They wait ‘til the waitress walks away with their order before resuming conversation. John and Anna sit on one side of the booth facing Dean and Ladona. With both men being over six feet tall leg room is at a serious premium but the proximity also provides privacy. The diner is buzzing with people and the constant hum of noise covers their conversation.
Anna flips open a small notebook and runs her finger down a page. She’d just begun providing background information on the area before the waitress interrupted and now she’s having difficulty refocusing with John’s thigh pressed against hers. And is she sweating? Good Lord! She’s acting like a teenager with a hormone imbalance! She takes a quick sip of water to try to gather herself and almost chokes when John unconsciously mirrors her action.
John’s having his own troubles. Anna’s silky hair keeps brushing his bare forearm and it’s driving him crazy. He wants to kick himself for rolling up his sleeves but doesn’t want to show his reaction by pushing them back down either. Especially since the diner’s getting warmer by the minute. Under normal circumstances he’d just sweep her hair back over her shoulder and probably leave his arm there…but that’s a no-no with Dean sitting two feet away.
Ladona looks at Dean out of the corner of her eye. How can he not feel the love and lust emanating from these two people? Or does he just choose to ignore it? Well, at least he’s keeping his disapproval to himself for a change…
Dean is trying to ignore the electricity between Dad and Anna and he’s doing a pretty good job…but only because of the heat washing through him every time Ladona brushes against him. His mind keeps wandering back to their shared shower and he wants to pull her into his arms for a deep exploratory kiss. They’ve had so little down time and when they do it seems like Ladona always has plans to do something. Not that he doesn’t enjoy spending time with her having fun. He’d just like to spend a little more of that together time naked. Even so, he’s having more trouble than normal focusing on the job.
Suddenly the hairs on the back of Ladona’s neck stand at attention. She jerks and her hand hits her half empty water glass, sending it tumbling across the table straight into Anna’s lap.
Anna’s eyes widen as cold water drenches her jeans. “Christ!” she gasps and tries to stand but she’s trapped in the corner. She pushes against John and he hastily slides out of the booth then helps her out. The waitress comes hurrying over with a towel as Ladona offers her profuse apologies.
Waving them both away Anna says, “Oh, it’s just water. No real harm. I’ll be right back.” She shoves her notebook into John’s hands and heads for the ladies’ room.
Ladona pushes Dean out of the booth and practically onto the floor in her haste to follow Anna. She catches the bathroom door as it starts to swing shut. “I am so sorry-” she begins but Anna cuts her off.
“I’m fine, honey. It really is just water.” She rolls her eyes. “Unfortunately, very cold water.” At least it got my mind out of the gutter though, she thinks dryly.
The two women laugh together and Ladona lets the door close behind her, cutting off the sounds of the diner. Her eyes travel over the rows of sinks and paper towel dispensers. “And of course no dryer,” she says wryly.
Anna grabs a handful of paper towels and dabs uselessly at the wet stain on the front of her jeans. “Damn,” she mutters as she balls them up and tosses them into the trash. “Ah, well.” She shrugs and smiles at Ladona but the smile is quickly replaced with a look of concern. “Honey, why are you so pale?”
Ladona leans against the wall rubbing the back of her neck. “I’m…I’m not sure. I just felt…something weird. All the hairs on my neck stood up. That’s why I jerked and spilled the water. I really am sorry about that.”
“If you apologize one more time I’ll…tickle you until you pee.” Anna wiggles her fingers threateningly.
Ladona can’t help but laugh. “At least I’m in the right place for it.”
That makes Anna laugh too, but she quickly sobers. “Well, we better tell the guys what you felt. It could be important.”
They return to the table. John and Dean scoot over in unison to let them slide in and the similarity between father and son strikes Ladona once again. Anna retrieves her notebook and answers John’s questioning look with a wave of her hand. “Just water. So…where were we?”
“History of the area,” Ladona prompts. “But first…” She licks her lips. “I just felt something weird. I’m not sure how to describe it except it felt like…” She pauses again. “Like being watched maybe. All the hairs on my neck stood straight up.” She rubs her neck and shivers before Dean slides his arm across her shoulders and kisses her cheek.
It’s an automatic gesture but Anna’s surprised at the bitterness that washes through her. If John did that she knows Dean would probably get up and storm out. Oh, it doesn’t matter, she tells herself. It’s just a couple of days. Maybe it’ll do us good to stop acting like horny teenagers all the time. Maybe it’ll show John I really am useful for more than warming his bed, that I’m able to handle myself on a big hunt. She smiles faintly. She knows he thinks he’s been clever about keeping her sheltered but his actions have been as transparent as cellophane to pretty much everyone. With a small sigh she flips open her notebook again. It didn’t escape her attention that John moved over further than necessary so they’re no longer touching and she feels the empty space between them like an ache in her heart.
“A feeling of being watched?” Dean asks Ladona, the concern clear in his voice. She nods and he exchanges a glance with his dad. Something passes between the men, some understanding the women aren’t privy to, prompting Ladona and Anna to exchange their own look.
But all John says is, “Let us know if you feel it again.”
That seems to be Anna’s cue to continue so she picks up her narration. “The area has an odd history. In fact, it has practically no history. Our researchers were able to piece together a handful of accounts dating back to the first settlers in this region. They reported a small band of…well, odd seems the only word to describe them. A small band of people of European origin who kept almost strictly to themselves. No one quite knows where in Europe but probably
She pauses to scan the page and Ladona asks curiously, “What was so odd about this group?”
Anna smiles. “Well, if the reports are to be believed, the members of the group could become invisible at will. The few people allowed into their settlement came back with wild tales of orgies and pagan ceremonies. And…”
She pauses as their food arrives and they take time to eat. John and Ladona both notice that Anna only eats half of her tuna melt but refrain from commenting. Maybe she’s a light eater, Ladona thinks as she polishes off her own club with fries and a passable cole slaw along with the chocolate shake she just couldn’t resist. John, on the other hand, knows there’s something wrong but it’s not like he can do anything about it so he concentrates on his hamburger and fries. Oblivious to all this, Dean consumes more food than the rest of them put together: a tall stack of pancakes smothered in butter and syrup, four eggs, six strips of bacon, a tall glass of orange juice, and a coffee chaser. It still astonishes Ladona how much he can eat…but then we did work up monster appetites, she remembers wickedly.
Pushing her plate away before the others are finished Anna resumes, “There are two accounts in particular that provide most of the detail about this group and maybe they’ll help answer the odd question. They came from men who’d been attacked by some kind of wild animal…the journal entries are unclear what kind…” She smiles humorlessly. “The only thing they seem certain about is that they lost a great deal of blood and this group took them in briefly to recover. The attacks occurred exactly 60 years apart, almost to the day. I’ll get to the significance of that in a moment but back to their descriptions of what they saw.” She rechecks her notes quickly. “Both men reported being taken up the mountain to a cave after the attacks. It’s easy to dismiss what they saw as hallucinations because they’re so unreal. They reported a series of caves decorated like houses with rich carpets and fancy. But the most interesting things they reported were the paintings on the cave walls. Paintings of, and I quote, ‘death and blood.’ To put it mildy it scared the hell out of them and they, as both put it, escaped as soon as they had enough strength to do so.” She closes the notebook and looks up. “And that is literally all we have on the area. Nothing seems to have happened here. There were Civil War battles all through this part of the South…except here. The Great Depression decimated the country…except here.” She shrugs. “It’s like time stands still almost.”
Dean and Ladona exchange an uneasy glance.
“The only significant change came with the rise of tourism to the area,” Anna adds. She picks up one of John’s fries, dips it in ketchup, and pops it into her mouth. “The tourism business has done extremely well. Even when nearby towns experience dry spells, the tourists continue to flock to Smuggler’s Run.”
That reminds Dean of a question he had. “Where’d the name come from?”
Anna shrugs as she picks up another fry. “No clue. Even though bootlegging was popular at one time around here that era doesn’t coincide with the founding of the town.”
“Who founded the town? And when?” he asks. For the moment he’s forgotten his unease around Anna as he focuses on the specifics of the job.
“You’ll love this.” Anna grins. “Smuggler’s Run was founded nearly 250 years ago…by no one.”
“250 years?” Ladona gasps. “Is
Anna finishes chewing another of John’s fries. “Yes, but barely. I looked it up. The original charter was granted in 1732 but it didn’t become an official colony until 1754. That’s just before Smuggler’s Run came into being.”
Dean’s brow furrows. He’s not really interested in the history lesson; that’s Sam’s thing. But... “How can nobody found a town? I mean, someone had to live in it, right?”
“I’m sure someone did,” Anna agrees seriously. “But there are no records whatsoever of who they were. No names, no birth records, no local cemeteries with tombstones dating back that far. No streets or buildings named after anyone other than the usual suspects…you know, Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt. It’s like the town just appeared one day. Like magic,” she adds with a shrug.
At the word magic Ladona feels an alarm bell go off in her head. She concentrates for a few minutes but whatever it was is gone. It’ll come back, she reassures herself, and returns her attention to the conversation but she can’t dispel the feeling of unease.
“What about the 60 year time frame you mentioned?” she asks.
“Ah.” Anna pushes her plate further away and leans forward. The other three unconsciously follow her example. “Every 20 years exactly a series of disappearances and deaths occurs. Right now we stand at eight dead in the past two weeks. That seems to be an acceleration from the normal number of victims and we have a theory to explain it.” She jerks her head at her husband. “Actually he has a theory. But there is a distinct pattern every 20 years going back as far as the founding of the town. Further even if you consider the accounts of the two men who survived the animal attacks.”
“Are you sayin’ no one’s noticed disappearances and deaths occurrin’ every 20 years? That’s pretty farfetched,” Dean interjects doubtfully.
Before Anna can respond John says, “That’s where I come in.” He pauses for a moment then speaks, his voice careful and even. “I was here 20 years ago. I discovered what I believed to be a shape shifter causin’ the deaths and killed it.” He grins humorlessly. “Well, I thought I killed it. Obviously I was mistaken.”
Dean notes the tightness around his dad’s mouth and eyes and recognizes it immediately for what it is: guilt. He feels guilty for not finishing the job before, Dean realizes. He knows it’s a hazard all hunters face and there’s only one solution…finish what you started. And that’s what we’re here to do, he thinks grimly.
Ladona recognizes John’s look of guilt as well. “So what’s your theory about the acceleration in victims this time?”
Anna watches John gather his thoughts. The urge to touch him, to comfort him, is almost overwhelming. But there’s Dean watching them, ready to use any excuse to hold their marriage against his dad. A wave of bitterness washes over her again but she just clenches her fists in her lap and waits.
When John speaks his voice has a faraway quality as if he’s reliving the hunt 20 years earlier. He doesn’t seem to have heard Ladona’s question. “I was in the area and read newspaper accounts of an animal maulin’ tourists. I came to investigate. The bodies were in bad shape and they did look like somethin’ had chewed on ‘em pretty good…but they were also drained entirely of blood.” He shakes his head. “I never heard of an animal that drinks blood so I poked around. Fact is though I couldn’t find anything.” He shrugs. “Shortly after I arrived a hiker went missin’. I examined the area he was last seen in but…” He shrugs again. “I couldn’t find anything. A couple days later his body was found close to where he disappeared. I waited for the cops to clear out then looked around again. Still nothin’. I was gettin’ pretty frustrated.” He licks his lips and meets Dean’s and Ladona’s eyes. They’re both hanging on his every word. He can feel Anna beside him listening too even though she’s already heard the story. He feels something coming off of her in waves though, some emotion…sadness maybe? He sighs. Whatever it is it’ll have to keep.
“I decided to check out the area again around dusk,” he continues. “Most of the disappearances seemed to take place at dusk or dawn.” He pauses to look down at his hands. “I noticed a dark haired woman in the trees. She was wearin’ a long cloak. And I just…” He shakes his head. “I can’t explain why but I felt like followin’ her. She never acknowledged me even though I’m sure she heard me. I followed her up the mountain for what seemed like a long time. Then she just disappeared. After a couple minutes of lookin’ I found a cave entrance and went inside.” He pauses again and his brow furrows. “It’s kinda unclear after that. I remember seein’ the woman far ahead but I couldn’t seem to catch up. After a while she disappeared but I kept goin’. I finally came to an arch with writing above it in a language I’d never seen. There was light beyond. I…” He shakes his head. “I remember a room with rugs and a fire. Then everything went dark for a bit.” He smiles wryly. “I guess she got the jump on me. When I woke up a man was standin’ over me.”
“There was more than one?” Dean interrupts sharply.
John shakes his head. “No, I told you it was a shape shifter. She…it had taken my guns and knives but I always keep a knife strapped to my calf and it missed that one. When it leaned over to bite me I slashed it good across the chest. I jumped up and got in a few more good swings. Then suddenly it was the woman again. My knife came down across her face and she turned to ash. That’s it.”
“I didn’t know shape shifters turned to ash,” Ladona says after several minutes of meditative silence.
“They don’t,” John answers heavily. “But I didn’t know that at the time. The killings stopped. I hung around another week just to make sure.” He shakes his head. “At the time I thought I finished the thing. I had no clue about the 20 year cycle.” He nods to Anna. “We didn’t find out about that until this week. And we seem to be the only ones who’ve ever noticed it. The information’s there but no one’s connected the dots before. Not even people who’ve lived here their whole lives,” he finishes quietly.
“If not a shape shifter then what?” Dean muses.
“Good question. And we’re gonna find the answer this time,” John answers grimly.
“What about the increased number of victims this time?” Ladona asks. “You said you have a theory?”
John nods. “As far as the research shows, the usual killing cycle lasts about a month with victims taken every three days. So far this time there have been eight in fourteen days where there should only be five. I think I sent the creature to bed early 20 years ago and it woke up extra hungry.”
Anna shudders at the image of a creature with huge teeth waking up hungry. She’s seen the pictures of the victims and can’t imagine what horror they must have endured. All indications are that they were eaten alive.
“So what’s the plan?” Dean asks, all business.
“Simple. We hike up the mountain to the cave I found, try to find the creature, and take it out.”
Everyone nods agreement then John goes to pay the check. As they step out of the diner Ladona suddenly reels like someone hit her. Dean’s barely able to keep her from falling off the step. They move aside as a passing couple shoots them a suspicious glance and Ladona leans against the wall of the diner.
“What happened?” John barks, his eyes moving over everything but Ladona.
“I…I felt…” She forces herself to calm down. This is why I felt watched earlier, she thinks with dismay. “Magic,” she finally gasps and the others stiffen.
John and Dean both turn to survey the parking lot and nearby woods while Anna brushes Ladona’s hair back from her clammy forehead. “Hey, honey,” she says soothingly. “Tell me what kind of magic.”
Ladona smiles weakly. “Black magic,” she whispers. “I’ve never felt anything so malevolent.” She shudders violently.
“See anything?” John asks Dean quietly and Dean answers in the negative.
Ladona finally gathers herself and pushes away from the wall. “Whoever was here is gone,” she says, thankful her voice at least is steady. “It’s the one who was watching us earlier when the hairs on my neck stood up.”
“Let’s head back to the motel,” Anna murmurs as yet another passing couple shoots the group a suspicious glance. “We’re drawing attention.”
Dean slides his left arm around Ladona’s shoulders as they walk but Anna forces herself to focus on the case rather than the distance John keeps from her. Odd settlers, wild animals, bodies drained of blood, a mysteriously founded town, and now magic. That certainly explains a lot, she thinks. But it’s highly disturbing to know someone was watching them. Someone with magic.
Ladona insists she’s all right now so they agree to meet at the foot of the trail behind the motel in 15 minutes then return to their separate rooms for jackets and supplies. Ladona also pops into the office as she passes to snag a map of the hiking trails just in case.
Anna quickly changes into dry clothes. John watches her silently as he packs water bottles and weapons into a small backpack. He wants to ask what’s bothering her but figures he already knows. Dean. Having him around’s like wearing a straitjacket. John never realized how often he and Anna touched until today. Well, he’ll make it up to her tonight, he vows. Maybe even ask Ladona for one of those spot silencing spells.
Anna feels John’s eyes on her but doesn’t look at him. She knows she’s being ridiculous and the last thing she wants to do is turn him against his son. Time to act like a grownup, she thinks sadly, but she can’t ignore the way her skin aches for her husband’s touch.As soon as their door closes behind them Dean pulls Ladona into his arms. His green eyes search her face as he asks, “Are you really all right?” She smiles and nods and he kisses her gently. They slip on jackets, gather their things, and head out to meet John and Anna.