Orderly towers of books, a small fortune’s worth, edged the desk where Sam sat behind their skyline, a city constructed of the printed word. In an hour’s time he had devoured ‘Demons I Have Known’, thumbed through ‘Folklore Versus Fiction in the Modern Age’, and skimmed ‘The Encyclopedia Maleficarum’, which he’d read before but it was good to get a refresher.
Danny had passed by the library maybe fifteen minutes ago and threw Sam a dark, slippery scowl that spoke volumes about how much he distrusted the Winchesters and would rather see them punched in the throats than sitting in his house. And Sam had given Danny a slight cant of the head, a hesitant wave. Smooth.
Sam glanced at his watch, thought it was time to check on Simon again. Maybe clean up some of this mess. He was stretched to the extent of his long arms, sliding books back to the topmost shelf when he felt eyes settle on his shoulders, light pressure on his shins, the air stirring. Eddie’s cat was back like a bad penny, making brief chirruping noises in a plea for attention.
And then someone yawned from the doorway. “Morning, Paul Bunyan.”
So Sam didn’t have to check on Simon after all, but he did make a mental note to retire a few of his flannel shirts when he had the chance.
The kid leaned on the door frame, twigs for arms wrapped around himself and purple hair mashed flat on one side, sleep pants barely caught on knobby hips and feet naked except for black nail polish. He looked more cartoon character than computer genius.
“Morning, Tiny Tim. Um, how’re you feeling?”
Simon snorted, maybe some indication of truce about the height jokes. He shuffled into the room and balanced his rear on the edge of the desk, elbow resting on a book pile. “Feeling fine, I s’pose. Isn’t this place awesome?”
Sam half-grinned, ran fingers over the titles on the next shelf down. “Yeah, kinda awesome.”
“When I first got to the house, I slept in this room. Kid you not. Dragged the futon mattress in here and didn’t leave for a month. Except to piss, ‘course. Eddie made me come to the kitchen for food. The book, she is beautiful. Even prettier when transferred to the digital format.” Simon set a hand to his heart, gaze rolling to the ceiling.
“I don’t know; I like books. The smell, how they feel in your hands…”
“Yeah but it would be all kinds of amazing to have a database of the supernatural, available to everyone. Pagans, magi, hunters. Right?”
Sam had to give him that, strange, likeable little nerd. “What brought you to the house, Simon?”
Simon’s expression shifted, heavied, took on weight from something unsaid. “It was Judah, actually. He found me.”
Sam remained quiet, just kept watching, brows quirking to encourage the kid’s continued explanation. It worked.
“See, dunno if you guessed, but I’m a little gay—”
“I know, right? I hide it well. Anyway, as every gay boy from Fresno who gets thrown out of the house at fifteen does, I floated down to San Francisco, in search of fame, fortune, and a good fuck.”
“Sorry; my bad. Judah caught me hacking into an ATM around the corner. Guess he put two and two together and came up with magic.” Simon fluttered his fingers as though flicking glitter. “Been here ever since. Going on four years.”
“So who, and where, is this Judah?”
More weighty stalling on Simon’s part. His fingers settled in his lap. Sighed. “Founder of the house. Helluva mage. Dunno where he is now, though. Left about a year ago.”
Sam moved to the desk, dripping curiosity, sat back in the rickety old chair and looked up at Simon. “Left? Or disappeared…”
The kid frowned; clearly it hadn’t occurred to him before. “No, I’m pretty sure he left left. See, he and Eddie started fighting. Knock-down drag-outs. And this wasn’t normal for them. ‘Normal’ was…” and Simon threaded one finger through the curl of his other hand in the universal gesture for sex. “I overheard some really weird arguments. Don’t get me wrong; I like the guy. Hell, he owns this house, lets us live here, taught us how to be magi and walk the White Path. But Christmas before last, he started getting antsy. Like things just weren’t happening fast enough. Don’t ask me what things…he just…” Simon shrugged, kept his gaze pinned to his hands.
“So he up and left?” Sam coaxed.
“Yup. One night, he packed up his shit and bolted. Took everything—”
Sam tapped the notebook he’d been perusing half-heartedly which now seemed considerably more interesting. “I think this is his.”
“No shit.” Simon practically sat in Sam’s lap to get a peek at the battered spiral notebook. “Where did you find this?!”
“Top shelf, behind some other books.”
“Figures. You freakin’ telephone pole.”
“Look, I can’t help that I’m tall; you, on the other hand, chose to Miss Clairol your hair purple.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Simon flipped through the sheets hyperactively, pausing only to scan this passage or that. One thing was clear: from what Sam had noted previously, the handwriting which had been fairly orderly at the binder’s start became less and less cohesive as pages passed, the scrawl losing legibility and when it seemed the author couldn’t find the words, he began to doodle pictures. The sketches made about as much sense as the bizarre text, ink smeared and blotted and sometimes speckled as though it had been rained upon. Conspicuously wrinkled circles of diluted ink, like colored tears.
“Did Judah dabble in the more fringe practices? Charles Manson-level weirdness?”
“Hells, no! At least, I don’t think so. But this…yeah, this crap is coo-coo for CoCoPuffs, for sure.”
Sam hovered over Simon’s shoulder and they inspected the strange journal in tandem until Sam caught glimpse of a familiar image. He snagged Simon’s hand in his own, staying the turn of pages.
Mouths. Teeth. A dark scribbled mass with jaws and lips and tongue, everywhere. The text that surrounded the drawing was completely unreadable to Sam, though it smacked of ancient Babylonian. Bobby might recognize it.
“What the fuck is that?” Simon mumbled, not really expecting a reply.
“I’ve seen it before.”
He shot Sam a sudden stare, pulled back an inch or three like he just realized Sam might be hot to the touch. “For real? In what? Your nightmares?”
Since Sam hadn’t come up with a better way to tell Simon, flopping it out there, bigger than life and twice as ugly, seemed to be the way to go. Especially since circumstance had given him the perfect opening.
“Well, I have these, um, visions. Of weird shit about to happen. And I saw this thing.” Sam tapped the page, shifted uncomfortably.
“What was it doing?” Simon asked, his voice thin and reedy and a little cracked around the edges.
“I think it was eating you.”
Now Simon did jump back, well out of Sam’s reach. “What do you mean, eating me?!” The kid was nearly trembling out of his sloppy pajamas.
“Settle, it’s okay! I won’t let anything happen to you, Simon. I promise. These visions I get are just premonitions; we’ve been able to stop them from happening before. And we’ll stop them this time.” Okay, maybe that was underplaying the threat a tad but Simon was about to have a full-on panic attack and that would certainly have been a headache Sam didn’t need.
Simon looked entirely unconvinced, baby-smooth cheeks flushed an agitated pink against the pale of the rest of his face. “H-how do you know?”
I don’t know, kid, but sometimes you’ve just gotta plow forward on a wing and a prayer. Sam stood, pulling himself to his full and impressive height, backlit by the morning’s growing sun and cutting a long shadow across the room. Typically, he hated doing this, using what Dean called his “freakish sasquatch body” to intimidate but this was one of those instances where broad shoulders and a stern expression implied authority. “Because it’s my job, Simon. Dean and I, we’re hunters. Damned good at what we do. You stick with us, and this, this thing will not eat you. Is that clear?”
Simon stared, glassy-eyed, nodding almost imperceptibly.
“Good. Now, uh, go get some coffee. Get dressed. Relax. Nothing bad’s going to happen in the next fifteen minutes. Capisce?”
“Oh. Okay.” Simon slipped out, giving Sam a wide berth, still quivering.
The kid was making him nervous by sheer proximity and Sam needed a break. He exhaled long and hard, swiped a hand through his hair which desperately needed an oil change. Hell, his whole body craved a good soak and a scrub. Wasn’t likely to happen at the Red Vic, though. Stupid communal bathrooms. Maybe Eddie would let Sam use that enormous claw-footed tub he saw upstairs. It looked big enough he could almost stretch the length of it, which was a rarity these days. Sam wandered back to the desk, fingers trailing over that damned creepy notebook. He picked it up, rifled through the pages, looking for other recognizable scribbles. The narrative was hopeless, even when it was legible. Grandiose, self-important blather that didn’t sound like the altruistic soul Simon seemed to think Judah was. If Sam had been a betting man, which he wasn’t, his money would’ve been on Judah as The Big Bad, exacting some sort of vengeance upon Eddie for an imagined betrayal. Or perhaps a genuine one, who knew?
Sam turned the notebook upside down and shook it, like one did with magazines to dislodge those annoying subscription cards. A single business card shuddered free to the desk. Sam picked it up, pinched it between thumb and forefinger. Thick, expensive stock, the printing embossed in slick ebony, like dead man’s blood. It read ‘The Black Lotus’, followed by Chinese characters, under which was another line in English: ‘Hang Ah Alley’. What Sam had assumed in his fevered premonition was a water lily was actually, in point of fact, a lotus blossom. He was quite certain, felt the thrill of it in his gut.
“Paydirt,” Sam murmured, a ghost of a smile tilting his lips.
“Dude. This thing is a relic!” Simon played with the radio of the Impala, bent forward to inspect the cassette player like it was some rare creature with seven legs and a nose where its ass should’ve been.
“Don’t say that out loud around Dean. He’ll knock you into next week.”
Simon was trying to stick his finger in the tape entry when Sam threw a shoebox of aging cassettes, pulled from beneath the bench seat, into the kid’s lap. Simon pawed through the mess, squinting to read fading, handwritten titles, shaking one of the plastic rectangles as though it would help him recognize the band name. Jostle loose the information.
“Nazareth? Is your brother into Christian rock? Ew.”
Sam rolled his eyes and snatched away the cassette, slamming it into the player. After a moment of hiss and static, slow guitar filled the car, sinuous and masculine and mournful in its vaguely retro lament about “love” and its various “hurts”, judging by the lyrics.
This shut Simon up for a few blessed minutes, allowing for Sam to concentrate on where they were heading. Chinatown. Hung Ah Alley. He didn’t have a clue what they’d do once they got there. He’d been unable to get Dean on the phone and had been forced to leave a voicemail, but Sam just couldn’t see fit to lounge around the house, waiting for Dean to turn up or something to happen or paint to dry, whichever came first. Not when a lead had practically landed in his lap. It concerned him that Dean wasn’t picking up, though not enough to track down Eddie’s garden. Not yet anyway. He honestly didn’t think Eddie was mean-spirited. Manipulative? Absolutely. Not malevolent. Sure, she was keeping secrets but Dean was cagey enough to weasel them out of her, which was probably what he was doing at this very second. Sam put in another quick call, just in case. Voicemail a second time. “Hey, Dean, me again. Call me when you can. Just…check in, okay?” Sam’d already left the fieldtrip information in a previous recording so if Dean wanted to join him, he could drift thataway.
“I can call Eddie, see if she picks up?” Simon offered.
“Great, yeah, do that.”
The call was made and Simon relayed that yes, Dean was with her. And no, they didn’t get any of Sam’s calls, maybe Dean’s phone was dead? No, wait, he must’ve dropped it somewhere. He can’t find it. But they could call her if they needed Dean—
Sam made grabby fingers towards the phone. “Tell her to put Dean on.”
Simon did and Eddie obliged. Sam heard Dean laughing on the other end of the line before he spoke.
Dean sounded far too relaxed for anyone’s good. Like he’d been nursing a bottle of Jack for the better part of the day then chased it with a handful of happy pills.
“Dean, what the hell? Are you…are you drunk?”
There was a pause, more stifled laughter.
“No sir, I am not drunk. Not even a little. Nope, not me.”
Sam pulled the phone back, stared at it as though getting some distance would make all things clear…which it did not… and pressed it back to his ear. “Okay, so I’m taking Simon to Chinatown with me. Chasing a lead. Meet you back at the house for lunch.”
“Wait, what? No, no you shouldn’t go to Chinatown because all the psychics say…not that I believe in psychics exactly but, yanno…they say it’s bad mojo and – ”
“Whatever. Bye, Dean.”
Sam threw the phone back to Simon, nine kinds of irritation making a knot out of his stomach. What the hell was Dean doing, getting blotto this early in the day?! During a case, no less. Dammit, he knew Eddie would be trouble as far as Dean was concerned. Sam smelled the smolder between them, almost from the get-go.
But then, on the other hand, maybe Sam had it coming. Wasn’t this exactly what he did back at that New England bed-n-breakfast, little over a month ago? Got smashed because, well, he simply needed it? Needed some release and self-pity to get his bearings back, readjust priorities? Sam relaxed his grip on the steering wheel so the blood could return to his knuckles. Simon simply stared, knew better than to ask, just pocketed the phone and turned up the radio.
Love Hurts segued into Hair of the Dog, which seemed to amuse Simon to no end—“More cowbell!”—as Sam captained the Impala through San Francisco’s narrow streets, the infrastructure reminding him not a little of those Escher drawings, the ones where strange passageways jutted out at illogical angles. Chinatown, however, was obvious once you got there. Heralded by the huge façade of a pagoda-like gate and 1920’s style lampposts strung with fringed ornamental lanterns, the thoroughfares quickly became clogged with tourists and, as it was approaching lunchtime, locals in search of good dim sum. It was clear they’d have to park the Impala and hoof it, which Sam did, after a fashion, perhaps a block from Chinatown proper.
“I’m not so sure we should be doing this.” Simon caught up to Sam after the meter was fed, forced to take two steps for every one of Sam’s.
“Couldn’t very well leave you home alone,” Sam said, hands shoved in pockets, eyes habitually scanning doorways and corners and open windows. “Besides, aren’t you the slightest bit curious?”
“Of being eaten?! Not, not even a little.”
“Chicken shit.” Sam grinned. He was just giving the kid grief, mental masturbation while he got theories and facts sorted out in his brain. Before he left, he’d taken pictures of some of the scrawl from Judah’s notebook and emailed them to Bobby, in the hopes the older hunter, with his facility for languages and copious records, could parse out what it all meant. Rather seemed like Judah had gone done flipped his lid but that didn’t make him any less dangerous, if anything more so.
“No, seriously, man. I…I don’t wanna go. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
Sam stopped and turned on Simon, fixing the kid with a grimace. It wasn’t that Sam didn’t have sympathy for Simon’s high-strung nature, but now it was just getting exasperating. Like one of those yappy pocket puppies carried by celebutantes, the kind that nip at your fingers every time you try to untangle it from its leash. “What’s wrong, Simon? Is it something specific? We’re almost there. Come on; buck up, little soldier.”
Sam sat his hands on his hips, huffed unhappily, which gave Simon the opportunity to turn tail and head off in the opposite direction back towards the car, forcing Sam to give chase. Wasn’t much of a chase, though. Three long strides and Simon was within arm’s reach. Sam spun the kid by a grab to one shoulder, catching a wrist, Simon’s free arm flailing and slapping ineffectually at Sam. Like spaghetti flinging at a wall. Simon was starting to whimper, choked little noises, bony chest hitching on the verge of terror.
“I can’t go there I can’t I won’t – ”
Something else was happening here besides anxiety, Sam was convinced. He pulled Simon closer, firmly slapped the kid’s cheek but the sting did nothing to banish the panic. If anything, Simon’s whimper grew to a wail, swelled in volume and pitch until passers-by were staring with apprehension. Fantastic. It was then that Sam noticed heat under his fingertips, issuing from Simon’s spindly forearm. Heat beyond the norm, a pinpoint fever, hot to the degree of discomfort. A sear that radiated from the magical tattoo on the underside of Simon’s wrist. It didn’t look any different, but it was.
Sam curled an arm around Simon, whispering into the crown of his violet hair. “Shh, cool it. It’s okay. We’re not going.”
“We…w-we’re n-not? ‘Cause if you’re l-l-lying to me I’ll…I’ll…”
“Nope. Not going. I promise.”
Simon was quivering, practically vibrating, sniffling into the front of Sam’s shirt but growing calm. Thank God.
“Simon, where did you get this tattoo?” Sam patted the kid’s head and slightly loosened his grip, flickering a conciliatory smile at the gang of concerned citizens who’d collected across the street.
“W-whadya mean? At a tattoo parlor in, um, North Beach.”
“No, I mean where did you find the symbol?”
Simon winced, his brow furrowing. “Eddie? No, wait, Judah got it from somewhere.”
Well, now it made sense if you applied a little imagination. The tattoo wasn’t a scrying deterrent at all but some flavor of ward. Stay away upon penalty of death. No trespassing. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. A sure sign this Black Lotus was the nexus of…something.
“Does everyone in the house have these?”
“Most of us. I think.”
“Crap. Simon, I’m pretty sure Judah lied to you guys about this symbol, or the spell behind it. It seems to be keeping you out of a certain area.”
Simon turned wild eyes on Sam, throat working like a fish gulping air, scrubbing at the tattoo in the apparent hope he could wipe it clean off.
“Whoa, whoa. We’ll deal with this later. Let’s just get you back to the car, okay? You can wait there for me.”
Simon said nothing but nearly scrambled his brains with violent nodding.
Once secure in the arms of the Impala, Sam gave firm instructions for Simon to call if anything, and I mean anything, seemed out of order. Lock the doors. Stay down. Do NOT go anywhere. And Simon agreed most ardently.
Sam returned to Chinatown alone. He was a big boy; he didn’t need a babysitter. He wasn’t going to get himself in deep, just poke around to see if there was anything to this Black Lotus theory. If he could find the place.
He asked at a nondescript, no-nonsense Shanghai-style diner for directions to Hang Ah Alley, grabbed an order of potstickers to go, and quickly found himself off the beaten path where the tourists didn’t tread and most of the storefronts were caged behind metal antitheft bars. Odd counterpoint to the community recreational area that anchored one end of the alley, though there was nobody on the playground equipment, it being a school day and all. Very few folks, Chinese or otherwise, floated about. The narrow street, dirtied by pigeon droppings and litter, had the uncomfortable air of an Old West ghost town, grimy and barren and haunted at its corners. People moved behind the windows, watched Sam with undisguised mistrust, went about their business as not to catch his eye. The buildings weren’t overly tall; Sam could stand at the edge of the sidewalk and look up the facades all the way to the rooftops. Nothing said “Black Lotus” in English or otherwise, and it would probably be extremely unwise to ask.
He was in the process of looking for a garbage can in which to deposit his half-empty cardboard carton when a second-story window scraped open, the old wood casement squealing, sounds of something clacking like dominoes or dice or bones or, most likely, mahjongg tiles drifting from the building. It caught his eye, and good thing too because right below the window was a single, deeply recessed door, painted a glossy red lacquer. How he missed it before was something of a worry. Magically obscured? Probably. He wouldn’t put anything past a witch or mage or warlock or whatever, if this was indeed Judah’s playhouse.
Set into the door, a small rectangular sliding peephole centered at around Sam’s chin level, and above that, a handful of Chinese characters accompanied by a simple stylized lotus flower, all outlined in black. Sam whipped out the calling card, confirming a match. He didn’t believe in luck but if he did, this would be it.
A quick glance around revealed no visible wards and a careful tug on the ornate brass knob confirmed it was, as expected, locked.
Out came the lock picks he’d retrieved from the magi’s house. The knob, lock and faceplate were not new; if anything, they were very, very old. Weathered in dusky patina and possessing a delicacy and attention to detail that modern designs hardly bothered with these days, the tumblers dropped easily under Sam’s discerning touch. The door dragged open with an expected metallic whinge; Sam slowed his pace and the noise quieted. Twelve, fifteen inches was all he needed to slip inside, so once he achieved that span, he was in like Flynn, door shut softly behind.
The Black Lotus, at first glance, appeared to be some sort of private club. The front door opened into a vestibule, paneled in dark, lustrous wood, intricately carved molding, and if not for the dim glow of a light left burning somewhere down a distant hall, the area would’ve been a near-vacuum of black. Windowless. Sound dampened like a mausoleum, albeit a very well-appointed mausoleum. Sam’s footfalls were cushioned by plush oriental carpets and he could just barely make out banks of velvet-upholstered sofas and ottomans and benches, highly ornate console tables, drapes softening the look of the walls in a purely decorative fashion. A waiting area, he reasoned, where the patrons bided their time before…what? Had to be something illicit, just had to be. Sam felt it in his gut, in the way the tender hairs at his nape prickled. That, and there was a sickly sweet note to the air that went beyond simple incense or even pot smoke. If Sam had to guess, it was opium.
As a precaution, he slipped his gun from the small of his back, held it down to the side, the smooth feel of cold metal in his palm settling dancing nerves. Dean loved this shit, the pulse of adrenaline shooting through his veins, yanking him well and fully alive as only ‘fight or flight’ could do. Sam? Not so much, though the feeling was familiar enough to be useful and dare he say, invigorating? Okay, not really. It made him sweat. If not for the curiosity, he’d be leaving now, returning to the car and waiting for Dean to come with. As long as Dean was sober enough to function.
Sam shook off the mild annoyance he felt aimed towards his brother and crept silently, carefully, down the hall that snaked away from the reception area. Closed doors banked either side of the corridor but he didn’t dare open any until he figure out if the one door left ajar, where the light was issuing from, had no one behind it. As he neared, he held his breath. Shook unkempt bangs out of his eyes. Leveled all focus on the softly lit room.
Not a single sound floated from the open room. Not breathing, the shuffling of feet or papers or the rustle of cloth, nothing. It was so quiet he could hear his heart triple-time pounding in his ears. Sam toed the door a fraction of an inch. Still nothing. He got brave, nudged an inch or two more, eyeing what he could of the room now. The same lush décor as the lobby, a sliver of beautifully preserved desk, brass wastepaper basket…that was the extent of what was viewable from this point. The shadows were inanimate, stock still. Until they weren’t anymore.
Sam was lifting a hand to push farther when the door flew wide and the barrel of a gun rocketed into his chest. Well, his belly, then his chest, because the gun’s wielder was tiny. A good foot shorter than Sam, maybe more. And very, very beautiful.