Dean cranked his head back, studying the building in front of them with a critical eye. "This hotel is not red enough."
Which was, of course, an absurdity because the place couldn't have been redder. As red as Clifford the Big Red Dog, Sam observed silently because if he dared say that aloud, Dean would never let him live it down.
Red as a particular shade of lipstick, on a particular girl with whom Sam had wanted to share his name. But Sam couldn't go down that path any more than he could reveal his Clifford reference. In addition to being empty and whiny, his stomach was once again beginning to curdle with an indistinct wad of gloom. Maybe the lack of food left a convenient spot for depression to settle, not that it needed an excuse to use Sam as its mothership. Despite the blindingly cheerful, retina-burning shade of the Red Victorian Inn, Sam still hated the Golden State and he didn’t see that scenario changing anytime soon.
"Right. So. We gonna stand here like tourists from Sheboygan or we heading into – " Dean rolled his gaze down the building to a gold peace sign, stenciled on one of the windows " – Meditation Station?"
Sam simply grunted.
Dusk was dropping over the neighborhood and the appearance of oddities seemed to be in direct proportion to the vanishing of the sunlight. Haight-Ashbury still played home to indigents of all stripe: runaways, addicts, club kids, street corner philosophers, students of life. The gutters were rife with cigarette butts and other such bits of human thoughtlessness. Sam sighed and settled his hands in his pockets. He was, at the very least, relieved they nabbed—with minimal wailing from Dean—a safe parking space for the Impala. Regardless, their required presence in California still sucked. And it was getting downright cold, not just pleasantly brisk. Though something about the cold fit Sam and he didn’t want to move. He wanted to stand there and be uncomfortable.
Drifting eyes from peace sign to moping brother, Dean sighed too. He was certainly hungry, because Dean was always hungry and the hotel had a café on the first floor, within eyeshot, but he seemed to be willing to give Sam a few minutes to regroup. A blessed moment of patience. Sam appreciated that.
"Yeah, it's really red." And so Sam reluctantly headed inside, through well-worn, brass-handled doors.
It wasn't immediately apparent where the front desk sat; the entry opened onto the Peaceful World Café, red theme carried over the walls in a deeper, less insulting hue. The tables wore frilly pink tablecloths, which made no damn sense to Sam, and the place was empty save two employees and one couple, all nursing coffees. The couple had probably been young and beautiful during the Monterey Pop Festival. Clearly locals. Just inside the door, an entire wall was papered with pamphlets that fluttered in the cold riding on the Winchester’s heels, and you could buy a souvenir mug with, surprise surprise, a peace sign on it for $7.50, plus tax. If you pined for an answer blowin’ on the wind, my friend, you’d have hit pay dirt.
Dean scanned the room and took a deep breath, rocking on his heels. “Smell that, Sammy?” He whispered from the corner of his mouth.
“Huh? The sandalwood?”
“Smells like dead hippies.”
“Hey, man, everything copasetic?” A guy with stringy, graying hair, round glasses a la John Lennon, and a dented top hat lifted up two fingers in a ‘v’ and shifted from his perch behind the counter.
“You’d better hope he didn’t hear you harshin’ his mellow like that,” Sam said in Dean’s ear.
Dean gave Sam a dismissive “pffft” and sauntered over to the guy, all the while scanning a hand-written menu which hung on the wall over the top hat. Dean nodded congenially, but his grin flagged as he seemed to realize there was a conspicuous lack of meat product available. “Okay, so...hmm. I’ll have a…well…”
“We’ll have two Greek Goddess Wraps, large coffees, a cup of the soup of the day and how ‘bout a chocolate croissant. Thanks.” Sam appeared over Dean’s left shoulder and saved him the trouble of deciphering the vegan/vegetarian fare.
Dean squared his shoulders and gave Sam an “I’d better like this shit” look before fishing out one of his many fraudulent credit cards and sliding it across the counter. “Oh, and hey, maybe you can help us. Our sister is supposed to be staying here but we just blew into town and we want to surprise her. It’s her birthday coming up and we’ve got a car full of balloons. And a clown.”
Sam rolled his eyes.
The guy returned Dean’s card and a receipt to sign, along with a pen that had ‘San Francisco’ printed on the side in puffy, rainbow lettering. His teeth were big and yellowed as he grinned, and his head bobbed up and down and side to side like a frazzled old parrot. “Cool, man. What’s she look like? Everyone eats breakfast here. Most important meal of the day, right on.”
“Yeah, right on. She’s about yay tall—” Dean held his hand at chest level “—real cute. Dark hair, dark eyes. Might’ve had a charm bracelet that jangled a lot. Probably alone.”
“Oh, yeah, man. I remember the bling. She was here a coupla days ago. But she wasn’t alone. Had some friends.”
Sam piped up. “What did they look like? The friends? I mean, might’ve been our cousins.”
“I dunno, man. Just kids. Like her. Like you cats.”
“You know what room she was in?”
The guy shrugged, slid a laden tray across the counter and grabbed two oversized mugs from a shelf. “Not my department, man. Sorry.” He poured coffee, passed the mugs off to Dean who nodded his thanks and headed for a far table. Given the option, Dean always sat with his back to the wall in such a way he could still watch the front door. Sam followed with the tray.
They ate quickly, and Dean even admitted whatever the hell food Sam had ordered them, it wasn’t half bad. “Okay, so this Green Goddess whatsit doesn’t look like a bacon cheeseburger but hey, there are worse crimes.” The café started to fill up with dinner guests and that was the boys’ cue to get lost in the shuffle and infiltrate the ‘Bed’ portion of the ‘Bed and Breakfast.’
It wasn’t difficult. The Red Vic had an air of archaic trust, a pointed attempt at resurrecting the “we-are-all-one-people-here-eat-this-mus
More red, this time on the threadbare carpet that ran up the creaky wooden steps. Sam scraped his knuckles on the ugly stuccoed walls and dodged his head beneath low-hanging switchbacks. It was claustrophobic. You could barely squeeze past a second person if they happened to be going down as you were coming up. Dean led the way, of course, and though his shoulders were loose and casual, he snapped his head around corners, eyes darting. Few things caught him off-guard, at least physically.
Theoretically, Sylvie would’ve kept to the second floor, if possible. The closer to the ground you were, the easier the get-away. And failing that, if you could snare a room by a fire escape or back staircase, more’s the better. So Dean started there, at the end of the hall by an ivy-curtained window. Sam provided copious cover, lurching broad-shouldered and blocking any passers-by from witnessing their illegalities.
The door, according to a small framed plaque that hung in its center, led to the Golden Gate Park Room. The plaque went on to direct a person to ‘Always remember to celebrate your proximity to something beautiful. Spend a lot of your time there.’
Something beautiful? Sam huffed a small laugh and Dean knew exactly what Sam was snorting about, given their proximity. Dean shot him an elbow to the ribs in reward. The lock clicked free and revealed an empty room. Empty of a tenant, but not of copious amounts of frilly, floral antiques. “Grandma chic,” Dean snickered. Point was, the room wasn’t Sylvie’s. On to the next.
The Rose Garden Room. ‘A place to sit in the window and contemplate the amazing mixture of life below. Take your time. Remember, the roses stand for love.’ Much love, but no Sylvie.
Sunshine Room. ‘Here is a room to energize you with the same warmth that supports all life. Smile back at the sun when you brush your teeth and see yourself in the magic mirror.’ Luggage sat on a white chenille bedspread, but clearly not the sort a hunter would haul. More likely a middle-aged woman on a ‘finding herself’ weekend.
Someone strolled past on their way to the communal bathroom, to whom Sam and Dean both nodded and smiled. These are not the droids you’re looking for. It was Sam’s superstitious little chant, every time they did this.
Ah, the Redwood Forest Room. Well-boded, because it was on the opposite end of the hall by the front fire-escape. Sam didn’t bother reading the plaque this time, enough of that shit. Spindly black railings cast spidery shadows through the window as evening gave way to night. Dean jimmied the lock and let the door drift ajar.
A small tableside light had been left burning and the bed was unmade, dull mauve quilt thrown across a chair, sheets dragged in the opposite direction. Sylvie had never once made her bed; she’d proclaimed it unnecessary given the fact it would just get trashed again in twelve hours. Her own protocol of practicality. Another good omen.
Duffel bags and dirty clothes dotted the roomscape; the weapons would be secreted under a mattress or in the bottom of a dresser or a closet corner. Sometimes even the tank of the toilet but there didn’t seem to be an en suite bath to this room. On the far wall, the photo of a redwood forest had been blown up and pasted, like wallpaper, keeping to theme. And taped all through the photocopied branches were newspaper clippings, post-it notes, pages ripped from books, strung together with various colored yarn, secured by thumbtacks. Management would not be happy.
“Yahtze,” Dean murmured, stepping cautiously into the room, alert for trip wires or any other protection Sylvie might’ve fabricated. Sylvie could make a booby trap from dental floss and maxi pads, if need be. Sam had seen her do it.
He followed, once Dean moved enough to allow him entry. The room was tiny and the lax housekeeping left little space to maneuver. Dean immediately began pawing through her possessions; Sam went right for the case wall, eyes darting from clipping to note to chicken scrawl, trying to get a bead on what was going on here.
There were the expected crib notes on witchcraft—the boys already knew they were dealing with a coven—but in addition to that, Sylvie had collected a handful of information concerning missing women. She had highlighted their ages in day-glo pink: 24, 33, 38, 27, 19. Reasonably young. Physically, they didn’t share much except, well, tits and all the typical girly parts. And they’d disappeared in the past four months. Hannah West. Jane Birmingham. Felicity Rebeau. Several others.
Sam followed the women’s length of yarn to an old, creased postcard of Chinatown. It depicted the neighborhood at twilight, golden lanterns roped across the streets like giant fireflies, the building’s sharp, unfamiliar angles silhouetted against a radiant, crimson and maize sky. “San Francisco, Chinatown” it read in gold foil script, preceded by a vertical series of Chinese characters. Sam slipped the postcard off the wall and flipped it over…nothing written on the back. Hmm. wasn’t it the Year of the Dog?
“Aw, shit. Dude, come ‘ere.” Dean’s voice was gruff and displeased. Dangling from his pinched fingers was a small cloth package. Sam knew a hex bag when he saw one. “This does not bode well.”
Sam had to lumber across the edge of the bed to peer over Dean’s shoulder. The fabric of the bundle was a scrap of t-shirt, tied up tight with a leather cord that had a small feather affixed to one end. Like they did for roach clips, Sam observed with some bemusement. Dean shook it, unnecessarily, before unwrapping the make-shift bag and displaying its contents in his palm.
“What the…well that’s the dumbest hex bag I’ve ever seen.” Dean poked a finger through the strange assortment of items. Yes, hex bags, by their very nature, were designed to be strange assortments of items: bones, gems, obscure herbs, sometimes gewgaws associated with certain otherworldly beings. But this one put a finer point on strange. “I mean, look at this junk! M&Ms. I guess this is…hair. A baby tooth, maybe? And a Barbie shoe…seriously?”
“How do you know that shoe belongs to a Barbie?”
“Shuddup, Sam. Barbie is hot; of course I know it’s a Barbie shoe. Besides, I got you Sapphire Barbie for Christmas that one year. Don’t make like you didn’t play with it.”
“I didn’t play with it because you wouldn’t let it out of your sight—hey, is that an 8-sider? Huh.” Sam looped a long arm over Dean’s shoulder and pointed at an oddly shaped orange die.
Dean’s mouth opened to lob another retort but the words froze on his lips. Soft voices issued from the hallway, just beyond the bedroom’s closed door. Sounded like gentle, tuneless singing. Gregorian chant? No, not quite that ‘DaVinci Code’, Sam decided. Both boys snapped their glares to the portal, breaths collectively held. Dean dropped the unfurled hex bag on the bed and slowly crept a hand to the small of his back, where Sam knew he hid a Colt .45. Sam shifted to the right, giving Dean a clear shot. An accidental bullet to the shoulder would certainly put a crimp in the evening, not to mention hurt like a sonofabitch.
The voices quieted. There remained only the omnipresent sounds of traffic and the old building groaning, as old buildings are wont to do. Dean got that laser-edged intensity he did when he was aiming with his hearing as much as his sight. Which was why Dean was such a damned brilliant shot. Sam had a good eye, but Dean was phenomenal. It was like he became the gun. Almost Zen in his concentration.
Dean leveled the weapon and nodded for Sam to flank the door. It took Sam one careful step, that’s how small the room was. Sam expected the knob to rattle, to twist like a bad horror movie. Heeeeere’s Johnny. But it didn’t. Instead, there was a soft rustle and a folded piece of paper was slipped under the door. Simple notebook paper. Sam glanced at Dean, whose brows were angled in perplexed annoyance.
What do I do? Sam mouthed silently.
Dean looked from Sam, to the note, Sam, note, Sam. He quirked a shoulder, read as a shrug, scowling, gun still at the ready.
Sam grimaced back, curiosity gnawing at him with its insistent little teeth. The air suddenly felt saturated with the unknown and Sam hated not knowing. Few things got on his last nerve like the absence of knowledge. It was an itch, pins and needles, crawling under his skin and through the little gray cells and whispering listen listen listen. Sam crouched and in one swift move, snatched up the note. Quick as a whip, in case someone on the other side was looking for his shadow, to take aim. Or a tentacle shot under the door and snaked around his wrist. Or some other such equally bizarre Winchester happenstance.
When nothing came to pass, and not the slightest burp sounded from the other side of the door, Sam opened the slip of paper.
No words, just a symbol, or sigil, hand-drawn. In green crayon? The fuck? Sam turned the paper to face Dean, who looked equally befuddled.
Then the room slid sideways.
Everything smeared into weird jet streams of color, Technicolor spaghetti, and it hit Sam as suddenly as a sneeze. He barely construed Dean lowering the gun until it brushed the bed and slipped harmlessly from his fingers. Dean wobbled, anger poorly maintained and within seconds, it segued into dull confusion. From there, apparent sleep. He face-planted onto the mattress, lids fluttering, fighting unconsciousness to no avail.
Sam could do little more than grunt, himself. And sway. His hands wouldn’t respond to even the simplest command. The paper drifted casually to his boots, face up, cheerful little sigil laughing at him and winking…winking? When did it grow a face?!
The door opened and closed. Several people entered the room but for all he could tell, they could’ve been ostriches. Nothing made sense.
One spoke. His…yeah, it was a man…his voice rippled and pulsed and rode in on blisters of sound, popping intermittently so that Sam caught only sporadic words. “Lucky” and “get the gun” and “falafel” though that might’ve been “awful” and maybe a name… “Eddie?”
Another ersatz ostrich approached Sam, looked up at him, set two fingers to his chest and pushed. Sam fell like the proverbial redwood, which managed to be slightly amusing given the décor of the room. He must’ve clocked his head against the bed’s brass frame because the jolt of pain gave him a moment of clarity, a blaze of sentience, even if his limbs were still sluggishly full of mush.
“Eddie. We have ‘em. Big fuckers, dunno how we’re gonna…home…owe…” and the rest dissolved into something akin to the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher. Sam fought to stay alert, scrutinized the guy as he spoke on a cell phone, tried to memorize the face he couldn’t see. Like the features were deliberately obscured, scratched out with a pencil, x’s for eyes. The man turned, noticed Sam watching, and gently ran his free hand over Sam’s lids. They closed, and that, as they say, was that.