The polished hospital floors tried to gleam in the poor fluorescent lighting but the neutral, nondescript tiles just looked dingy despite the lack of traffic. This wasn’t a highly populated area so the hospital wasn’t very busy and a single receptionist sat behind the front desk, obviously bored. Back straight, Jo walked directly to the receptionist, “Can you direct me to Mrs. Ramirez’s room, please?” She watched the woman hesitate for the barest of seconds, probably trying to decide if she was glad for the change or annoyed at being disturbed, before she began to pull the information from the computer in front of her. “Hall C, room 315.” Jo smiled pleasantly, “Thank you.” She continued into the patient area, glancing at the signs as she went to find the room.
Mrs. Ramirez was a small woman, as ethnic as her name suggested. In her mid-forties, she was lined with age and her skin seemed to fall off her, as though she’d lost a significant amount of weight recently. Which, having been unconscious for weeks, she probably had. The hospital bed seemed to swallow her, I.V.s and tubes trailed over the bed and disappeared under the sheets. A ventilator obscured the lower half of her face. Monitors beeped steadily, showing that at least her heart was still functioning.
“Excuse me, can I help you?” Jo turned and found a balding man, also in his late forties, worry and frown lines mapping his pale face, dark bags making his brown eyes almost black. He wore faded blue scrubs and all the badges and instruments that hospital workers always seemed to have on their person. It was the sense of defeat and concern that made her assume he was the doctor instead of another nurse.
“Are you Mrs. Ramirez’s doctor?”
“My name is Joanna Blake. I’m here to discuss my client’s condition.”
“Client?” he quirked his eyebrows at her.
“My apologies. I’m of the Gentry and Blake Law Firm out of Jackson. My client has a living will and in the event of her becoming incapable, I’m to make the decision whether or not to continue care on her behalf.”
“Her children seemed pretty sure that she had no plans.”
“Her children love her dearly. She was afraid that they would keep her around even after there was no hope. She specifically requested that the decision should be mine. Now that I have been made aware of Mrs. Ramirez’s… affliction, I need to know how she is doing and what can be done.” Jo had intentionally told the man what to do instead of asking. People responded to confidence and authority. They were hard pressed to argue against it. If she acted like she was supposed to be there, ordering people around, then obviously she was. That was the real secret to how she was able to get her information. It wasn’t the clothes or the fake badges, though those helped, it was the attitude. She’d seen the Winchesters impersonate FBI and push people into doing what they wanted while wearing jeans and t-shirts, using nothing but attitude. Thinking of them made her heart falter. She hated that after seven months, even the thought of him still stopped her. Keeping her expression smooth, Jo pulled the “will” from her file and held it out so the doctor could read it without actually handing it to him.
He wanted to believe her; she could see it in his face. The whole thing had him on edge and he wanted someone to share the responsibility with. “Believe me, doctor, this is not a decision I will make lightly or on incomplete information, but I do intend to make sure that her wishes are carried out.” She slipped the paper back into the folder and waited on him. Sincerity and confidence just oozed off her.
“Ok. I’m sure you’re already aware that she isn’t the only person who has arrived in this condition, however she was the first. When she was brought in, she was un-responsive, though we couldn’t find the cause. All her vital signs were stable, so we assumed she was inebriated or overdosed on narcotics. Then she started failing. Her blood pressure dropped and kept dropping until she coded. We got her heart started again but then she started showing signs of oxygen deprivation. Her airways were clear, but she still wasn’t getting enough oxygen. We started her on a nasal canula, but she still wasn’t fully functioning. She has since stopped breathing on her own. Honestly, the machines are keeping her alive. I could understand it if she was in her eighties, but she’s only forty-five. She shouldn’t be shutting down like this. When the second patient came in and started going through the same symptoms at only twenty-eight, I got more than a little curious. I called a friend of mine who owns his own practice, doing dream research. He came down and brought some of his equipment with him. We started monitoring their brain activity. The closest comparison I can give you is to think of a machine powering down. Their brains are shutting down with their bodies. Eventually there won’t be anything left.” His eyes darted to Mrs. Ramirez. Like her. was unspoken but she understood what he meant.
“Is there any chance that they could possibly recover?”
His sharp burst of laughter was harsh and bitter. “Recover? Recover from what? We can’t even figure out the ‘why’ in the first place. All the screens came back negative, there is no drug or poison known to man in their systems.”
Jo turned again to look at the bed. She knew it was just her imagination, but the woman lying there seemed even smaller than she had before. “So, it’s not caused by bad drugs or some kind of obscure poison?”
“None that I’ve been able to find. And before you ask, yes, I have sent the samples to other places to be tested. Our facilities are non-existent. The other hospitals and universities I’ve sent them to say the same thing, everything is normal.” He sighed heavily, “At this point though, it doesn’t much matter.”
“I’m not going to lie to you; I don’t have much hope for Mrs. Ramirez. Statistically speaking, the longer someone is in a coma, the less likely they are to come out of it or come out of it whole. The most recent cases might recover if we could figure out what’s causing this and stop it, but Mrs. Ramirez has been under and gone for weeks. I doubt her mind will ever be fully functional again.”
A cold ball hit the pit of Jo’s stomach. She had known that, probably better than he did, but it hurt to hear him say it and sound so defeated. She sighed herself and turned back to him. She read his name tag for the first time as she held her hand out to him. “Thank you for your honesty, Dr. Carlisle. I know that this is hard for you, not being able to help them. I won’t make this decision right now. I’m going to think it over for a couple days. Thank you again for your time.” She shook his hand and left him standing in room 315. She wanted out of there.
Keeping her head down, Jo headed for the closest exit. The quite whoosh of the automatic ER doors almost seemed anticlimactic. Knowing the horror behind them, it seemed like an alarm should have gone off, or there should have been some kind of ominous sound. Jo knew better, but it still seemed wrong. Once outside she stood, taking deep breaths and trying to calm her nerves. In her opinion, that was worse than being killed outright. She preferred a violent, bloody end to that. At least violent and bloody was a clean death. You died fighting and doing some good in the world instead of slipping away, with no control over yourself and in the hands of strangers. She wanted nothing more right now than to take the car out on a back road and let it fly, engine growling and sliding around corners. But that wouldn’t get her any closer to stopping this. She started around the building to the front parking lot. Jo was still sure it was a hungry ghost. The doctor was right, sort of. These people were shutting down and it wasn’t physical. Their life was being slowly sucked out of them. But what was the connection?
She was still going through the possibilities when something at the edge of her vision stopped her dead. Adrenaline flooded her system, setting every nerve on edge. Jo turned to the parking lot she was walking through and there it was. A ’67 Chevy Impala in near perfect shape. She already knew it wasn’t just any Impala either. It had been his car, his baby. She didn’t know if she could bring herself to walk up and talk to the new owner. The last time she had seen Sam, he’d been possessed by a demon and he’d hurt her deeply. They’d spoken on the phone since then and she’d forgiven him. She knew it hadn’t really been him but still… It had been his body hurting her, his voice saying terrible things. She hadn’t spoken to him since his brother’s death. As far as she knew, no one had. He wouldn’t speak to anyone. That, more than anything, had her walking across the pavement. Besides, he was obviously here to work her case. She couldn’t have him screwing it up for her.
Sam didn’t notice her walking up to the passenger side door, too intent on the screen of his laptop, deep in “research mode” as he called it. Some things would never change. Sam jumped slightly when she knocked on the window, automatically reaching for a weapon. He managed not to pull it but she could tell he didn’t recognize her. He was actually rolling down the window when he finally saw past the power suit and makeup. She could actually see it in his face when he did recognize her. “Jesus, Jo?!” He barely thought to put the computer to the side before he opened the door and climbed out. She just stopped herself from flinching as he wrapped his arms around her. This was Sam, really Sam, and she knew he would never hurt her. She could feel him stiffen and knew he’d noticed her hesitation. She quickly threw her arms around him and hugged him before he could let go. He’d lost enough already and she couldn’t stand the thought of hurting him any more than she had. She wasn’t really afraid of Sam, more the memories he represented.
“Where have you been? Mom’s been worried sick and so have I.”
“Sorry, I just had some things that I had to do by myself.”
“Well, thank you for that fulfilling insight. What are you doing here?”
“Same as you, I guess. Checking up on a case.”
“Yeah, I just talked to the doctor, everything in the papers are true. This thing has to be stopped.”
“Well, it will be taken care of, don’t worry.”
“Why would I worry since I know I’m gonna kill it?” Jo smiled at Sam, knowing he wouldn’t let it go. His answering grin shot straight through her. If Sam could smile like that, maybe things could be ok. Maybe she’d been wrong to not try calling him. “All right, maybe we can both kill it. I’ll give you what information I’ve gotten and help you research, then maybe you can help me kill it.” Jo suddenly looked at the still open passenger side door, “Why were you sitting in the passenger seat?”
Sam’s smile slipped away into confusion. “Why wouldn’t I be, that’s where I sit?”
“Where you sit? Who-”
“Sammy, you ready? This freaking doctor is useless. Really, who worries about privacy for a vegeta- oh. Sorry, I didn’t know you were talking to someone.”
Jo could feel the blood drain from her face.
Sam’s eyes widened as the understanding hit him. “Shit, you didn’t know.” Sam grabbed her arms as her legs started to give out from under her.
“What the hell?” four jogging steps and the voice behind her was a lot closer.
“I’m ok. I’m ok. I just….” She regained her feet and turned to face that voice.
Dean looked back at her, worry lines between his brows. She wasn’t imagining it. He was really there. She threw herself into his arms, holding him as tightly as she could, tears threatening to fall.
“I know. I’m so beautiful it hurts me sometimes too.” But Dean still put his arms around her.
A strangled laugh escaped through the tears. Reluctantly she gave him one last squeeze and stepped back.
“How? How are you here, you’re supposed to be in Hell?”
“Yeah, well, I’m just full of surprises. We’ll talk about this later, somewhere less public.”
“Fine. We can talk about my case.”
“Yes, MY case.” I was here first and I even got to the doctor.”
“What do you want me to say, Princess? I’m that good.”
“Ok, children.” Sam’s reproachful words didn’t match his tone. He was smiling again, happiness apparent as he watched the two of them. In that moment, Jo felt right. Like that was the way things should be, the three of them. “Alright. Come with us and we’ll figure out what’s attacking people and decide who gets to kill it.”
“Sure thing. Where are you guys staying?”
“We scoped out an abandoned house, a ways outside of town. It’s secluded and keeps out the weather.” Dean walked around to the driver side door, “Get in, so we can get started.”
“How about I follow you in my car?”
Dean groaned in frustration. “God, I’m gonna be driving five miles an hour the whole way just so you can keep up. Why don’t you just ride with us, sweetheart? It’ll be quicker.”
Jo’s smile turned feral, “Wanna bet?”
Twenty minutes and forty dollars later, Jo was sitting in the living room of the abandoned house on a couch that had seen better days. The look on Dean’s face when she pulled up behind them in the Challenger was worth his weight in gold to Jo. No matter how fast he’d gone or what turns he’d taken, she’d been right there with him every step of the way. Twice, just to show off, she’d passed him on straight stretches just to drop back behind him and let him lead again. He had been anything but graceful when he’d had to pony up her winnings. He grudgingly handed her the money and stalked off, muttering something about, “…damn Dodges…” under his breath. Now she was watching the boys unload the Impala and set up their wards. They’d done well with the place. The house was in good enough shape and had only one point of entry. Some of the hotels she’d stayed in had been in worse shape. There was a functional fireplace in the far wall already stacked with unlit logs. It looked like someone’s vacation home that had probably been given up because of the failing economy. As hard as it was on John Q Public, it was hitting hunters even harder. Credit card fraud was becoming almost impossible and people were less willing to part with their money at pool tables and darts. In all, she didn’t feel bad about breaking into houses like this. She didn’t pay too much attention to the house though. She couldn’t keep her eyes off Dean.
It was a miracle. That was the only world she had for it. She wanted to touch him, run her hands over him and reassure herself that he was real. She couldn’t do it; Dean wouldn’t understand. But she thought Sam might. She kept catching him doing the same thing she was, watching Dean when he wasn’t looking. Staring at him again and again, making sure he didn’t disappear. She smiled at Sam when he met her eyes. Yeah, Sam would understand. He was a sweet guy and he idolized his brother. Sam was as quiet as Dean was loud. He was so quite that Dean’s presences kind of overwhelmed him sometimes. He faded into the background and let Dean take over. She’d never been able to understand how that happened. Sam was good looking; had a tall, lithe body, built like an athlete. Adorable puppy-dog eyes, great smile complete with dimples. She just didn’t get how he was self-conscious. Then again, Dean was confident enough for the both of them. Two of them with that much presence would be too much. Dean’s personality floated around him like cologne. Those green eyes absolutely burned when he was angry, looking just like jagged emeralds. She should know; she’d pissed him off enough. She had thought she’d never see those eyes again. Jo fought the tears that threatened to spill over. She had a hard enough time getting Den to respect her as a hunter. Being over-emotional would kill any chance she had. She’d had her one cry and that would have to be enough. She stood and took a few steps around the room to help clear her head. She was a hunter and they had a case to concentrate on. Now, how did she keep from getting kicked off her own case?
“So, I think it’s a hungry ghost.”
The boys both stopped what they were doing. “A what?” Dean asked.
“A hungry ghost. Every mythology has them. The ghost of someone, who had some unfinished business, was greedy or unburied. They come back and try to get what they were missing.” Jo looked from one Winchester to the other, offended by the twin looks of shock. “What? Don’t look at me like that. It’s been over a year since either one of you has even laid eyes on me. I’ve been busy.”
Dean snorted and went back to drawing a Devil’s Trap. Sam’s brows were pulled together as he sat on the couch and grabbed his ever-present laptop. “She’s right. Every culture has them; they all have different reasons for them existing but they all agree that they can ‘punish’ the living. The Taoists believe that they can scare you and then eat your energy. It doesn’t sate them; they just keep getting hungrier and eating more. That would explain why the people at the hospital keep getting worse and why the attacks increased in frequency.” Sam trailed off as his lap-top actually found Wi-Fi. Jo decided that whatever brand or service he used, she was getting it. That thing worked EVERYWHERE.
“Ok, so we’ve got Casper with a serious case of the munchies. How do we kill it? Do they agree on that?” Dean looked at Jo expectantly.
“Well, munchies or not, it’s still a ghost so we should still be able to salt and burn the remains.”
“Yeah, near as I can tell, they’re just another type of ghost. So we figure out who our Casper is and have a bonfire.” Sam looked at his brother and Jo, obviously waiting for one of them to make the next move.
“Well, I did find a connection between the victims, I think. The third victim, Nick Hearne, is pretty well liked by the community. Apparently there is a small theater here and a group of locals that do plays and musicals and pansy crap like that. Anyway, I found that interesting since victim number four worked there as a prop person.”
“Mrs. Ramirez had a scrapbook of ticket stubs for that place. If I had to guess, I’d say she went to every show.” Jo was kicking herself for not having put that together herself. “Ok, so if it’s haunting the theater, why is it only just starting now? I mean, she had enough ticket stubs to account for years of performances. Why has it only started in the last few weeks?”
Jo and Dean hadn’t been paying attention to Sam and they were both slightly startled when he spoke up, “I think I know.” They moved to the back of the couch and looked over his shoulders at the screen. Two side by side photos stared back at them, one of a smiling young woman and the other of the theater itself. He was on the local paper’s website looking at the front page from three months ago; Local Actress Disappears. Sam started giving them the basics of the story, “Deseree Michaels disappeared about three weeks before the first victim. She was the leading lady for the theater group. Apparently her apartment was undisturbed, she just left the theater one night and never made it home.” He clicked the link for related articles, “Looks like her body was found a week later, out in the woods. Throat slit and all her jewelry and wallet were gone. Cops think it was a robbery gone wrong. No suspects, no evidence, no arrest. She was buried at Blackburn cemetery five days before the first attack.”
“So, what, the people she’s attacking had something to do with it? That doesn’t seem right.” Jo leaned further over, trying to read the words for herself.
“Doesn’t really matter.” Dean said, walking back over to the supplies, “That’s not our problem. We fry this bitch either way.” He dug a couple of salt containers out of a duffle and started digging around for the matches.
“You can be such a prick.”
“So I’ve been told. But it’s the truth. Whatever reason she has for going after these people, she still needs burned.”
Jo rolled her eyes. “Well, at least we know what our next step is and,” she looked at her watch, “we have seven hours until the town beds down for the night.”
“I could go for some food. Pie would be good.”
“You always want pie. Can’t Sam get you to eat anything else?”
“No, believe me, I’ve tried.” Sam stood and reached for his jacket, “I’ll make a food run. You want anything, Jo?”
“Just something simple. Cheeseburger and fries.”
Sam shook his head as he walked out the door, muttering, “Probably wants bacon too.”
Jo did her best not to smile at him.
“Where’d you get the car?”
That hadn’t been one of the questions she’d been expecting and she wasn’t prepared with a convincing lie. She should have known he wouldn’t let go of a loss like that. “I liberated it.”
“You liberated it.” Dean stared at her, waiting for the real answer.
“Yes! She was sitting in some saps driveway not getting driven the way she needs to be. So I rescued her.”
“Uh-huh. And how long has it been since you ‘rescued’ her?”
Jo wouldn’t meet Dean’s eyes, “Bout two weeks.”
“Shit, Jo. You know better than to keep a car for that long. You have to dump it. You should have dumped it a week and a half ago.”
“I know, I know. It’s just such a great car. You saw how she drives, all that power and speed.” Jo actually shivered, “Besides, you just want me to dump it because it’s faster than your baby.”
“Oh, sweetheart. Nothing’s faster than my baby. You just caught me by surprise and I didn’t want you to hurt yourself or that pretty little car you STOLE trying to play with the big boys.” Dean tried to loom over her, but Jo had spent her whole life in a bar and around hunters. One puffed up Winchester was not going to make her back down.
“Sure, whatever helps you sleep. You want me to take another forty bucks off you?” She smiled up at him sweetly, crossing her arms over her chest. Everything about her daring him. He laughed and surprised her by pulling her into a hug.
“You did turn into a little hard-ass didn’t you?”
“I always was. You just didn’t notice.” Jo shoved him playfully away, not wanting him to let go first. Miracle.
“Seriously, though. That car is flashy and attracts a lot of attention. We need to dump it somewhere.” He could see Jo getting ready to protest, “We’ll even drop it somewhere safe. Where it will be found quickly and kept out of the weather. We’ll do it when Sam gets back.”
“You are a pushy bastard.” Jo scowled up at him, but she knew he was right. She just hated the idea of giving up her baby. “Fine. But that means you have to get me another one after we burn the body. I gotta get back to my truck somehow.”
“We? Jo; Sam and I can finish this ourselves. You don’t have to stay. We’ll get you something after we drop the car off.”
She had to restrain herself from hitting him by counting to ten. Twice. There wasn’t any sarcasm in his voice and she didn’t think he meant to be condescending. He just couldn’t seem to help it. “No. It’s my case too and I’m going to see it through.”
He shrugged one shoulder and sighed, “Suit yourself. You’re helping dig too then.”
“Fair enough. I’ll help with the grunt work.”
“Whatever.” Dean walked over to the couch and flopped down. Even she knew that he was just working on wearing her down another way. “Wake me up when Sam gets back with dinner then, huh?”
“The hell I will. Get your ass right back up and come on. You’re gonna help me clean my car.”
“Really? And why would I do that?”
“Because if you’re gonna make me dump her, then you have to help me clean her. Come on, Princess.” She threw his jacket on his chest and opened the front door. It squealed and whined in protest, years of disuse making it stiff. Dean huffed as he sat back up.
“I think I liked you better back when you weren’t quite so sure of yourself.”
“Sticks and stones, Winchester. Come help me say goodbye to my baby, or tonight I’m taking yours and going for a joyride.”
“You wouldn’t dare. I’d kill you.”
“Are you kidding me? That thing is cherry. And you’d have to catch me to kill me. How well do you think you’re gonna manage that if I’m in the Impala?”
Dean really looked at Jo then and realized she wasn’t kidding. Huffing again he followed her out the door. He watched her as they crossed the yard to her car. Jo had really come into her own. She moved with the kind of confidence and tension that only fighting can give someone. She was strong and definitely shapely. He looked her over, deciding he liked the way that pantsuit emphasized the swell of her ass without being too clingy. “Eyes up here, Winchester.” Dean’s head snapped up and found that, to his horror, Jo was looking back over her shoulder at him.
“I was looking for weapons. You should be better armed than that, Jo.”
“Right. Because the knife in my boots, the other one clipped to my thigh-highs and the vial of holy water tucked into my bra isn’t enough.”
“Thigh-highs…” Dean choked out.
“Yeah. There’s a whole in my pants pocket. I can reach through and grab the knife on my thigh easier than the one in my boot.” She looked back at him again and saw the flush spreading across his face, adding to an already slightly vacant expression. Well, not ‘vacant’ but not innocent either. “Please tell me that out of everything I just said, ‘thigh-highs’ wasn’t the only thing you heard.”
“Uh… heh.” Dean smiled in a vaguely apologetic way.
“Of course.” Jo shook her head, “Enjoy the view while you can, Princess. Cause that’s as close as you’re ever going to get.” She looked ahead again to hide the smile she couldn’t quite stop. Part of her was more than a little pleased that he’d noticed. Damned if I’ll ever let him know that. She went straight to the trunk and started pulling out her bags. “Here, be a good boy and take these inside for me.”
“Wait a minute, why haven’t you dropped these off wherever you are staying?”
“Because, genius, I haven’t got a place. I came in knowing this was going to be a salt and burn. I didn’t plan on staying anywhere. Burn the bitch and head out to whatever the next town over is. But since I have to give up my car, I guess you guys are stuck with me.” Grabbing a couple more bags of supplies, she headed back inside leaving Dean standing at the trunk quietly mumbling, “Friggin’ great. Just what I need.” Yep, Jo was definitely pleased and didn’t bother to hide the smile as she walked back inside.