'd always hated the cold.

He started working his way toward the shore, clinging to one handhold at a time. The river dunked him twice more, but somehow he made it, hauling himself up on the riverbank with a sound that was half cough, half sob. He shivered in the mud for a few minutes, retching up water. It hurt to draw breath; this was sheer torture. He cradled his left arm to his body, tried to brace both his shoulder and ribs.

The sliver of moon grinned down at him, backed by a blanket of stars. He knew he had to get moving. It took him a while. A few deep breaths, a totally manly grunt, and he managed to push himself up to all fours.

Well, threes.

By the time he got to his feet, listing like the town drunk, he'd started to recognize his surroundings. The river had pulled him away from where he'd gone in, but kindly deposited him fairly close to the Impala. All he had to do was make his way up the riverbank and cross the state route, navigate a few hundred yards of sparse trees and clumped sagebrush.

He only fell twice, once in the middle of the road, where he panted for a few moments, praying someone would be kind enough to run him down. But because he was Dean Fucking Winchester, and was too dumb to know when to quit, he made it. He sagged against the car and slid down to the ground, cheek pressed to the Impala's rear quarter panel.

When he could move again, he fumbled for his keyring with numb fingers. For the second time that day, he stripped down hidden by the car. His jacket and button-down came off without too much trouble, but he had to cut through his T-shirt and bootlaces. After fighting with his wet jeans for what seemed like an eternity, he ended up slicing them, too.

He dried off as best he could with a stolen motel towel. Struggled into dry clothes. The pain in his shoulder spiked each time he moved, till he rigged up a makeshift sling from his belt.

Inside the car, he cranked the heat as high as it would go, cracked a couple of heat packs and slipped them into his shirt, forced his sluggish brain through his options.

He could try fixing his shoulder by himself – knew how to do it, in theory. But between the cold and the previous injury, he could feel the muscles seizing up. He couldn't risk the hospital in Price. Duncan was the only safe contact nearby. Dean figured the Ute would be good for a quick patch-up, but doubted he'd be keen on harboring a Winchester for the few days he really needed.

Sam was about eight hours away. Distance aside, he'd made his feelings known.

It was just about as far to Bobby's. Dean figured that might be his best bet. He could drop in on Duncan, get his shoulder fixed, and keep heading east to South Dakota. Crash until he felt human again.

On the seat beside him, his cell phone sounded, playing the opening riff of "Ace of Spades." He stared at its flashing screen for a moment – damn good thing he'd left it in the car – the river likely wouldn't have been too kind. Then he snapped to, picked it up. Checked the caller ID. Dad.

He answered, jaw clenched to keep his teeth from chattering. "Dad? Hey…Yes sir, got it. Water baby." Sounded like Dad was on the road. He could hear engine noise, the low drone of talk radio. "Beaumont? Texas?" Fuck. "How soon?" He did some quick calculations. "Couple'a days, maybe? First I just gotta…" He pulled the quilted flannel tighter around him. "No, sir, I wasn't trying to…I know …Yes sir." By the time he added, "See you then," he was talking to dead air.

Okay, so, change of plans.

He let his head loll back against the seat, stared up at the ceiling. Bobby probably didn't need any unexpected company, anyway. Guy had a business to run. Hell, he was probably still pissed some Utah cops had roused him in the middle of the night.

Better to just catch up with Dad. Face the music. He'd probably get an earful about his little run-in with the cops, but at least he'd gotten the job done. Hadn't gotten anybody killed.

He'd have to head south on 191, the way he'd come. He pictured the road in his mind, yellow center line, mountains and mesas rising sharp in the dark. He thought he remembered an Urgent Care in Moab, a couple of hours away. Figured he could make it that far without planting the car in a ditch.

First things first: he was driving back up to that canyon to find his wayward supplies. His best silver knife was lost to the river's current, but he could probably find the rest. He shifted around till he wasn't in quite as much screaming pain, put the Impala in gear, and aimed toward the river, led by the grinning crescent moon.

He might have fucked up everything else, but there was no way he was leaving Price without his gun.

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