Sam stared at Ash. Neither of them moved a muscle. Sam’s hand still rested on his gun – he was loath to point it at a man he considered one of the few friends they actually had – a man he thought was dead until an hour before. Finally, Ash spoke. “Ellen wasn’t with Bobby when I spoke to him. Dude, something wrong?”
Sam shifted his grip, flexing his fingers around the handle of the gun. “When did you speak to him?”
“Two, maybe three weeks ago. Sam, where you going with this, man?”
Sam’s grip relaxed. Ellen had only just moved in to Bobby’s Dakota home, so Ash was telling the truth. But why hadn’t Bobby mentioned he had heard from Ash? Why all the secrets?
“Sorry, Ash. Just a little jumpy I guess.” He moved his hand slowly away from the gun, hoping that Ash hadn’t noticed his movement. His senses were still on alert, despite the feasible explanation Ash had given him. “So you know about the deal?”
“Any ideas how I can get Dean out of it?”
For a split second, Ash’s face was serious and full of sadness. “Trust me, Sam, if I did, I’d tell you.” Ash turned away and strolled back into the kitchen. Sam couldn’t help analysing what he had just said. Would he? Would he tell him? Or were there more secrets lurking in the background – secrets that shouldn’t be kept?
Ash reappeared with two more beers. He grinned lopsidedly at Sam. “So, guess we’re gonna have to do this the old-fashioned way then, dude.”
Ash picked up a dusty old book, the faded, blank burgundy leather binding disguising the powerful grimoire as just another old book. He waved the book at Sam. “The old fashioned way? Namely, not Google?”
Sam took the second beer bottle and flipped the top off. “Okay. So. Where do we start?”
Ash relaxed slightly and sat down, carefully avoiding putting the beer bottle anywhere near the pile of books that lay hap-hazzardly on the table. “Well, I’ve got half a dozen grimoires here, ranging from The Keys of Solomon parts one and two, through to Agrippa. We’re dealing with a demon here, so my guess is we start with Solomon. Whichever demon we’ve got here, it has to be pretty powerful to be able to manipulate its basic atomic structure, which, by the way, is breaking practically every law of nature.” Ash looked up from the book he was thumbing through and smiled. “But hey, we deal with the weird, wacky and way out, so no surprise there, I guess.”
“No, I guess not.” Sam picked a book at random, flipped it open and started running his finger down the index. “I think we’re looking for a demon that can manipulate electricity, because that seems to be the most obvious link between all these deaths. But ya know? What I don’t understand is why Omaha? I mean, I know I said it earlier, but I’m still in the dark here. What’s so important about Omaha?”
“Got me.” Ash shrugged. “All that’s here is banking, finance, data-entry companies, ya know the kind that employ thousands of high school drop-outs to sit in front of computer screens all day and punch details about what kinda mayo people like. Oh, and the US Air Force Strategic Command at Offutt Base.”
Sam stared wide eyed at Ash. “Ash? USSTRATCOM?” Ash stared back, a puzzled look on his face. “Ash, get there faster, will you!” Ashes eyes widened and his mouth formed an ‘O’ of surprise.
“Crap! CRAP! Man, I SO forgot about STRATCOM!” Ash frowned. “You seriously think a demon would go after national defen…yeah, actually, you’re right. I guess he would. I mean, we’re in the middle of a war here, makes sense. It wouldn’t just be the freelancers the crispy critters would be going after, like you and Dean. It would be the military organisations too.”
“You mean there are covert ops dealing with demonic forces?”
“You have met Alex Armstrong, haven’t you?”
“Ash, he said he hunted in his own time. He’s an NCIS agent.”
“And you believed him?” Ash let out a shout of laughter. “Alex Armstrong is so goddamn deep undercover, even he doesn’t know where he is half the time.” A slightly confused look crept across Ash’s face. “Actually, I don’t know where I am half the time. Or, oddly enough, why I have this compunction to keep biting peop…”
“Ash? Hey, yo Ash? Wanna focus here?” Sam rolled his eyes and sighed as Ash shrugged an apology. “So an educated guess is that this demon, whomever the hell he is, is going to go after the military system. Why? And more importantly, how? And, how the hell do we warn them without a, looking terminally stupid and b, getting busted so hard we spend the rest of our lives in jail?”
“The why is easy, Sammo. Like I said, middle of a war here, dude. They’re building up to something major-league, outta the park big and if you infiltrate our defence system, then us poor mortals are not going to be able to react by blasting a hell gate or some such into dust using big exploding things called missiles. The how is another matter.” Ash frowned again and ran his hand through his hair. “Look. Think about it. If you were a demon, able to travel down internet connections, how would you get yourself into someone’s computer system?”
Sam looked thoughtful. “Oh, I dunno, email?”
“Nope. You can’t write your way in like some kinda freaky poison pen letter. No, my guess is via an ISP. Internet Service Provider. And a human one at that. One of those geeky, Dungeons and Dragons types who plays fantasy role-play games and thinks that they are masters of the universe. Ya know the type?” Ash grinned at Sam.
“I never played Dungeons and Dragons.” Sam looked guilty. “OK, maybe a couple of times.”
“You were a Dungeon Master, weren’t you?” Ash’s grin broadened.
“What? NO! I…I was…I was an Elf Lord.” Ash burst out laughing. “Ash, it was a long time ago. And if you tell Dean, I’ll kill you.” Sam glared at Ash, challenging him wordlessly to pursue the matter. “So what we need is a list of ISP providers based in Omaha. But how the hell are we going to get that without using the internet and leaving ourselves open to attack? If what you say is true and this demon is trying to track us, we can’t just log on and hope the firewall holds.”
“We go all Alex Armstrong, dude. Undercover. Use an internet café, log on under a different name and hey presto! The cyber world is ours to access once again.”
“Now why didn’t I think of that?”
“Because you went to Stanford and I went to MIT.”
“You got thrown out for biting, Ash.”
“You left to hunt demons, Sammo.”
“Please don’t call me Sammo…”
Dean eased the Impala into a parking spot and switched off the engine. Omaha was a city in transit – huge new skyscrapers reached like fingers into the sky and everywhere there was the sense of progress and development. Very unlike their usual, backwoods stop-overs. This wasn’t going to be easy. Dean knew he still had to stay under the radar as far as the cops were concerned – there was still the shadow of Missouri and Milwaukee hanging over him. But cities were anonymous – a man could easily get swallowed up in a city like this and nobody would be any the wiser. Nevertheless, it would pay to be cautious…
Dean flipped open the glovebox, ignoring the stinging blister on his finger from his earlier encounter with the cyberdemon and rifled through his fake ID’s. His hand rested on one in a black leather holder and he pulled it out of the compartment. Flipping it open, he smiled. “Nice one, Alex!” Dean grinned. A real ID. Kindly provided by Alex. Alex had made it very clear that he was breaking nearly every federal law there was giving this to Dean, but if challenged, the call would come straight back to Alex for confirmation, so he was covered. At least Alex had the decency to change the name he had used before. But if anything, it was worse than Anthony DiNozzo. “Special Agent Mark Harmon. Dude, I am SO gonna kick your ass again when I see you!” Dean snapped the ID shut and opened the door, climbing effortlessly out of the driver’s side. He slammed the groaning doors shut and locked the Impala. Glancing up, he looked at the modern-style building that held the county records. The January wind cut through him like a knife. That was the only thing about cities. The alleyways and streets made the wind keen and sharp as it whistled through narrow pathways. He flipped the collar of his brown leather jacket up, trying to protect his skin from the stinging lash of the wind and trotted across the street and into the warmth of the building.
The receptionist looked like she would be immune to any form of charm offensive, but Dean persevered regardless. He turned on his best smile and sauntered up to the desk. “Good afternoon, Ma’am. Special Agent Harmon, NCIS. I wonder if you could help me?”
The woman gave him a puzzled look. “National Crop Insurance Services? Waddya you want?”
“What?” For a split second Dean’s face was a mask of confusion. He flipped out the ID and held it up. “No ma’am, Naval Criminal Investigative Service.”
“Oh, right.” The woman took off her glasses and peered at the ID. “Same question, sailor. Waddya ya want? I mean, we’re used to the Air Force runnin’ round town, but you’re a long way from the sea here, son.”
The woman’s attitude was brisk, officious and seriously starting to grate on Dean’s nerves. He decided to play up to it. The sunny smile dropped from his lips and a frown creased his brow. He stared intently at the woman, one eyebrow arched quizzically. “Do you have a problem with the US Navy, ma’am?”
“What? No, I never said…I never…I…what can I do for you, Special Agent?”
“You can point me in the direction of the Coroner’s records. If it’s not too much trouble.”
“Up the stairs, third door on the left.”
“Thank you. Oh, by the way. The Air Force?”
“Offutt Base? Strategic Command? Surely the Navy have heard of it?” The woman’s eyebrow arched, a smug expression on her face.
“Stratcom?” Dean snapped his fingers. “Stratcom! Of course!” Realisation hit him. So that’s why the demon was focusing on Omaha. He filed the information away and refocused on the job in hand. He still needed some details – some clue that would tell him how this demon was moving around and, more importantly, how he could stop the son of a bitch. He needed that coroner’s report. Dean’s eyes flickered back to the receptionist, confirming wordlessly that he was heading in the right direction. He pointed up the stairs. She nodded.
“Third door on the left.”
“Thanks.” Dean trotted up the stairs, ignoring the blue eyes of the receptionist boring into his back and walked along a brightly lit corridor. The third door had ‘County Coroner’s Records Office’ etched onto the glass in black letters. A light shone from the other side. Dean knocked briskly and pushed open the door. Another receptionist. But this one? Wow! Dean’s eyes widened. The woman must’ve been thirty stone if she was an ounce. A thin, red-stained mouth pursed tight shut was almost lost in the white powdered jowls of her face. Chubby fingers typed surprisingly quickly across a keyboard, her dark eyes focused on a form on the screen. “Help ya?” She looked up, a sour expression on her face. Dean paused, still stunned by the sheer size of the woman. The woman’s expression changed as she took in the fit young man standing in front of her. “Well, helloo, handsome! And what can I do for you?” She smiled warmly, a kitten pink tongue flickering out over her ruby lips and moistening them suggestively.
“I…err, NCIS, ma’am.” Dean pulled himself together and flipped open the badge. “We’re investigating the death of Zoe Hunt and I wonder if I could take a look at the coroner’s report please, for our, um, investigation? Um, if it’s not too much trouble?”
The woman advanced towards him, her floral dress billowing out around her. She batted her eyelashes at Dean, flirting openly with him. “Why, of course, handsome! I’m sure we can accommodate you!” She moved around the desk, surprisingly light on her feet for a woman of that size. She turned to a filing cabinet and opened it, the fingers rifling through the files nimbly. “So tell me, cutie. Why’s the National Crop Insurance Service interested in a poor little girl’s death all the way out here in Omaha?” She glanced coyly back over her shoulder at Dean.
“NCIS, ma’am. Navy Criminal Investigative Service. Nothing to do with crops or insurance.”
“What? Oh, sorry, my mistake.” The woman smiled. “OK, sailor-boy, so why’s the Navy interested?”
“Her father is a serving Marine. It’s routine, ma’am.”
“Oh, right. Ah, here we are!” The woman pulled out a file and slammed the drawer shut. “Poor little lass. What a horrible way to die.” She turned and held the file out to Dean, her fingers brushing his as she handed him the buff coloured folder. “Can I get you anything else, sailor-boy?” Her voice was strangely deep and husky.
“No ma’am, that’s fine, really. Thank you.” Dean opened the file and started to read through the report. The girl had been electrocuted by her own computer. The pictures that accompanied the report were graphic and horrific. He glanced up. “Is there anywhere I can make a copy of this, ma’am?”
“Call me Suki.”
“OK, is there anywhere I can make a copy of this, Suki?” He smiled. “That’s a pretty name.”
The woman giggled like a schoolgirl. “Why, thank you! It’s my chosen name. It’s so much better than Eric, don’t you think?” She pointed towards the corner of the office. “Help yourself to the Xerox machine.”
“The copier? In the corner?”
“No, um, the Eric bit?”
“Oh that! It was my birth name. I changed it after the operation.” The woman smiled coyly again. “You didn’t click in there, did you? It’s a marvel what they can do these days with trans-gender surgery you know. Of course, I’m still waiting for the gastric band. That’s next on my list of must dos. Well, it was next on my list. Until you walked in, that is!”
Dean was mortified. “I…” He fumbled and dropped the file, the contents spilling out all over the floor. “Oops!” He bent down quickly, scooping up the papers and photographs back into the file. “Butter-fingers. I’ll…I’ll…just…go…” He pointed at the copier and stood up quickly, an awkward grin on his face. He turned quickly and paced over to the copier, pushing the documents into the auto-feeder. “C’mon, c’mon!” he muttered under his breath, his fingers drumming impatiently on the copier as he bounced on the balls of his feet. The copier churned out the xeroxes of the documents and Dean sighed with relief as the last copy was spat out. He grabbed the copies and, pushing the originals back into the buff file, he turned, held the file out at arm’s length, smiled frantically and pushed the file into the woman’s hands. “Thanks a lot! Gotta go! The Navy appreciates your co-operation, ma’am!” With a last desperate smile, he wrenched the door open and dived out into the corridor. He slammed the door shut and sprinted down the hall, hitting the stairs at a flat run. As he skidded into the reception area, the front receptionist smiled at him.
“Met Suki then, did ya?”
Dean looked at her like a frightened rabbit caught in the glare of a car’s headlights and, without a word, ran for the door. The receptionist chuckled quietly to herself and shook her head…
Dean sat in the internet café, reading through the file. Zoe had fried. Her laptop had shorted out, and as soon as she touched it, the mains shorted through her body, practically cooking her. At least, that was the coroner’s explanation. Dean knew different. He frowned as he read, sipping absent-mindedly at the coffee mug in his left hand. The cup hovered at his lips as a shadow fell across the page…
“Had the same idea then, compadre?” Dean looked up into Ash’s grinning face.
“Ash! What the hell are you doing here? I thought I told you guys to stay put?”
“Had an idea about how we could get on-line and not get traced by Sparky.” Sam sat down opposite his brother, grinning at the surprised look on his face. He glanced back at Ash. “Go to it, tiger!” Ash pulled off a mock salute and sauntered over towards the bank of computers at the back of the café. “So. Got anything interesting, Dean?”
“The coroner’s report on Zoe Hunt. Take a look.” Dean handed the file over to his brother, staring intently at him. “Sammy? I may have found out why our friend is concentrating his efforts on Omaha. A few miles from here is…”
“Offutt Base. Strategic Command. Yeah. I know.” Sam didn’t look up from the file. Dean looked annoyed.
“So. Good. Glad to see we’re on the same page.” Dean couldn’t disguise the petulant note in his voice. Sam glanced up.
“Oh, nothing. Nothing. I get attacked by a demon on the way, determined to try brain surgery on me using a wrench and then I get practically molested by a he/she, but oh, no! You come up with the same thing all by yourselves, in the comfort of a nice, warm house. OK. Next time, you go out and about and I get to stay home, drink beer and stare at the walls, deal?”
“A he/she?” Sam couldn’t stop the smile creeping across his mouth.
“Don’t. Just don’t.” Dean frowned angrily and took another mouthful of coffee.
Sam grinned broadly, his interest in the file suddenly gone. “Dean? A he/she?”
“Ah, c’mon! Fess up, Dean!”
“I said, quit it!”
“Sammy…” Dean’s voice was dangerous.
“Dean, I know you’re trying to cram in as much life-experience as possible in your last few months, but, DUDE! Trans-gender lovin’?” Sam started laughing. He couldn’t keep it in any longer.
“Sammy, I swear I’m gonna kill y…”
“Hey, what’s the joke, guys?” Ash sauntered back, a sheet of paper in his hand. Dean stabbed a finger at his brother, a warning look on his face. Sam, still chuckling merrily, winked at his brother.
“Oh, nothing, Ash. Private joke. What ya got?”
“Just a list of all the ISP providers in the greater Omaha area. All three of them. I didn’t count the big boys. Reckon our geek is a lone operator. More easily influenced, ya know?” Ash flopped down next to Dean and glanced over his shoulder at the file. He frowned as he saw a post mortem picture of Zoe. “Whoa. Man, that’s nasty.”
“Coroner says she was electrocuted due to faulty wiring in her computer.”
“Why not, Ash?”
“Because if there was a power surge from the mains, it would cause the trips to go on the ring circuit. The power surge would be stopped before it ever got to her laptop. No, no, my friend. Coroner dude is ly-ing. This was our friend Sparky’s doing.”
Dean frowned. “OK, if he’s moving through internet connections, tell me one thing. How did he manage to crawl into the radio of my car?”
“What?” Sam’s eyes widened.
“Oh yeah, did I forget to mention? I had a little visit from Sparky on the way over here.” Dean filled the two men in on the events of his journey into Omaha. At the end of his story, Ash pushed himself back into his chair and puffed out his cheeks.
“Crap. This dude’s getting more powerful by the second. I’m guessing he was holed up in your alternator or the battery – anything that would store electricity. Question is, how the hell did he get in there?”
“Ah. That may have been me.” Sam looked guilty.
“Remember when we first got here and you went into that biker’s bar? You know? Bowzer?” Dean nodded. “Well, I was waiting for you outside and I fired the laptop up, tapped into a Wi-Fi network. If Ash is right and the bastard has been tracking us, he could’ve got in that way.”
“He violated my car!”
“Bigger picture, Dean. OK?”
“Yeah, yeah. OK.”
“So. Ash. We’ve got possible starting points to try and find this thing. If we do find it, how do we stop it?”
Ash grinned. “Ah, that’s where it gets good.”
“You gonna actually tell us, Ash?”
Ash grinned again. “How does a virtual Devil’s Trap sound? Followed by an online exorcism?” He studied the amazed looks of the brothers, basking in his moment. “Oh yeah! Who’s the daddy? Huh? Who’s the daddy? Dr Badass is back!”
The hum of mainframe computers added a soft backnote to the control room at Strategic Command. Tessa MacKenzie stared listlessly at the computer screen. It had been a long shift and, as usual, nothing much had happened. Tessa worked for JFCC ISR. Joint Functional Component Command for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. Plenty of initials, sounded seriously important, but not much excitement. Tessa sighed. She was just a glorified computer data entry clerk, with a rank. Not something she had anticipated when she graduated from MIT and, foolishly if somewhat patriotically, had offered her services and 10 years of her life to the US Air Force. She’d wanted excitement. Instead, all she got was RSI and a pension plan.
Tessa yawned and stretched in her chair, trying to coax her spine back into some position that wouldn’t mean she’d be crippled by the time she was fifty. The screens blinked reassuringly, no anomalies, no pre-emptive strikes by hostile forces, nothing. Just another ordinary…
Tessa glanced across at the computer monitor, subconsciously aware that the grid of numbers that normally occupied the screen had changed. “What the…” She gripped the table with both hands and pulled herself and her chair closer, peering hard at the screen. It was completely blank. Just one word and a cursor, blinking like a question mark in the top left hand corner.
Out of nowhere, the Microsoft paperclip, its inane, grinning face snarling a sinister, smug smile, did that mind-blowingly annoying tapping on the screen. But as she watched the screen and that universally hated icon, it slowly morphed, pulsating and burning into her mind. It was no longer just an icon you immediately closed down. It demanded her attention. It demanded her full, unquestioning and complete compliance. Tessa stared at the screen, mesmerised.
“If you want to stay alive, Tess, don’t touch the keyboard. Just nod if you understand me.”
Tessa nodded slowly, her eyes wide with alarm. She glanced around the room. Teddy was busy on another computer, unaware of her predicament. Ben sat tapping his teeth with his pen, occasionally typing at his keyboard.
“Good girl. Now listen very carefully. In a short while, your dull, boring, pointless little life is going to get suddenly very interesting. You’re useful to me. That’s why I haven’t killed you yet, like those other little, um, shall we call them, test pilots?”
Tess could swear that somewhere, in the corner of her mind, she could hear a dark chuckle. She glanced across at her comrades again, desperate to try and get their attention…
“A-a-a, Tess, don’t even think about it, sweetie. Don’t even think about it. Now here’s the thing. I’m only able to access your system for a very short time and, to do what I want to do, I need full access. Now, my problem is your Firewalls. I’m not quite sure how your pathetic little species knows this, but buried deep in your coding there’s a program that stops my kind accessing your mainframe. I want you to disable it. If you refuse, if you attempt to tell anyone about our quiet conversation, then I will be forced to take, how do you say it? Direct action.”
The paperclip blinked and in its place was a picture of her brother. Danny was a fighter pilot. One of the Top Guns. The plane he flew was fully computerised. She knew that Danny was on exercise right now, above the skies of the Nevada desert. The on-board camera was being beamed directly to Tessa’s computer in real-time. Tessa instinctively knew, without any further prompting from the Paperclip that, if she didn’t do as she was told, Danny’s plane would develop a fatal computer fault and plummet out of the sky. She snarled at the screen and hissed a response. “You sick son of a bitch sad little hacker, what the fu…”
“Did I say you could speak? Did I? Bad girl, Tess, bad girl!”
Tess watched in horror as her brother yelped, a vibrant blue tendril snaking out of the control panel of his cockpit and striking him like a cobra on the hand. “Whoa! OK, control, I have some kind of electrical problem here, instruments are going crazy. I…JESUS!” The plane’s nose dipped and Tessa could hear the engines screaming in protest as the plane went into an uncontrollable dive, spinning wildly through the air like a sycamore seed. “MAYDAY! MAYDAY! I’M GOING DOWN! I’M GOING DOWN! ” Danny wrestled with the controls, desperately hauling on the joystick, fighting the bucking plane.
“PLEASE! DON’T!” Tessa’s eyes filled with tears as she heard the panic in her brother’s voice. She hissed her plea at the computer screen. “I’ll do what you want, please, please don’t hurt Danny!”
The image of her brother vanished and the Paperclip popped up again, grinning like a lunatic. “So we have an agreement, then? Good. Because, as you can see, I can reach the people you love so very, very easily, any time I want to. Just nod.”
Tessa nodded, the screen now blurred through the tears that pooled in her eyes. A line of script began typing itself again on her screen. “Now, this is the line of code I want you to look for. Memorise it. Find it. And DELETE it. You understand?”
Tessa nodded for the last time.
“Good girl. Have a nice day!” The Paperclip winked at her and vanished from the screen. The monitor flickered and the normal grid of numbers that she had spent the last two years staring at burst back onto the screen, as normal as ever. Tessa was shaking. Shaking like a leaf. She pushed herself away from the desk and stood up, fighting the urge to throw up. Teddy turned and stared at her, a puzzled look on his face.
“Tess? You OK? You look as white as a ghost!”
“I…I…I’m not feeling well.” She turned and ran towards the door, swiping her pass-card and pulling at the handle as the lock was released. Without another word, she ran out of the room, the door hissing closed behind her. Teddy looked at Ben and shrugged. Ben grinned back at him, spinning his pen between his fingers. “And that’s why they don’t let them fly planes, dude. Way too emotional!” Ben laughed.
“You’re an ass-hole, you know that?”
Dean sipped at his fifth cup of coffee and glanced across the café to where Sam and Ash sat, engrossed in a computer. Ash’s fingers were a blur as he typed, stopping occasionally to glance wordlessly at Sam. Sam just nodded, pointed to something on the screen and Ash returned to his incessant typing. Dean couldn’t stand the clatter of keyboards any more. He discarded the coffee and stood up, strolling casually over towards the two men. “OK, so this isn’t getting us anywhere. Look. If we know that there are only three possible targets here, why don’t I go pay them a little social call while you two figure out a way to stop this thing?”
Sam glanced up. “Dean, as much as I know you want to kill something today, you need to be patient here. Until we know for sure that we can trap it and stop it, we can’t just go bursting into someone’s basement and go, ‘Hi. Um, just wondering. Do you have a demonic force lurking in one of your servers?’ This thing needs human help. If it thinks that human help is under threat, it’ll attack. And we don’t have the means to fight it yet.”
“Can’t I just shoot the computer the damn thing’s hiding in?” Dean grinned. “I’ve always wanted to shoot a computer. Just for the sheer hell of it.”
“Dude, everyone has wanted to shoot a computer at least once in their lives, ‘specially when you get the blue screen of death and the bastard thing comes up with all that ‘this program has performed an illegal function and will shut down’ shit. But your kid bro is right, Deano. Softly, softly, catchy monkey, dude.” Ash grinned. “Trust me.”
Dean shrugged. “Okay then, can’t I just shoot the familiar? That way we cut out the middle-man.” He looked at the two men, who stared at him. “What? Oh, c’mon! Who hasn’t gunned down the occasional geek? Ya know? Nerdy hacker types who’ve never gotten laid? You can’t honestly sit there and defend geekdom, can you? Can you?” Dean’s eyes widened. “Dear god, can this be true? Is my little brother actually proud to be a geek?” Dean grinned infuriatingly.
“Ash, Dean’s bored. This is never good. We need to find him something to do. Like, now. Otherwise, seriously? He may just start taking pot-shots at laptops.”
“You could always rustle up some pizza, dude.”
Dean glowered at the two men. “What, I’m the freakin’ gofer now?”
“Geek’s revenge, dude. Geek’s revenge.” Ash flicked his hair and smiled disarmingly at Dean. “Oh, don’t tell me you couldn’t go a slice of Meat Feast right now, man. I know how your mind works!”
“And how does your mind work, Ash? Exactly?”
“In complicated quantum patterns dude, complicated quantum patterns.” Ash produced a twenty dollar bill from his pocket. “Pizza’s on me.”
Dean snatched the twenty from Ash’s hand and glared at him. “Meet me back at the motel in half an hour. You don’t show, I eat the entire pizza myself.”
“Try me, Ash.” Dean winked and turned on his heels, marching out of the café. Sam watched him go and sighed.
“Sorry ‘bout my brother, Ash. He’s just being a card-carrying pain in the ass at the moment.”
Ash sat back and studied Sam. “Dude, perhaps you ought ‘ta cut your bro some slack, Sam. I mean, don’t you get it?”
“Get what, Ash?”
“How goddamn scared he is?”
“Ash, he’s not scared. Just because it’s a computer demon and yeah, I know, computers are not his strong point…”
“No, you dumb-ass! Not this!” Ash stabbed his hand towards the computer. “The other stuff!” Ash rolled his eyes and dropped his voice so that the other patrons of the café couldn’t hear their conversation. “The deal? You know? The whole, ‘going to Hell in less than a year’s time’ deal? Or had that slipped your addled mind?”
For a split second, Sam’s eyes flashed dangerously. “You think I’d forget about something like that? You honestly think I don’t know how scared Dean is? How many times do you think I’ve lain there, awake at night, listening to my brother having nightmare after nightmare about it? And when I try and talk to him, he shuts down on me, Ash! Goddamn it, you know what he’s like, for Christ’s sake! And yes, he does realise just how serious it is, before you ask, OK? He knows he’s going to die.”
“Yeah. But does he know he’s going to Hell?” Ash’s voice was barely audible. Sam couldn’t reply. He didn’t know how to…
Tessa glanced furtively around the corridor and swiped her pass-card into the door lock. The door opened with a soft click and she slipped inside, praying that nobody had seen her. Checking that the room was empty, she scuttled over to a desk and sat down quickly, pressing the button on the computer and firing up the screen. “Please, if there’s a god in heaven, let this work!” The screen lit up with the insignia of Strategic Command and Tessa swallowed nervously. She was committing treason. It was the end of her career. Better that, though, than the thought of her brother’s plane spiralling out of the sky and smashing into a fireball ten thousand feet below…
Her fingers tapped frantically at the keyboard as she navigated her way around the site, looking for a way in. Beside her, a piece of crumpled paper held a line of code – a line that sick hacker had shown her and that she had to find and delete. “C’mon, c’mon, where are you!” Screen after screen popped up as she worked her way deeper into the bios system. Then…
“Oh, no! No, no, no!” The screen demanded a password. A sixteen digit password. Her hands balled into fists, her fingernails cutting into the skin on the palms of her hands. “SHIT!” She tried combination after combination, growing more frantic as “ACCESS DENIED” flashed smugly on the screen after each attempt. “Let me IN!”
“ACCESS DENIED ”
“ACCESS DENIED ”
“Oh God, please help me!”
“ACCESS DENIED ”
“NO! YOU BASTARD!”
“ACCESS DENIED ”
“Miss? Step away from the keyboard, please.” The voice was clear, sharp and unquestionable. Tessa spun the chair around, a terrified look on her face. An Airman stood in front of her, his gun pointing straight at her, the finger resting lightly on the trigger. Behind him stood three men, all in dark suits. She didn’t recognise them from the base… “Keep your hands where we can see them and desist from touching the keyboard. I will shoot, miss. Please do not attempt to resist.”
“You don’t understand! I have no choice, he’ll kill my brother!” Sheer adrenaline crashed through Tessa’s body and she turned back to the screen, her fingers reaching for the keyboard again.
“DO NOT TOUCH THE KEYBOARD, MISS!”
“You have to let me do this! He’ll kill Danny!” Tessa felt two pairs of strong hands grab her arms and she was unceremoniously hauled up from the chair. She screamed, her legs kicking and flailing as she strained desperately against the men who held her so powerfully – strained to touch the keys one more time… “NO! LET GO OF ME! HE’LL KILL US ALL! HE’LL KILL DANNY! LET ME GO!”
The third man quietly stepped up behind Tessa and she felt a sharp scratch on the back of her neck – a needle. What had they done? What…
Tessa’s eyes rolled back into her head and her body relaxed, hanging limply in the hands of the suited men. The third man turned to the Airman, his face expressionless. “There will be no report, Airman. Understand?”
The Airman, seeing that his primary target was now neutralised, nodded. “Yes sir. You want me to shut the system down?”
The man, standing next to the computer, reached down and picked up the crumpled piece of paper. He studied the code on it carefully, still no expression on his face. He reached inside a jacket pocket and pulled out a Zippo. He flipped the lid and the Zippo flared, a bright orange flame leaping joyfully out of the dark recesses of the ignition chamber. He held the flame to the corner of the piece of paper and watched as the flame consumed it. Tiny flecks of black soot floated up into the air and vanished, like black snow. He snapped the Zippo closed and switched off the computer. Finally he turned towards the Airman and smiled a mirthless smile. “Oh, I don’t think that’ll be necessary, Airman…”
Rodney tapped frantically at his keyboard, frequently throwing the black mainframe computer that hummed quietly in the corner a nervous look. From first glance, it seemed to be practically identical to the other two mainframe systems he had; each one of them connecting his website users with their contacts all over the world. But the black one only had one client sitting inside it. The occasional blue tendril crept out of the casing and crawled lazily over the smooth black surface, winding its way along the cable that connected it to the monitor and keyboard on the desk. A keyboard, at which a by-now very jumpy hacker sat, expecting an agonising blue bolt of hellish lightning to strike at him at any second…“How goes it, Rodney?” The letters typed themselves across the screen. “How goes our little plan?”
“I’m working on it. You can’t hack through National Security firewalls in a couple of minutes, dude. No matter how good you are.”“Are you telling me that you are not good enough to complete the job?”
“NO! No, no, I can do it. You just… you just have to give me more time. And it really depends on if our friend in the Air Force has done her job. If she can’t find that code, then nothing we can do will get you in. So you’re just going to have to be patient…”
The air took on a thick, greasy feeling and a sharp crack sounded like a gunshot. Rodney screamed as the tendril lashed out viciously, stinging the back of his hand, blistering the skin where it made contact. The voice oozed menace. “Remember your manners, Rodney. And remember your parents. Your dead parents upstairs. Rotting slowly where they sit. And remember, Rodney, that I am not the patient sort. Find your way through the firewalls. Do it, Rodney. Unless you want to see first hand how your mommy and daddy died…”
“NO! PLEASE! I…I can do this!” Rodney typed in a frenzy of fear, desperately trying to buy himself more time. What had he done? When he started playing the role-play game three months ago, he never imagined that one of the demonic creatures involved would turn out to be a real goddamn demon! That wasn’t in the rules and conditions, man! No way! His fingers danced over the keys. Try and make conversation. Try and connect with this sicko critter. “So. Why exactly are we doing this? I mean, you’re a demon, right? You can do anything.”
“You think? Have you any idea how long it’s taken for me and my kind to break free? How difficult it was for us to move into your dimension? If it hadn’t have been for Jake, we would still be rotting in Hell now! Oh no, little man, oh no. But now? We’re out. We’re free. And nothing you or any of your kind can do will send us back. This is our domain now. And once your pathetic little attempts at stopping us by your military and secret services are destroyed, it only remains for us to hunt down the hunters, one by one. And for our King to begin his reign. And then? Ah, what a feast we will have!” There seemed to be a chuckle, a laugh that chilled Rodney's soul. “Inside your national Defence system there is a secret organisation that dedicates itself to destroying me and my kind. They are intent on committing genocide. Tell me, Rodney. Does that make them righteous? Does that make them the good guys? Or does it make them as bad as my kind? Hmm? Tell me. I’m curious as to what you think.”
“I think you’ve been watching way too many episodes of the X-Files, dude. I mean, secret government organisations? Spooks hunting spooks? C’mon!” Rodney spoke without thinking. “That’s just the conspiracy theory nutters’ crap. I could show you a thousand sites on Google that say the same thing and they’re all crazy. Alien abductions, demonic influences, man, they’re right up there with the Militia crazies!” He typed without pause, still trying to dodge his way through a jungle of firewalls and blockers.
“Your conspiracy nutters, as you like to call them, are closer to the truth than they realise. That organisation exists, Rodney. They exist purely to kill me and my kind. Do we not have a right to exist? Do we not have the right to use your kind as a food source? It’s merely natural selection at work, Rodney. Merely Darwinism at its finest.”
Rodney’s fingers slowed. “What do you mean, food source? You mean you’re gonna eat me?”
“What, your flesh? Oh, no, Rodney. Although there are those who enjoy the taste of human flesh, especially when it’s sweetened with your terror. No, Rodney. Demons like me?” Rodney could almost sense a presence behind him – feel a hot, sulphurous breath caressing his neck. “Demons like me, we feed on fear, Rodney. We feed on FEAR!”
The door of the motel room burst open and Dean’s slice of pizza hovered millimetres from his lips. His gun was in his hand and pointing straight at the figure in the doorway before anyone could blink. As his eyes refocused on the figure, he could see a grinning Ash striking a triumphant pose. Dean rolled his eyes, lowered the gun, clicking the safety catch back on as he did so, and bit into the pizza.
“BEHOLD!” Ash sauntered into the room, an air of smug self-satisfaction surrounding him. “I’ve done it!”
“Dude, I’m proud of you.” Dean waved a hand. “Pizza’s on the table.” Ash wandered over and stared at the box.
“Make that an empty pizza box is on the table. Where’s the contents?” Dean patted his stomach and grinned. Ash merely looked at him, sauntered over and, as Dean went to take another bite from the slice in his hand, pulled the last remaining pizza slice from him and bit into it pointedly.
Sam closed the door quietly and leaned against it, his arms crossed over his chest. “OK Dean, time to act. We’ve worked out how to trap and exorcise this thing and who the familiar is. And all that while you’ve been stuffing pizza down your face.” Sam smirked. “You’re up.”
“Dude’s name is Rodney Marsh. Ash did a trace-back on the point of origin for all the ISP users and they all used Rodney as their ISP provider. So it figures he’s our familiar.”
Ash took over, still trying to swallow the mouthful of pizza as he explained. “Our friend Sparky has to be able to access the computers via an internet connection, right? And to do that you have to have a server. Well, all we have to do is download this,” he waved a CD at Dean. “This holds a virtual Devil’s Trap. Once it’s uploaded onto the mainframe of the computer, Sparky will be held inside that mainframe just as surely as if he were tied to a chair, sitting in the middle of a Trap on the floor.” Ash looked thoughtful. “Mind you, it probably wouldn’t hurt to chalk up a quick Trap on the floor and stick the actual mainframe unit in the middle of it, just to be on the safe side. Anyhoo, once we’ve done that, we can perform a virtual exorcism.”
“A what now?”
“A virtual exorcism. Instead of chanting the Latin, we’ve typed it. Into the program. We could say it out loud too, if that would make you feel any better, Dean.”
“And this’ll work?”
“No reason why it shouldn’t.”
“Think of one.”
“A reason why it shouldn’t work.”
“Dean? Trust me. It’ll work.”
“So after that, can I shoot the computer?”
“Would that make you feel better?”
Ash grinned. “Well then, hell YES!” He pushed the last piece of pizza into his mouth and smacked his lips happily. “OK, I have a CD, Sam has the Latin text and you have a gun. Shall we go exorcise our critter before he fries our national security system?”
Sam pushed himself off from the door frame and walked into the room. “You know, that’s the one bit I don’t get. Why is he going after Stratcom?”
Dean smiled. “Now I can answer that one. I spoke to Alex while you two were geeking out with mainframes and virtual Devil’s Traps.”
“Dean, you WHAT? Jesus, man, did you not listen when Ash said that bastard could track our communications?”
“So? You remember before cell-phones became all the rage there were these things called public phones? You can’t miss ‘em, they’re usually square boxes found on every street corner? Have ‘P-H-O-N-E’ written on them? Christ, Sam, credit me with a little intelligence, would ya? Anyway, Alex filled me in. Stratcom have a black ops unit working out of Washington that specialises in the Supernatural. X-Files for real, Sammy. Part of Stratcom’s job is intel collection. And part of their system is dedicated to Supernatural intel collection, not just who’s got a nuke. Sammy, these guys get paid to do what we do. Don’t seem fair, does it?”
“You’re kidding me, right? You sure Alex hasn’t just been surfing too many conspiracy theory sites?”
“Nope, it’s for real. Anyway, he said that there had been a report of an attempted break-in to Stratcom’s system. One of their own people was discovered trying to get into the main program. She had some line of code written out and was searching for it. Anyway, she was arrested and taken into solitary, screaming something about demons in the system and her brother being in danger. They sectioned her to make sure there weren’t too many questions asked. Alex said that the military are on full alert and are trying to track down where the attempted break-in came from. My guess is we’re a step ahead here.” Dean stood up, brushed the crumbs from the pizza base from his jeans and pushed his gun into his belt. “Guess we better get to Rodney before the goon-squad does. At least if we get there first, the kid may have a chance of staying alive.”
All joviality had left Dean’s face. He was serious about trying to save Rodney, Sam could see that. Sam knew that Dean, although sometimes cold and ruthless, wanted more than anything to protect life. Strange. How he valued other people’s lives so much more highly than his own…
The Impala growled to a stop a couple of houses down from Rodney Marsh’s place. Dean peered through the window at a quiet, suburban road. Perfectly manicured lawns and white picket fences disguised a myriad of crimes and scandals. You could smell the hypocrisy. Dean hated places like these. Despite his protestations that just once he would like to investigate a haunted house that didn’t look like the typical, clichéd run down ruin, he knew that behind these perfectly painted walls, darkness was just as likely to be lurking. “OK. So we go in, we… we… um, what exactly is the plan, Sammy?”
“We get to Rodney’s computers, find the one that the demon is in, insert the disc and then, after we’ve exorcised the damn thing, you can take the computer out into the garden and shoot it if you like.” Sam rolled his eyes. “Just follow my lead, OK? Let Ash and me deal with the technical stuff, you just make sure Rodney doesn’t go all heroic on us.”
Dean scowled. “Great. From gofer to babysitter. Yeah, I’m really startin’ to feel valued in this relationship, dude…”
“Dean, quit your whining, man.” Sam’s voice was sharp. There was that hard edge to it again… Dean’s senses prickled and, through the mirror, he shot Ash a look. Ash returned the look. Yep. He’d heard that edge in Sam’s voice too. Dean put his mask on. The one he always wore when his concerns turned to his brother’s well-being. Little things. Just little things. But little things that were out of character from the usual Sammy that he knew and loved. For the umpteenth time, Old Yeller’s words echoed through his mind. “Are you sure that what you brought back is one hundred percent Sammy, Dean?” Dean shook his head and tried to refocus on the job in hand.
“Dean? You OK?” There was a note of concern in Sam’s voice now, the old Sammy.
“Just someone walking over my grave, man. OK, let’s do this.” Dean flung the driver’s door open and climbed out of the Impala. He leaned back in. “Make sure you got the disc, Ash.”
Ash held up a CD and grinned. “One Devil’s Trap to go, extra Latin, no mayo.”
“Ash? Did I ever tell you how weird you are?”
“Frequently, compadre!” Ash climbed out of the back of the car and straightened his jacket. “Time for the Doctor to pay a house-call, methinks.”
Sam and Dean watched Ash stroll casually towards the house, his blonde mullet bouncing on his shoulders. Dean chuckled. “Damn, dude. He looks like an advert for Head and Shoulders!”
“Will you shut up and come on!” Sam grabbed Dean’s arm and hauled him along, ignoring his older brother’s continuing chuckles. They caught up to Ash just as the mulleted one mounted the steps to the front door. His finger reached towards the doorbell and Dean slapped it away sharply.
“Ash? Dude? Whatchya doin’?”
“Um, ringing the bell, Dean? You don’t have to break into every house you go to, you know!” Ash looked indignantly at Dean. Dean’s eyes widened, a look of disbelief on his face.
“Ash? Dude? You smell that?”
“What?” Ash sniffed the air. “Whoa. Man, they seriously need their tanks pumpin’!”
Sam reached behind him and pulled his gun out from the small of his back. “No, Ash, Dean’s right. That’s not a septic tank, man, that’s burnt flesh.” He stared briefly at Ash and shrugged. “Trust me, dude. We’re kinda experts on that particular smell.” He nodded to Dean. “Back way?” Dean, his gun already in his hand, nodded back.
“Take Ash with you. I’ll circle around and meet you out back.”
The three men split up, Ash tagging behind Sam, holding the disc as if it were a weapon. A few moments later, the back door swung open and Sam spun around, gun drawn and ready. Dean leaned against the opened door, grinning. He held a conspiratorial finger up to his lips and then pointed to the floor. Rodney was in the cellar. The signal was clear. Sam nodded and crept into the house. He’d gone only a couple of steps when the full force of the stench hit him. “Jesus!” He covered his mouth and nose with his hand, squinting in disgust.
“Ma and Pa Crispy are in there. Fried. Deep fried. Looks like they’ve been there a couple of days. Can’t believe none of the neighbours have called Environmental Services by now. I’m guessing Master and Blaster are down in the depths of the cellar.”
“Master and Blaster?”
“Sammy? Seriously? You’ve never seen Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome?” Dean rolled his eyes. “A big dude carried a little dude around on his back and the little dude was the brains but Blaster, he was the big dude, was the muscle, OK? And anyhoo…”
Ash pointed. “I spy with my little eye something that starts with Familiar.” He waved. “Hi. You must be Rodney.”
Rodney had stopped in his tracks. He’d gone into the kitchen to grab some water from the fridge and was now standing staring at two men with guns and a third that held a CD like some sort of shield. "Who the HELL are you guys? And… and… GET THE HELL OUTTA MY KITCHEN! I’m warning you, I’m more dangerous than I look!” Rodney’s thin frame looked as if Dean could snap him in half with one hand. Dean glared at the man, his green eyes boring into Rodney’s watery blue eyes. All Dean could see was weakness. A pathetic, pale, weak little boy. A pathetic, pale, weak little boy whose parents were currently decomposing in the living room… Dean held the gun up slowly, taking aim at a point right between Rodney’s eyes. The man’s eyes widened in horror and he held up a hand, staggering backwards, grasping with his other hand for support. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! OK, take whatever you want! You want money? I got money! I got plenty of money, see?” His voice shrill, Rodney fumbled in his pockets and pulled out two wads of money. He held them towards Dean like an offering. “Please, take it. Just don’t hurt me. Take the money!”
“Where are the computers, Rodney?”
With his laden hands still outstretched, Rodney’s demeanour changed. “What?”
“The computers. Well, actually, one computer in particular.” Dean pulled back the hammer on the gun and levelled it at Rodney again. “Where are they, Rodney?”
“You’re them, aren’t you? He said you’d come.” Rodney dropped the money, scattering bills all over the floor. “He said you’d try and stop us. But you can’t, you know. Not even you.” He pointed at Sam. “Nothing can stop him. He’s a god, see? A god!” Behind the watery blue eyes, Dean could see a creeping madness that consumed the young man.
“What did he offer you, Rodney? Because it was all a lie, you know that?” Sam’s voice was mocking, not the usual ‘Talk ‘em down gently’ tone that Dean had heard him use before. “He’s a demon, Rodney, and not a very important one at that. As soon as he has what he wants, he’ll kill you, just like he killed your parents. And countless others. You want that, Rodney? Hmm?” Sam’s voice was filled with menace. He could see Rodney’s eyes darting between him and Dean, doubt starting to creep in. “Do you want to die, feeling your insides turn into soup as you cook from the inside out? Do you want to see your skin peel from your bones? To smell your own flesh cooking slowly? You want that, RODNEY?” Sam stalked slowly towards the now-terrified man. Slowly, the man sank to his knees in front of Sam, gazing up at him, tears starting to form in his eyes.
“Um, Sammy?” There was a note of concern in Dean’s voice. “Wanna lighten up a little with the scaring the crap outta the geek, bro?”
Sam towered over the cowering man, breathing in the power he had over this mere worm of a man. He could strike him dead in a heartbeat, without even raising a hand to him, without even breaking a sweat… Through the haze that started to cloud his mind, he heard his brother's voice. “Sammy? YO, SAM!” Sam snapped back to the here and now, the moment vanishing. He dropped his voice to a whisper.
Rodney pointed to a doorway. “D-d-down there. The black server.”
Sam held station, looming over him darkly, his eyes boring into the man. “Thank you, Rodney. Dean? If he moves? Kill him.” He side-stepped past the snivelling man and walked towards the cellar door. His hand reached for the door-knob and he paused, glancing back over his shoulder at Ash. “Coming?”
“Err, yeah, yeah sure…” Ash threw Dean a look. Dean could see the concern on the normally placid features. They mirrored his own concerns, twisting deep inside him. He nodded briefly to Ash, but his eyes said, ‘Be careful, Ash. Be VERY careful…’xxx…xxx…xxx…xxx…xxx…SNSIE…xxx…xxx…xxx…xx
Continue to Part Three