The motel room was getting dark, and she still hadn't heard from Grace, other than a short text about an hour ago telling her that she'd be back soon. Joan was starting to get nervous. She had just made up her mind to go looking for her when she came through the door.
"Oh, thank God," Joan said. "I was getting ready to call in the search dogs."
"Relax, Girardi. But yeah, today was kind of a beating. Who would have thought it would take so long to listen to people read their papers? And, I gotta be back in an hour. Wanna go grab a sandwich or something?"
"Tonight? You have to go?"
"Yeah. They're narrowing it down to the top contenders. I think I may actually have a shot." She looked excited and happy, and Joan hated, hated herself for what she said next.
"You can't go."
"Just. You can't. Not tonight."
"Why the hell not?"
Joan sighed. This would all be so much easier if she could just say, because God said so. Since she couldn't say that, she went with, "I don't know."
Grace tilted her head to the side, eying her intensely. Then she smiled nervously, saying, "You've been in this room for too long. Let's just go get something to eat."
Joan nodded her head mutely and then grabbed her scarf and jacket. She sniffed at the air and wrinkled her nose. "Anything but nachos."
-- -- -- --
Dean wanted to check out the area where the girls had been killed--all of them in front of the American Studies Building. Maybe if they could meet the ghost face-to-face, they might be able to get somewhere with this hunt and finally put Lincoln behind them.
From the passenger side of the Impala, Sam had his flashlight turned on the book Joan had given them earlier. "I can't believe you're actually reading that," Dean said.
Sam sighed. "What's the harm? Don't you find it at least a little bit interesting that Joan gave us this book on legends?"
Dean stared straight ahead, muscles in his jaw working as he focused on the road, disturbed at how quick Sam was to change their plan because of a book from some stranger. He didn't want to wait another night, wasting more time on research that wouldn't lead anywhere. He wanted to hunt this thing and kill it.
"Legends, Dean. It's sort of what we do. Half the stuff we hunt comes from stories like these. Isn't it at least a possibility that there's a lead in here?"
"She just likes you, Sam. And you turn into this--I don't know--this goofy-smile-puppy-eyed idiot when she's around. I just think we should see if we can smoke this bastard out, see what we're up against, and then kick its ass."
Dean pulled the Impala to the closest parking space he could find to the part of campus they needed to investigate, ignoring the Faculty Parking sign that was clearly visible.
"You can't park here, Dean," Sam said.
"What, like I'm going to park way out in BFE visitors when we might need to come back and get shovels or ammo? It'll be fine. Spring break."
Sam smirked. "Okay. Don't say I didn't warn you."
Dean was getting irritated. When Sam made no move to get out of the car, he said, "Look, if you want to sit in here and read your little stories, then fine. I'm gonna go do our job." He shut his door with as much force as he could without slamming it and stalked around to the trunk.
He heard Sam's door open and close, and he gave a small sigh of relief when Sam strode up beside him.
They each grabbed one of the handguns that shot rock salt. The shotguns would do a better job, but the campus wasn't entirely empty, and they couldn't risk being seen with them. Dean also grabbed an iron crowbar, and Sam took a knife. Dean patted the EMF reader in his jacket pocket before they headed into campus.
There were no people around that they could see, but the building ahead of them had most of its lights on. Dean worried that they wouldn't be alone for long. He pulled out the reader and switched it on. It whined at him softly, letting him know it was on, but nothing out of the ordinary was registering. They walked slowly, and Dean swung the reader around wide, trying to see if anything would pick up. He could hear Sam's soft footsteps behind him.
He'd made his way up the entire footpath that lead to the building and was making his way back down when he heard Sam say hello to someone. He turned around, quickly pocketing the reader, to see that weird girl's friend coming up the walk. He smiled benignly at her, adopting a posture that said I'm-just-taking-an-evening-stroll-on-cam
Suddenly, the reader got very loud from inside his jacket pocket, giving just enough warning before Sam shouted, "Dean! Get down!"
He instantly hit the ground, taking the girl with him, and he felt something very cold skim the top of his head. When he looked up, Sam slashed his knife across the body of a pale figure wearing an Indian headdress.
"What the?" Dean muttered as he pulled himself up off the grass, wiping absently at his knees. He held out his hand for the girl to get up, but she shook him off, getting up by herself.
"You all right?" He asked. When she nodded her head yes, he told her, "Run." She didn't move. "Get outta here."
"I'm not going anywhere, you moron." She hit him on the arm with the back of her hand. She was very small, but the fury that was rolling off of her made her seem to be at least twice her size. "What the hell, dude?"
"Listen, lady," Dean said, leaning down enough to get in her face a little. "I don't have time to babysit you right now. You need to get out of here now."
Her eyes were blazing. "The name is Grace. And, I'm not leaving until you tell me what's going--"
"Hey, look over here," Sam said. "This is where it landed." He ignored Grace to turn his attention to where Sam was scuffing at the ground with one of his boots.
"Where what landed?" Dean asked, walking over to where Sam was, Grace just steps behind him.
"The tomahawk. He threw a tomahawk."
When he crouched down to get a better look, he saw the same fine powdering of salt he'd seen around Ashely Gibson. He pinched some between his fingers. "Son of a bitch," he said, throwing the salt back to the ground, but he'd only barely had time to process what he was seeing when the ghost reappeared behind Sam. He didn't want to fire his gun, but he didn't have a choice--the thing had flung Sam ten yards away and now had him by the throat, pinning him to a tree.
"Sam!" he shouted.
One shot, and it dissipated, and Dean sighed in relief. He was half afraid that the salt wouldn't work on this one. Apparently, though, this bastard had to go by the same rules as everything else. Sam fell away from the tree, gulping air. Dean was already jogging toward him, shouting, "Sam! You okay?"
"Yeah," Sam said, only a little breathless. "I'm good." He took a deep breath, bringing himself back up to full height.
"We better go before it comes back or before someone sends the cops for the gunshot," Dean said, knowing that they couldn't do any more without having any information on how to find the remains. He turned to Grace. "Why are you even here this late?"
Her face was pale, and she looked a little like she was in shock. "Was that a gho-- No. No. That's just insane. I'm going insane," she said, shaking her head in short staccato movements. She was about five seconds from barfing all over her combat boots when Dean looked over to Sam, trying wordlessly to tell him to handle this.
"No," Sam said, stepping in, laying a grounding hand on her shoulder, urging her back to the here and now. "You're not, but we need to know, Grace. Are you by yourself, or is anyone else coming? No one should be around here tonight. It's not safe."
Grace took a shaky breath. "I was the last to leave, so I think everyone else is gone." When Dean looked back toward the building, he noticed that most of the lights had been turned off.
"We didn't see anyone else leave. Are you sure you were the last one out?" Sam asked, putting a hand on her other shoulder, trying to keep her focused.
"Pretty sure. Almost everyone else left through the other door, but this door was closer to where I was gonna have Joan pick me up." Her voice was a low and even monotone. Her hands were shaking. "What was that?" She suddenly looked up sharply. "Who are you guys?"
"We'll tell you everything you need to know," Sam said, releasing her shoulders. "But first, we need to get you out of here. We'll take you back to the motel."
Grace nodded dumbly and followed them back to the car. They walked a few paces in front of her, and Sam talked low so that only Dean could hear. "I think I might know who that was."
When they got within eye-shot of the Impala, Dean saw a small piece of paper flapping from underneath one of the wipers. He picked it up--he'd gotten a damn parking ticket. "Sixty five bucks!"
"I told you not to park here," was all Sam said, opening the back door for Grace.
Dean crumpled the ticket and threw it on the ground.
-- -- -- --
Joan was near to frantic, pacing quickly from one end of the small motel room to the other. Grace was not answering any of her calls or texts. She knew she was gonna hear it from God--she couldn't keep Grace from going back to campus. She'd tried everything, but Grace wouldn't listen. The only thing she could have done was to literally tie her down, and she'd even considered that as a real option for a few insane seconds, but how in the world would she have been able to explain that? She hit Grace's number on her phone again. It was still going straight to voicemail. She gathered her things and left the motel room.
-- -- -- --
Grace seemed to snap out of her shock by the time they pulled into the parking lot of the motel. From the back seat of the Impala, her voice was insistent when she asked again, "Who in the hell are you two, and what the hell just happened?"
"You were attacked by a ghost," Dean said as he got out. He knew there would be more questions, and he had a few of his own. He was antsy to get back to campus. He thought he'd seen a spot where he and Sam could watch the area from the Impala in case any other people decided to take a nighttime stroll.
They walked with her back to her room, and when she opened the door, she told them to come in. "So you guys aren't really reporters, then." It wasn't a question.
"No," Sam said. He filled one of the glasses by the sink with water.
"Then, for the millionth time, who are you? Spill, dude."
Sam handed her the glass as he looked over to Dean, who met his look and gave a sharp nod of his head. She took a small sip, hands still shaking a little.
"My name is Sam, and this is my brother, Dean. This is sort of what we do."
"What? Fight ghosts?"
Sam shrugged his shoulders. "Well, yeah, kinda." When she said nothing, just stared at both of them with a look of confusion, Sam continued, "Where's Joan? I actually need to ask her a couple of questions."
Grace looked around the room, seeming to only notice then that Joan was gone. "I don't know," she said, pulling her phone from her back pocket. She opened it up and switched it on. "Jesus," she said, pressing the scroll button over and over again. She looked at it intently for a few minutes, pressing buttons. "It's weird. Joan didn't want me to go tonight. Begged me not to, actually. I thought she was just being crazy--she can get like that sometimes." She paused for a minute, reading. "Shit," she said. "She's gone to campus looking for me."
She immediately hit the call button. Her leg bounced nervously as she waited. "Joan?" she said, sighing in relief.
As she spoke with Joan, Sam pulled Dean off to the little table at the front of the room. "Look," he said. "I read this earlier tonight, but at the time it just blended in with all the other stories, but--I think this may be our guy." He opened Joan's book, flipping pages until he stopped when he found what he needed.
Sam read in a hoarse whisper. "A pillar of snowy salt once stood on the Nebraska plain, about forty miles above the point where the Saline flows into the Platte, and white men used to hear of it as the Salt Witch." Dean moved in a little closer, eying the page, and Sam kept reading silently. Then, he said, "It says here that this Indian chief went crazy when his wife died, and that he saw some sort of ghost kill her, and then he killed the ghost with a tomahawk."
Dean sighed and leaned back in his chair. "It's the best theory we've got so far. But what do you think would make Crazy Horse start killing college kids all of a sudden?"
Sam shook his head. "I don't know," he said running a hand through his hair. "And, I don't understand why Joan gave this to us. And, she told Grace to stay away from campus. She's involved somehow, I just don't know how."
Dean felt his face go stony. He didn't like where this could be leading. "Think she might be, I don't know, controlling it or something?"
Sam seemed to think about this for a second before he answered, "No. If she was controlling it, why would she have given us the book with the legend we needed? And, the ghost threw the tomahawk directly at Grace, Dean, like she was the intended target. It only came after me because I pissed it off. I just don't think Joan would have intentionally put Grace in danger."
"Maybe she's one of your pals from the Psychic Friends Network; got her baby bottle fortified with blood from our dearly departed yellow eyed pain-in-the-ass."
Sam drew his lips into a tight line as he thought, but Grace's voice called their attention away from the book, out of their hushed conversation.
"She's on her way. She'd gone looking for me. She's got the car, so she should be back in just a second."
Dean cleared his throat. "You said that Joan didn't want you to go tonight. Did she say why?"
Grace shook her head. "She wouldn't tell me."
-- -- -- --
Joan nearly ran from the car to the motel room. When she got inside, she saw that Grace was not alone. Alex and Neil were inside with her, sitting at the chairs by the table while Grace sat cross-legged on her bed. She looked from the guys to Grace, wondering what in the world was going on.
"What happened?" she asked. "Are you sure you're ok?" Grace had grass stains all over her jeans. She looked like she'd been rolling around on the ground.
"It's been a really weird night, dude," Grace said.
"Joan," Neil said. "We have some questions for you, if you don't mind."
"Okay," Joan said cautiously, pulling the scarf from her neck and shrugging off her jacket. They all looked so serious. Her stomach turned uncomfortably.
"This is going to sound strange, but we need to know why you gave us this book." He held up the book she'd given him earlier. "And, why you didn't want Grace on campus tonight."
Joan did not know what to say. "Did something bad happen?"
"Grace was attacked," Alex said. Joan's heart was beating so loud, it was almost all she could hear in her ears. She was suddenly stricken with the kind of guilt she only felt when she knew she had failed to do what God had asked her to do--she had put Grace in danger; it was her fault. If only she'd tried harder, been a little more creative--
"By a ghost," Neil finished.
Joan huffed in relief, waiting for the smile, the punch line. It didn't come.
"This is a joke, right?" She said looking at Grace.
"No," Grace said, looking down for a second, shaking her head. But then she made solid eye contact with Joan. "It's not a joke. I can't explain it either, but one second I was walking back from the meeting, and the next thing I know..." She let her voice trail off before she spoke up again. "I saw it. I saw a ghost. It threw him against a tree, but then he-- These guys saved my life."
"This is nuts," Joan said.
"It's true," Neil said. He looked a little sheepish when he spoke next. "We're, uh, not reporters. My name is Sam Winchester, and this is my brother, Dean."
"What?" Joan was so confused, and her first reaction was to be pissed that these guys had lied to her, but then she went back over her conversation with God in the library. "Sometimes people aren't exactly who they appear to be at first," Joan said out loud, working it out in her head.
"We're here to help," Neil--Sam--said. "We're not going to hurt you, but how did you know? How did you know about the book? And about campus tonight?"
Joan looked around nervously. Something tugged at her gut. She sighed deeply, and she knew what she needed to say. She also knew that she couldn't tell Grace.
She turned to Grace, eyes pleading. "Grace," she said. "I need to talk to them alone."
Grace opened her mouth like she was about to protest, but Joan held up her hand to get her not to. She said, "You need to trust me here." Joan looked her in they eye, silently begging her to just let it go. "Please."
"I--" Grace said, shoulders falling. "I think I'll go get something to drink. Anyone else want a soda?" She didn't wait for their answers as she grabbed her bag and the car keys and left.
"Okay," Al--Dean said. His voice was gruff and stern, holding none of the lightness she remembered from the bar. "You know who we are, but you need to tell us right now who you are and how you know these things, or I swear..." He let the threat hang in the air.
Joan didn't know where to begin. "I was told to give you the book," she said, looking down at her hands.
"By who?" Dean asked.
"I'm not supposed to say," she said. She bit her lower lip.
"This... person... who told you to give the book--did they have black eyes? Or white or yellow, maybe?" Sam asked.
"What?" Joan said, totally unprepared for such a weird question. "No!" But then she thought of Ryan's eyes last year, how they had sometimes looked like they had filled entirely with black.
"Then, who was it?" Dean looked her square in the eye; he was obviously getting impatient.
"Someone I trust," she said, realizing at that moment that she meant it. It had been almost four years since God started talking to her, and it took her until now to really realize that she trusted what he (or she) told her, asked of her. She may not want to do everything God told her to do, and she got it wrong before she got it right most of the time. She may not understand any of it at all, but she did trust God.
She was suddenly super aware that the words this is very important were the words God had used today. Something about how God had talked about these guys in the library made her think--maybe she could tell them. Maybe they would believe her. They did believe in ghosts, right?
"God," she said. "God told me to give you that book. God told me to keep Grace from campus."
Dean laughed, dry and loud and completely humorless. It was an unsettling sound, and it sent the hairs on the back of her neck on end. "God," he said, crossing his arms at his chest. "No--it wasn't."
"I know it sounds crazy, but it's true." She was starting to get a little defensive. They were the freaks who were talking about ghosts. "You wanted to know how I knew, and I told you."
"God has left the building," Dean said. His voice could have been carved from ice or stone for how it sounded. Sam had stood up and was looking out the window. She could see the muscles in his jaw working as his face turned as hard as she'd ever seen it.
She suddenly and surprisingly found that she did not feel foolish at all for her admission. Something inside her was telling her that she needed to keep talking, needed them to believe her.
"No," Joan said. "God has not left the building. I mean... maybe this building--he's obviously not here now. Or she... sometimes he's a she. Or--"
"Wait," Sam said, turning from the window. "You really think you talk to God?"
"I know I do," she said. "Or, God talks to me."
"All right then," Dean said, and his smirk was sarcastic, close to cruel. He was stepping into her personal space. "What does God tell you?" Now even the smirk left, and he was staring at her with fiery eyes. He set his jaw and growled, " What does that bastard have to say about what's going on out there?" His hands were balled into fists at his sides.
Joan blinked, stepping back. "God tells me different things," she admitted, stammering only a little. "He tells me to do better, to pay attention, to help people. It's different every time."
Sam put a hand on Dean's shoulder, pulling him away from Joan. Dean seemed to take the hint and took Sam's place by the window, looking out briefly before turning back, staring at her.
"So," Sam said. "When you talk to... God--is it like voices that you hear? Like a radio, or is it more a feeling that you get?" His voice had gone soft and even again, like Adam, like he really wanted to understand.
"Oh," Joan said, relaxing a little. "Um. It's talking to a person. God is always a person--sometimes just random people, but he sometimes has certain... bodies... that he uses more often, but really he could be anyone."
"How do you know when it's God? If it could be anyone?" Sam asked.
"Well, he knows me. Knows my name, what's going on with me. It's usually really clear." She suddenly remembered the bar the other night. "Like, uh... do you remember at the bar?" she asked, pointing at Dean. "The bartender--knew my name. Wanted me to drink more water?"
Dean chuckled, cynical and hard. "You think that the bartender was--God?"
"Yes," Joan said. "And, she was in the library today. I don't think you guys saw her, but she was like this little old lady with short hair and big glasses putting books on a cart. That's when she told me to give that book to you."
They exchanged a long look with one another, but soon both of them were staring at her intently. Sam seemed concerned, and Dean looked angry. "Son of a bitch," he said--low and menacing. He kicked the chair on his way to the door, which he slammed as he left. The picture frame on the wall shook and slid off-kilter.
Sam drew his face tightly shut as he watched Dean go. When he turned back to her, though, he was actually smiling--just a little. "So, you talk to God."
Joan nodded. "Did the book help?" Her voice sounded a little weak in her ears.
"I think it might have, actually," Sam said, like he hardly believed it himself. He seemed to hesitate before he began speaking again. "Can you... next time you talk to God--can you ask him what the hell he's doing about... things?"
"Yeah," Joan said. "But he probably won't tell me."
-- -- -- --
Sam left when Grace came back, not long after Dean had stormed out, excusing himself after checking one more time if she was okay.
He was more concerned about Dean; he knew that even the mention of God being somehow involved in any of this would stir up the shit even more. He thought he might actually believe Joan, but if she talked to God, if there really was a God, where in the hell has he been while they were left to deal with the angels and demons and their apocalypse?
When he got the room, Dean was sitting at the table with a bottle of Jack Daniels.
"Dean," Sam said, bracing himself for what was coming. He searched for the words he wanted to say, but Dean cut him off.
"Look, Sammy," he said, scrubbing a hand down his face. "I don't want to talk about this right now. Can we just-- Can we just focus on the case? I think we should get back to campus and make sure no one else gets in this thing's way." Sam took a step closer, but shoved his hands in his pockets. Dean's face was hard; his voice was gravel, but his eyes were pleading when he said, "We can just work on the case right now, all right?"
"Yeah," Sam said, though he knew they would have to talk about this eventually. "Sure."
-- -- -- --
Dean did not think about God as he took one last swig of Jack before grabbing his jacket. He did not think about God as he and Sam drove in silence back to campus, or when he parked the car in view of the American Studies building.
Thankfully, everything looked quiet on campus. Sam opened the file folder that held all of the information they'd gathered for the case, and he read. Dean listened to quiet rustling of pages and sank into the familiar feel of the Impala's seat. He pushed the Master of Puppets cassette into the player and drummed along quietly with his thumbs on the steering wheel.
He'd thought about calling Cas. The second he remembered that librarian, the second he'd left Joan's room, the first thing he wanted to do was get that winged bastard in front of him to give him some real fucking answers for once. He smashed a glass of whiskey against the motel wall instead.
If it was true--if God was alive and well and talking to college girls about books, then why the fuck wouldn't he talk to him? Hadn't he done enough? Didn't he deserve some sort of guidance, some answers? Was he really so useless, so inconsequential to God that he couldn't even send some kind of sign? When God had left the building, Dean could at least blame Lilith or Ruby or the angels or even Sam for all of this shit, but if God really was around, if he was here...
Dean suddenly felt tired down to his bones, the energy of the fight earlier mingling with the alcohol. He closed his eyes for just a minute. He just needed to rest his eyes for a minute.
He dreamed of knives and of blood and of ripping flesh and snapping bone, and he could hear screaming--always screaming. It rang in his ears and rattled his teeth, and blood sprayed across his face, and the screaming grew louder, and he tasted the blood, coppery and bitter on his tongue--
Then there was a weight on his shoulder, warm and insistent, and when he opened his eyes, Sam was shaking him, telling him to wake up. He sat up with a deep breath, rubbing at the crick in his neck. A quick check of the clock told him that he rested his eyes for an hour and a half.
Sam cleared his throat. "I think I found something," he said. He did not say you were having a nightmare. They had both stopped saying that any more.
"Did he come back?" Dean asked.
"No, it's been quiet. But look," Sam said. He handed Dean one of the papers from the file. "The first victim was Jeanie Wilson, right. Remember, she was doing a lot of the set-up for the conference, and see--" He pointed to something on the page, shining his flashlight so Dean could see better. "The main conference room usually houses a collection of Native American artifacts."
Dean looked at the page, and saw what Sam had noticed. "She moved it to store in another room," he said.
"Yeah," Sam said. "And look at this--" He put another sheet of paper in Dean's hands, again pointing at the part he wanted Dean to see. "She was the first candidate to earn a spot to speak. No big deal, right? Well, I looked at the other girls. The second one--she also died on the night she was turning in her paper, and so did Ashley Gibson. The lore says that this chief killed the ghost of a woman who was killing his wife, so what if this ghost is killing women who are in some way a threat to other women?"
"Come on, Sam. These girls weren't killing anyone. They were just submitting papers to present."
"You know as well as I do that ghosts aren't particular about the details, Dean."
"Well, it's certainly something. Got any idea where they might have moved the display stuff?"
"No, but I bet we can find out pretty easily tomorrow morning." He gathered back all of the papers and put them back in the folder, and he yawned deeply. "But for now, it's your turn to watch," Sam said, balling up a hoodie from the back seat and jamming it between his head and the window as he closed his eyes and tried to sleep.
-- -- -- --