And My Flame Made A Pinnacle To Heaven (2/3)

© 2007 gekizetsu

Part II of III. Same warnings as part I. Still for innie_darling! Dean thinks at a PG-13 level except when he veers into an R randomly, and that's even when there are no chicks around.

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II: The Wind Out Of Doors

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There were so many good things about driving. Plenty of time to think, lots of scenery, easy access to people-watching...and loud music. Lots of damn loud music.

He loved the Impala like a family member, and tried not to think too hard about why his father had handed the car over so easily. It was more his dad's car than, you know, the family car or something weird like that. When he exited motels in the morning, and saw that car, first thing? He thought of his dad. There was a strong association in his mind between the two. The sound of the engine was as familiar as his father's voice. It was his father's voice, in a way, and then of course there was no way to explain why he referred to the car as a girl in his own head...screw it, thinking was fucking pointless sometimes.

He drummed his fingers along the steering wheel and tried again not to think about what the hell was still so important that his dad insisted on doing it alone. Sure, it had made sense at first when there was more than enough crap to go around, but he wasn't even telling him what he was doing. Usually they compared notes and plotted what to do next, and -

Who the fuck was he kidding? Usually his dad was just giving him orders on what needed to be done next.

Still...that pretty much felt like a team to him. Or it was the only way he understood teamwork.

He took one hand off the wheel to rub his eyes and check the map again. He was on the I-10 just out of Tallahassee and finally away from the toll roads. He'd stay on it through Alabama. He meant to make it by nightfall and maybe cut the trip down to a total of twelve hours. He hated stopping, but damn if the car wasn't much for more than 15 miles to the gallon. They'd tweaked it, sure, his dad was a hell of a mechanic and could get machines to give you things they were never even made to give, but weight was weight and the Impala was built like a goddamn tank.

It wasn't all that good to have so much time to think.

If he'd stayed around Weston and tried finding those guys and dragging info out of them, it would have been like admitting he couldn't do this on his own.

They'd been afraid of something, and hadn't wanted anyone from the outside getting into it. So, something cultural or similarly close to them, to a community, to a family. Sometimes they were all the same thing. It was a big noisy thing for them to contend with, though, because a white guy had tried to be casual about telling him about it. It was like everyone there had known something but him.

I saw a ball of fire in the sky.

The fact that you said 'what' instead of 'who' tells us you already know far too much.

By the time he got to Mobile, Alabama, he knew exactly what he was going to do and how he was going to do it. He couldn't get away with charging in and flying by the seat of his pants, not this time.

He stopped long enough to eat and search a little on the laptop again, and discovered that of the ethnic populations he'd found info on in Florida, the only one that was significantly the same was the Carribean influence.

He was not going to call his dad and see if there was anything in his journal that might give him a leg up. He was not going to call anybody. He had this. He did.

Conerly was a tiny community, a drive-through place barely a mile long. It had a gas station, a church, and a feed store. Otherwise it was older homes. People went west to McComb or south to Tylertown if they needed anything.

Nearby was another ghost town. Holmesville, right on the Bogue Chitto river. It had died when the railroad had come through the area in the 1920's. People still lived nearby in McComb and spots here and there closer in, but it was dead. There were the shells of two churches and an old store, the remnants of a couple of houses, and a basic street grid. A cemetery. McComb-Holmesville road and Pike 93 created not only a crossroads but a square of roads. Conerly was southwest of the abandoned town, much like Weston had been from Andytown.

No way that was a coincidence.

It took him a little while to find the spot; the exact location hadn't been in the paper, just a mention of the general area. It was a local online message board going on and on about it that had given him the address. They'd pretty much sounded like teens who were a little too fascinated with death, and it hadn't been easy to decipher a lot of it ( lolz tahts off the hook hes maybe got hit by ligtnin!! lets go look 4 his shoes see if their in the trees ) since people had forgotten how to type the moment the Internet had come along.

There were a lot of old neighborhoods, and no new construction tearing anything up. It was another place left to kind of...sit, like the place in Florida. Tree lined streets, Ironwood and birch and magnolia, with old, sagging houses and half-missing porches at the ends of very long driveways. It nearly looked abandoned except that he could see people on the porches in the gathering dusk. He parked just under a tree at the head of a dead end and got out to see if he had the right place. A dog was barking further down, but it didn't sound like it was going to come down and have a look at him. It had probably given up that little habit right about the time something had flash-fried somebody on the street below.

He tried to be quiet, but his own footsteps sounded ominous. It didn't bug him that it was getting dark. It bugged him that nothing was yammering around him, not bugs or birds or anything stupid and fuzzy.

Just off the end of the road, further into the gloom of the trees, he saw the bright yellow curl of a piece of discarded crime scene tape. The roadside dirt had been churned with footsteps and tire tracks. Another twenty feet back was a tall, wide stump that had been gutted by fire, its sharp black edges still reaching upward. The trees around it hadn't been touched; not a single nearby leaf was singed, from what he could see.

He walked right up to it and smelled the remnants of damp, charred wood. Someone had tried to put it out, meaning there had probably been a full grown tree there when the fire hit (Sam would have been able to tell what kind it had been), and there had probably been a real concern that the whole area would go up with it. Still, it had been a fire so concentrated that it hadn't touched the surrounding foliage.

Deep under the smell of damp charcoal and crushed greenery was a hint of seared meat.

And they'd taken the body away, the selfish bastards. Big tragedy aside, it would have been kind of cool to see somebody melted into a tree.

Part of the surface to his right was lighter in color, trailing down in a too-deliberate line. He stepped back and to his right, circling partway around the tree. Then he stepped back a little further.

There was the faint outline of a humanoid shape against the surface of the tree, slightly distorted and smeared, like an overexposed negative at the end of a roll of film. He came closer and found deep scores inside the boundaries of the shape. It looked like something had blown back against the tree and come apart.

He stepped back a bit at a time, pausing after each step to check the ground and check his proximity to the stump. He was trying to figure out how close the thing really had to have been, to whammy somebody that hard. It seemed to have come from straight on, despite the smearing (which was probably just sautee marks, anyway), not from above or below, so the height difference between roaster and roastee might not have been that great.

It reminded him of something he'd read about lightning strikes. People - even scientists - had once believed that lightning could create photographic impressions of nearby objects right onto victims it struck. He wondered what the body had looked like, how skeletal, how intact. The top of the head on the freaky cave-wall picture in front of him was missing, making it look like he had an 80's rapper flattop.

The cops would have already picked the place clean, but knowing that didn't keep him from looking around. If there had been blowback like in the case of the dumpster guy, something should have been left on the facing trees - a splatter of steam-cooked brains or something. The brain case would, after all, pop in a vapor explosion when enough pressure was applied from the inside. It was pretty damp in there; and for some folks, even moreso than others.

If he'd been a cop -

"I'd be, like, the hottest cop ever," he said aloud.

- he'd have known something was messed up about the whole thing, but he knew they'd be thinking someone had been tied to a tree and lit up. It was what it looked like. They'd left the scene unguarded, meaning they thought they'd found everything they'd figured there was to find. They would not be imagining someone blowing up in the woods yet staying stuck up against a tree.

It was almost too dark for him to find anything decent by then, but he took a look around the facing trees. True, there hadn't been anything left behind splatter-wise at the last two blast points he'd seen, but something was different about this one. Plus, he knew better than to just figure that each case would be the same. It would get tired or clumsy or impatient, and leave something behind.

The first bone shard he found in the bark of a huge river birch twenty yards away was at shoulder height and was thin and sharp. He had to use his knife to dig it loose. It was long, maybe four inches except for what snapped off in the tree, and could have been from one of the long bones in the arms. It was still slightly flexible, still-living bone with a faint twist to it as if the limb had been cored and whittled by one hell of a knife. That took some force.

He pocketed it.

He found a quarter-sized chunk of skull a few yards further on, the slight hint of eggshell-like curvature giving it away. It was baked and brittle. A few seconds of extra heat had made all the difference. This one had burst outward like the others, but hadn't stayed fully contained, hadn't vaporized all the way...or been consumed. The heat hadn't been as great and had allowed stuff to spin away into the woods.

He imagined the sound of bone shards pattering into the surrounding woods, bouncing from leaves like a hard rain.

It hadn't had a nice solid wall to take the brunt of the flash that time, and the sap of the living tree had probably exploded...and maybe the marrow in the poor schmuck's bones had done the same.

"Hardcore," he said.

The blast might not have been as intense as the others. Maybe it was getting tired, getting close to the end of its cycle, getting ready to hibernate again.

He left the bit of skull and its counterpart near the base of the stump, then salted all the way around. It would have to do. They'd never collect all of the guy's remains. And he felt it was pretty safe to assume it had been a guy.

He drove for a little while as dark finally finished settling, and decided to head for Holmesville. If there wasn't already a body up there, there might be soon, and he couldn't pass up the chance to see something.

He hated being just behind the thing. It had to kill someone and leave a mess before he knew where to look. It was rooting itself far enough into each place to be able to pick out victims, because there was no luck or chance to who it had killed so far. It had hunting grounds. And it was normal enough on the outside most of the time to not be noticed, or it wasn't visible until it decided to become a flaming ball in the sky . It was walking up on people or chasing them out into abandoned areas or alleyways, then tapping on their shoulders and saying hey buddy, got a light?

He snorted at his own joke.

"It has to get kind of close, to hit them with all that," he said aloud. "Keep it in a small area, like that. So why's it get so close? What's it get out of that?"

Robert Plant answered him by wailing about how long it had been since he'd rocked and rolled.

He pulled off Pike 93 north and rolled through the length of what was left of the town to get an idea of its size and where there was to hide. The street grid was still apparent even after all that time, if overgrown - it had been paved at some point in the distant past, because the asphalt was shattered and pieced in ways that made it look like a dark, drought-ridden riverbed. There were a couple of partial foundations left that he figured would be good places to leave bodies, so he'd check them on foot. He pulled the car around behind what was left of a church to keep it out of sight and killed the engine.

It probably looked human when it walked up to them. It blasted them, then flew off, job done. It didn't have the courtesy to leave him a shoe or a popped button or something so he could pick it up and look interested and pretend for a second that he was one of those CSI guys. Grissom or Stokes, not that lame assclown from the ripoff Miami version. The gap between Sara's front teeth was a better actor than that guy. Maybe it should have had its own spinoff. She was kind of hot but that gap would drive him crazy if he had to look at her every day. Now Catherine, that was one hot older chick. She and Warrick had to get together sooner or later, it was obvious, and he was pretty sure even Sam would agree that Grissom and Stokes were better suited for each other than Grissom and Sara, and -

He shook himself a little. He was kind of spacing out.

He wanted to sleep, but the steady hum in his bones of so many miles of uneven asphalt passing beneath wouldn't stop. It was a hazard of roadtripping that far, that fast, even though he was used to it. He was tired enough, that was for damn sure, but he couldn't shake the feeling that he was going to miss something if he didn't get out of the car and look around some more.

It was always odd to feel the mix of disappointment and anticipation that came of not really finding anything. It could have been a fluke that there was a skeleton in the last abandoned town near the site of a killing, but he really didn't think so. His gut told him it was no fluke. Two towns with abandoned towns nearby: it meant something to the creature he was hunting. It was following a pattern, it was creating a ritual. It was bound to its own needs and desires and habits, and that would finally lead him to it. It would become so caught up in what it had to do that it would stumble. A lot of desperate predators did just that, after awhile, especially when they had forgotten what it was like to be part of the human crowd or had never known at all. Cougars had no idea what rabbits saw or knew, and as a result they didn't catch every single rabbit they tried for.

He got out with his shotgun and walked. There was enough moonlight to make out the details, and there was no one melted into either of the crumbling foundations or into any side of the old church with its overgrown grass and berry bushes and the crabapple trees that were swarming it.

He had a pretty good view of things from what was left of the foundations across the street, so he headed back over and settled in on a slab of rock that had tipped into the depression left behind. He could see the length of the main street and the church from there, and if anything happened, he'd get a look at it.

And still he felt the car moving beneath him even though it was about a hundred yards away.

After awhile he laid back on the stone to look at the sky. It was cloudy enough to make him think it might rain on him later, but there were enough breaks to let him see some stars. It was pretty damn dark out there, with the nearest decent town not even throwing enough light to disrupt the Milky Way. A fireball would be hard to miss.

If his father was into something so far that he couldn't even talk about it, how long would it be before he didn't leave messages at all? What the hell would be going on that he'd shut his right hand man out of it? He couldn't doubt that his dad knew what he was doing, that he had reasons for doing it...but it was hard to imagine what they would be. He wouldn't go questioning him aloud, that was for sure. Sam would, loudly, but Dean wouldn't.

Sam would if he were around, anyway.

He began listing the world's hottest redheads in his mind, in order of worst to best, worst still being a solid eight on a scale of ten overall. Was Kirsten Dunst blonde or readheaded? Didn't matter, she was hot. Angie Gregory, that one redheaded chick in Day Of The Dead 2? Yeah. Ariel, the Disney version of the Little Mermaid? Totally imaginary, but still hot. He should have thought to bring beer. He sucked at stakeouts. The job didn't create many opportunities to practice, since evil preferred to jump out and yell boo pretty quick on most occasions. He was built for running and shooting and blowing shit up, not sitting and waiting. He had a feeling about this one, though, so he'd tough it out.

Led Zeppelin's song catalogue could be listed alphabetically.

The entire Nova Vulgate was recitable. In Latin and English.

Kirsten Dunst was more a blonde than a redhead, maybe.

When he first heard the screaming, he thought he'd dropped off or that it was his own boredom trying to get out of his skull. When he heard a very distinctive crackling to go with it, and saw a growing brightness sweep over and around the remaining foundation walls around him, he sat up just far enough to take a look without letting his presence be known. He kept a hand on his gun.

He could make out the shape of someone running - it was in high relief, a shadow-person backlit by a hovering, swirling conflagration of orange-white flame roughly the size of a car. He could feel the heat from there, and he couldn't see a center; it was bright, almost too bright to look at. He hadn't heard a car, so he had to wonder where the hell the guy had come from.

He barely registered the presence of the guy and the sight of the damn thing he'd been hunting when the guy swerved and tried to make it to the church.

The flash and the heat that went with it had Dean ducking back down behind the foundation; the heat was insane , seemed to suck all the cool moisture from the earth beneath him and singe the edges of his hair. What little he'd caught of the flash momentarily blinded him and left him with greenish-red blooms of light behind his eyelids. He snatched his hand away from the concrete above, because even though the flash only lasted a couple of seconds and concrete was a lousy conductor, it burned him all the same.

A thunder-like boom bounced and rolled away from the church, across the abandoned town and away into the dark trees beyond, super-heated air collapsing back on itself. A death knell.

He forced himself to open his eyes and blink furiously. He had to clear his vision and see what the hell was going on. The light had lessened to something tolerable, and when he raised his eyes just above the edge of the foundation wall, it was to find a swirling, orange-red flame that stood only six feet high, dancing in place, snapping sparks above itself into the darkness. It was the color of one of the heating coils on a stove and maybe not much hotter. It gave off more than enough light to see the blackened outline on the facing church wall and the gleam of flash-heated bone.

The shotgun, with its salt charges, and his handgun, with the blessed silver bullets, were not going to have much effect on the thing before him. A firehose, maybe, but not much else. He wanted to say that it had all happened so fast that he hadn't been able to do anything, but the simple truth was that there had been nothing he could have done to save the guy, and charging out after it would have been suicide.

Still, it didn't make him feel any better. He'd come so close on this one, and still, there was someone else dead because he wasn't fast enough.

There was still no visible core to it, no specific shape, but there was the hint of something at the center. It wasn't an object on fire; it was fire, as an object.

It spun faster in place for a moment and danced away from the church wall; it seemed to turn in place toward him and he could only stare in amazement at the idea that it was looking at him. It flattened and coalesced back into a spherical shape, then spun upward and began heading south, shrinking away.

Dean looked across the street at the blackened outline on the wall. He didn't need another close look at a victim. He had to track the thing back to wherever it was hanging out during the day and waste it. It had to stay visible while it was airborne, if it stayed in its current form...

He ran for the car and tore back onto the Pike. He could still see it above the trees, so the Pike would do until he hit the 98, and from there he'd have to decide where the hell it was going if he wanted to follow it on traditional roads. It wasn't even traveling that fast, as if -

It veered southeast and kept going, but at a lower elevation, as if it was trying to keep to the trees, as if it knew it was being followed. He was glad there wasn't anybody else on the road, because he was topping a hundred and didn't feel like veering around somebody on their way home from an extra-innings little league game or explaining anything to cops, ever. He had to keep it in sight. The guy who'd just bought it right in front of him had to be the last one.

The damn thing had dwindled to what amounted to the brightness of a satellite. If not for the red color and the tumbling, he'd have lost it. It kept heading southeast, and it took him a couple of moments to realize it was headed straight for Conerly. It had been dumb enough - or desperate enough - to fry somebody right where it was holing up.

He could see it dropping, spinning and dipping, and he left the 98 for Conerly, barely slowing.

It dropped all the way out of sight further to the south, and it looked like the same neighborhood he'd found the last victim near.

He wanted to kick himself for not knocking on a few doors earlier and asking around to see if anyone had seen anything, but he'd known after years of tracking this kind of shit that nothing would have come of it; he'd done exactly the right thing by waiting for it to show again, in the most likely place. He couldn't follow the rules, there was no procedure .

It was the same damn neighborhood, and he left the car right where he'd left it the first time and took off at a run, hoping it wouldn't take him long to figure out which house it was. Now was the perfect time to go door to door.

The dog wasn't barking this time, even if a freakin' ball of fire had flown right over.

He remembered people sitting on the porches of the first two houses, and could see lights inside in both. He doubted the thing was going to have remembered to do the human thing and leave a light on for itself.

At the end of the block, there was an elderly woman halfway down a long, curving drive, partially lit by a street light. She stood watching him approach, and he slowed to a walk. He wasn't crazy enough to walk right up and talk to her; she seemed out of place, even though she was slightly bent over a cane. He entered the driveway, though, and waited, hand on his gun under his jacket.

"Ma'am," he said. "Did you see -"

The house behind her came off its foundation when it imploded in a flash of heat that knocked him down.

He didn't see anything else.

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