Dean drank his coffee angrily, as only Dean could do. Once duly motivated, he made even the most mundane activity a visceral display of calculated emotion. It served him oh so well when he acted the part of federal agent, janitor, priest, or stone-cold killer. Sam won them over with empathy, sometimes contrived, sometimes sincere. Dean worked completely on guile, when he even cared to put forth the effort. And when he didn’t care he slapped up a firm wall of indifference or smart-assedness and went about his merry way.
Eddie seemed to take note of this particular pantomime and watched him with a soft expression, Mother Teresa in a worn, fuzzy bathrobe. Except she wasn’t wearing anything under said robe; Dean was pretty damned sure of that from an errant glimpse of thigh when she sat down across from him.
Dean knew she was working a ruse, too. He wanted her to feel how pissed off he was to be this tired and this awake at such an ungodly hour and this irritated with life, in general, so don’t screw with him, okay? Pink aura my ass. And based on her liquid eyes, Eddie wanted Dean to know she pitied his anger and raised him a stack of patience and dedication to her goals that would not be thwarted by any man’s churlish display. Well. At least they knew where each other stood.
The coffee maker sputtered the last of its steam with a machinated cough. Birds had the audacity to yammer from a feeder that hung just beyond the window over the sink. And Dean drummed fingers on the table. The cat, having finished its chow, was on the floor at Dean’s boots, watching him. Blinking. Dean gave the animal a cursory glance, then a stare. Blinking back. The cat didn’t have a tail.
“Your cat doesn’t have a tail,” he said, impressed by his own keen sense of the obvious.
“I know,” Eddie was polishing off her huevos rancheros, clearly not one of those women who wouldn’t eat in front of men. “I needed it for a ritual.”
Dean’s glare snapped up before he could catch himself. Eddie was smiling fiendishly.
“He was born without a tail, stupid. You really do want to think the worst of us, don’t you?” She didn’t sound particularly annoyed with him but the nunnish facade was gone, in favor of a shrewd narrowing of eyes.
“Not everyone. Just you.” And Dean grinned back.
“Nice. Well that settles it, then. You’re coming with me today.” Eddie washed down breakfast with a swig of coffee. Black, Dean observed, illogically annoyed by the way she took her joe.
“The hell I am.” Dean set back in his seat, arms folded over his chest to close off, make his biceps look bigger. Like a dog raising its hackles or a cock fanning its wings before a fight. Still with the mean grin, though.
Eddie leaned forward, pointing at him with her fork. For every bit of distance Dean tried to establish, she countered by getting closer. “Oh, come on. It’s ‘Bring a Hunter to Work Week’ and the girls in the office would love to meet you.”
“Sorry to disappoint, sister – ”
“All right, look, Dean. I’m really tired of this shit.” She dropped her fork to the plate with a clatter that made the cat jerk and wander off, stub twitching. She sighed hard and swiped at loose blonde tendrils. “You and I want the same thing here. We want a friend back. Me? I have a lot of friends I need back. I’ve lost more friends this past year than most people have in an entire lifetime. And I don’t know what happened to any of them.” The sincerity was back but this time in earnest. No play-acting. A flicker of disclosure washed over Eddie’s face and made her look so fearful and young, even though she was likely closer to Dean’s age than Sam’s. Tiny lines gifted by the California sun and recent worry radiated from the edges of her eyes, settled in the corners of her mouth, broke the smooth of her skin in minute fractures. Maybe not so much young, as desperate. Worn. Nearing wit’s end. “Please.”
Dean kicked himself mentally and felt a melt coming on. “Now why do I need to go to work with you?”
“I want you to come with me so I can show you what I do with my spells, my magicks. We won’t be gone long and—” She dodged her gaze down to the coffee, burnt umber the same color as her irises “—I need you to trust me just a little. Just enough for us to work together.”
Unfolding his arms, Dean hoped he didn’t live to regret this. “Sam’s not going to want to leave the kid alone. Vision quest thing and all.”
“Sam can stay here and watch Simon; that would make me feel better anyway.”
“Make you feel better? You have that much faith in us?”
“I had that much faith in Sylvie. And I don’t have a choice about you guys.” She picked at a scar on the table, and Dean noticed for the first time her hands had dirt permanently etched into the knuckles and fingertips, under the nails, embedded in the cuticles. Ah, here was the house’s green thumb. Dean had wondered about Eddie’s particular affinity, since it seemed like these witches were inclined to specialize in one area or another. She must be some sort of herbalist? Hell, someone had to grow all the ceremonial meadowsweet and sage and poison hemlock, he supposed.
“Fine, fine. So where’re we going?”
“I help run a community garden down by Corona Heights. Easy walk from here. Where’re you parked, anyway? I’ve got a driveway off the alley in the back; you might want to pull your car up there. I have to be to work by nine, so I’m gonna grab a shower.” Relief softened her features and she shoved back from the table, Dean looking up just in time to see the robe part a few inches farther. Nope, nothing under, just as he suspected and she didn’t seem the least bit shy about it. Though she did give Dean a discerning stare, a slight wrinkle of nose. “You should grab a shower sometime too. You’re ripe.” Eddie wandered out of the kitchen, followed by the cat, leaving Dean to scowl and fester in his own considerable juices. He couldn’t argue with her; he was ripe. Sam too, no doubt, since they hadn’t had the luxury of a shower since the Mother Lode Motel in Placerville.
“No, you’re ripe.” Muttered under his breath, alone at the table. Where the hell was Sam, anyway? He fall in? Dean dragged himself up and made a brief survey of the room. It looked like every other crunchy granola socially-conscious kitchen, what with its Free Trade whole bean coffee and biodegradable garbage bags and citric-based cleaners. Hell, even the cat food was organic.
Nothing to see here. Dean exited by the back door to check out this supposed parking spot for his baby. The screen door complained mightily, as did the back porch when he set foot on it. The whole house needed serious TLC but the narrow strip of backyard, while cluttered with an insane variety of vegetation, was organized in its chaos. Clearly someone, almost certainly Eddie, put much effort into the space. Dean recognized many of the plants from various ‘recipes’ in his father’s journal and Bobby’s library: rosemary, black cohosh, white sage, mistletoe and holly trees, to name but a few. And he found it remarkable that even in the dead of winter, as his breath steamed gray and corporeal, the garden was thriving in great rambles of green foliage, red and white berries, tightly knotted vines. Just beyond a crooked wooden fence, there sat a pair of gravel strips off to one side that passed for parking. It would do.
Morning was fully upon the city, the fog burning off in what promised to be a spectacular, if nipple chilling, day. Dean jogged out the back gate and retrieved the Impala, more than a little relieved to have her back in eyeshot. He got twitchy when she was gone too long, started to imagine all manner of unfortunate events, like bikes scraping her sides or birds shitting on the roof, not that they didn’t whether Dean was watching or not. He was equally displeased with the idea of leaving Sam at the house alone, even for a couple of hours. Man, this whole trust thing was a bitch. He had to trust that Sammy was a big boy, could handle a half-dozen hippies for a couple of hours. And he had to trust that Eddie wouldn’t turn him into a toad as soon as they rounded the corner.
Dean raked a hand through his hair and shot breath through clenched teeth, a decisive hiss. He popped the trunk, did a cursory check to be sure everything was in order, and snagged a small cold steel boot knife. Better safe than sorry. Coming back through the kitchen, he found the house was finally waking in earnest. Top 40 radio drifted from room to room, there was water running somewhere, and Dean heard voices murmuring from down the hallway. One of the voices was Sam’s, the other was Eddie’s. Man, she showered fast. He found them, following their discussion, something pithy about encyclopedias and hoodoo rootwork.
“But I think the better option is using ginger instead of goldenseal. It’s a little safer and not endangered – ”
“Endangered plants?” Dean coughed as he stepped around the doorway. “Do we need a ‘Save the Goldenseal’ campaign now?”
Sam was standing in the middle of the room, turning a slow circle. He ogled the floor-to-ceiling book shelves that were sagging under the weight of perhaps hundreds of tomes. Some hand-bound, others modern paperbacks, spiral notebooks, weathered leather spines…or at least Dean hoped it was leather and not human skin. All dealt with the occult in some fashion. It rivaled Bobby’s stash, to be sure. Sam’s eyes were wide and glassy, jaw slack, in the throes of a complete nerd-out. One small window let a thin plank of sunlight into the room, catching dust motes, cat hair and the tips of Sam’s boots in its beam. “Dean…lookit – ”
“Yeah, I know, Rainman. Awesome.”
Eddie leaned towards Dean, speaking softly, almost reverent of Sam’s rapture since his mind clearly wasn’t on the goldenseal vs. ginger debate. “I told Sam what the plans are and checked in on Simon. He’s awake, pissy but alive. Not a morning person, that one. Ready to go?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Then, more loudly, to cut through Sam’s book-induced stupor “You good, Sammy?”
Just a nod in return, but that was enough. Dean and Eddie left out the front door.
“So what did Sylvie say about us? About me?” Dean was really just making small talk as they walked the eight or so blocks to Eddie’s garden. Which, she supplied, was called Urban Oasis.
“Eh. She might’ve mentioned you in passing. I’d ask Julian; she seems to have said more to him.”
Dean quirked a brow, a silent question stalled on his lips.
Eddie grinned. “Yeah, she and Jules were hittin’ it pretty hard.”
“No shit! Mr. Masterpiece Theatre?”
“Hey, now. He’s a decent guy, and she’s good for him. You shoulda seen him before Sylvie. He was so uptight you coulda shoved coal up his ass and made diamonds.”
“Huh.” Dean mulled on this for a moment, feeling a twinge of jealousy but not really. He had no right. “So what’s Julian’s shtick?”
“Shtick?” Eddie bristled and looked at Dean. Hard. Her hair was still wet and it stuck to her cheek in delicate threads. “You mean his area of magical expertise? He sees ghosts.”
“Like that kid from ‘Sixth Sense’? “ ‘I see dead people’?”
“Yeah, I suppose so. Julian used to think it was just his imagination or stress until the visits got worse. More insistent. Sometimes violent. The spirits never let him be. Of course his family didn’t get it. They put him on every anti-psychotic known to medicine, but you know as well as I do that won’t work. It just made him sluggish, impotent, and haunted. So he came to us looking for help. We taught him how to screen them out through meditation and some lesser rituals. Make himself, well, unappealing to ghosts. Isn’t 100 percent foolproof but Julian can function again and that’s what counts.”
Eddie had to work to keep up with Dean’s stride, so he slowed for her sake. Or maybe for his own; what she said gave him pause and he wasn’t exactly in a hurry to look at flowers. “Was he always like that? Born seeing ghosts?”
She nodded. “We all were born this way. Different.”
Dean chewed on that for a half-block. Compared to Sammy and this paranormal Breakfast Club, he felt downright average. No hallucinations, spoon-bending, channeling, none of that crap. Except he knew the stuff existed, had seen it first hand, raised to look for it and fight it and live beyond the boundaries of ‘average’. In that respect, he knew all about being different. If you wore the name Winchester, you couldn’t help but be different. Didn’t mean he loved it all the time; that’s just the way things were. Best not to think on it too hard.
“Have you considered letting Julian poke around Ghostville for telltale signs of the missing girls?” Because if they were dead, this became not a rescue, but revenge. Made massive amounts of difference in approach and execution. Mostly in execution.
“Yep. No dice.” Eddie’s teeth worried over a lip; she must’ve had the same thought as Dean. “But sometimes talking to spirits is like herding cats. The upside was he didn’t see anyone we knew. Hope that means they’re still…”
“I hear ya. So tell me about the girls who disappeared. All of them within the past six months?”
“Janey was the first to vanish. She’s a barista at Starbucks. And a fortune teller. Kick-ass with the tarot. Then, Felicity Rebeau. Automatic painter. I’ll have to show you the van Gogh she channeled a couple of years ago. It’s gorgeous.”
Eddie guided Dean through a congestion of tightly bunched pedestrians, disparate and stoic and focused on heading in the contrary direction, to the exclusion of personal space and common courtesy. Dean was forced to shoulder through, nearly spinning a tall, rail-thin man in a ratty gray coat into a very pregnant woman pulling a wheeled briefcase of some sort. The man might’ve looked familiar for all of fifteen seconds but Dean had lost sight of Eddie and she was his priority.
He relocated her waving at him from a steepening side street, the sort of incline that stretched Dean’s calves and tested his lungs. In the midst of the city sat these considerable copses of green, preserved and surprisingly wild compared to the concrete and urban saturation typical of a metropolis with over 700,000 people clinging to its hillside. The farther up the hill they marched, the more remote it felt and Dean started to appreciate why people made the trek. The air was biting and fresh and the sounds of the city became background, like the crash of surf or the deep hum of a giant human engine.
Eddie kept talking, breathless as they mounted the considerable slope. “And then there was Hannah. That one really hits hard because she has kids. Twins. She didn’t stay at the house with the rest of us, but then, she wasn’t gifted either. Just kinda into the New Age thing. She’d stop by for workshops or meditation or lead yoga some mornings. Even got Danny to do Downward Facing Dog, and that wasn’t easy, believe me.”
Eventually their trail topped out in front of a lopsided cedar fence, graying from exposure, creaking as the wind kicked up and whistled and tossed Eddie’s hair, ruffled Dean’s, being too short to do anything else. It stung his earlobes and he blew into cupped palms to thaw his tingling fingers. A hand-painted sign, ‘Urban Oasis’, swayed back and forth, to and fro. Eddie slipped a silver chain threaded through a key from around her neck and opened a rusty padlock. “Three weeks ago, Sprite disappeared. Street kid. Psychometric. She comes and goes at a whim, but it’s not like her to stay gone this long. And none of the homeless have seen her.”
“Psycho – ?”
“She reads objects. Picks up vibes from them.”
To which Dean nodded as though he knew that all along, and Eddie deadpanned a glare as though he was chock full of shit.
Dean cleared his throat. “And then…Sylvie.”
“So. Five women. Not all of them were even actual witches — sorry, magi — and the only thing they had in common was a vagina and they knew you.”
“Thanks. That makes me feel a whole lot better.” But she didn’t sound annoyed. Weary and worried, yes. Annoyed, no. Dean also noted, from her verb tenses, she still believed they were all alive. This was either wishful thinking or she was one sneaky mass murderer. Dean was leaning towards the former.
Eddie pushed open the gate and stepped inside the garden. It wasn’t so much a garden as layer after layer of patchwork plots, some raised beds, others simply bound by ornamental brick or chicken-wire fencing. Each one had its own personality, and each one was thriving beyond what anything should’ve been this time of year. Mostly cabbage and squashes and your standard vegetable fare, seasonal enough not to raise eyebrows. And each plot featured a little plaque that announced its gardener: The Smiths, Bob and Cathy Chin, Grover’s Greenstuff. Dean’s boots kicked up the pungent scent of fresh mulch as Eddie escorted him down the pathway. There must’ve been at least fifty plots.
“So what’s your theory about all this?” Dean asked, pausing at a barren bee hive. It still smelled of honey.
Eddie stopped, stuffed her hands in the pockets of her parka and huddled her shoulders. “I wish I had a theory. I even tried the city’s psychics, the ones that aren’t frauds, and they’ll hardly talk to me. They’re terrified, Dean. And that makes me really, really scared.”
“What about other covens in the city? I dunno, maybe someone with a grudge? Someone who thinks you’re trying to give witches a good name?”
“Oh, for…” Eddie looked like she wanted to be irritated by the suggestion but stopped herself, tawny brows furrowing. “I can’t say they’re not out there but I steer clear of the covens as a rule. We’re just not on the same page, you know? One of the psychics warned me to avoid Chinatown, but I always did that anyway. There’s been weird shit going on in Chinatown for a long as I’ve been here in the city. Almost five years now.”
“Chinatown, huh. Interesting.”
She looked at Dean expectantly but he left it at that. Sometimes it was prudent to play things close to the vest. If he’d learned anything from his brother it was that information was power. You couldn’t shoot a chupacabra with it but you sure as hell could con a conman if you knew something he, or she, didn’t.
Eddie shrugged, smiled vaguely, and continued on towards a shack in the back corner of the garden. If you didn’t know it was there, you might not even see it for all the vines and evergreens and compost centers around the building. Dean jogged to catch up as Eddie was unlocking the door with yet another key. This shack, unlike the garden proper, was warded nine ways to Sunday. He saw the sigils carved into the doorframe, many he didn’t recognize. Eddie’s self-styled hexbags were tucked into the eaves like tiny wasps’ nests, and the decorative wreath that hung on the door was constructed of obscure herbs and sprigs and greenery that amounted to some sort of protection device, Dean suspected.
“My office,” she said by way of explanation. It hardly looked like any office Dean had seen before but then Eddie was unlike any witch he knew. She stepped inside, shut the door as soon as he was clear.
Dean scanned the space silently. It was maybe the size of Bobby’s living room, a rustic handmade table to one side and a pair of lawn chairs adjacent to sit upon. Rough flagstone tiled the floor; strings of white Christmas lights edged a ceiling that was open to the bright blue sky, obscured only by wide, crisscrossed lattice and a sheer drape of netting. Enormous all-weather pillows were strewn about in case the chairs just wouldn’t do and from the lattice Eddie had hung hanks of flowers to dry. The bunches rustled in the wind that banked through the roof and off the walls, like whispers, like secrets. But the most remarkable thing was the living flora: the whole back half of the building was crowded by a forest of tall, leggy plants, hand-shaped leaves with thin leaflets like jagged-edged fingers. Ganja. Pot. Cannabis. Marijuana.
Eddie turned to Dean; her eyes were glittering. And Dean knew he could get in all kinds of trouble here.