Episode Sixteen: Graven Images

By irismay42

Part One

 

East Nottingham, Pennsylvania

Miranda Baker swore she saw rainbows when it took her grandmother.

“But Gramma, you promised!” the little blonde kid’s voice was like nails on a chalkboard, midway between whining and screaming as she stamped a sneakered foot and screwed up her face into a thunderous frown.

Elizabeth Baker sighed for what felt like the millionth time that day, an embarrassed apology on the tip of her tongue as she glanced around at the store’s other shoppers, most of whom either frowned and shook their heads or merely smiled sympathetically.

Those who smiled, Lizzie noted, all seemed to be accompanied by similarly-aged pre-teen girls.

“Now honey,” Lizzie placed a gentle hand on her granddaughter’s shoulder, eyeing with obvious disdain the denim belt Miranda assured her was actually a skirt. “You know what your Mom said. Nothing that’ll make you look…” she trailed off, trying not to use the same word her daughter-in-law had.

“I think it was ‘slutty’,” Miranda supplied, as if reading her thoughts.

“Well, you know,” Lizzie said, smiling indulgently and gently stroking Miranda’s intricately braided hair. “You can’t blame her. Not after that whole belly-button piercing incident…”

The little blonde sighed a little too loudly, turning and fixing her grandmother with a look of utter disgust before tossing the skirt to the floor, plastic hanger clattering against the garish pink floor tiles. “It’s not fair!” she whined. “Mom never lets me have anything!

Lizzie pushed an errant strand of grey-blonde hair behind her ear as she bent to pick up the skirt, suddenly understanding why her daughter-in-law had suggested shopping as a way to keep Miranda occupied while she and Lizzie’s son Martin spent the weekend in some country retreat in Vermont.

Olivia had never liked Lizzie.

“Honey, tomorrow,” Lizzie promised, smiling weakly as she stood looking at the rail where the skirt had been hanging. Deliberating for a moment, she replaced the offending item of clothing exactly in the correct place on the rail, perfectly in line, right in the spot from where Miranda had taken it. Just so. “When I’ve checked with your mom.”

She stood back and admired her handiwork, smiling distractedly, so intent on straightening the other garments on the rail that she never heard the faint whirr of the store’s security camera as it swept slowly in her direction.

Her expression faltered as she finally looked up at the thundercloud that was her granddaughter. “How about some nice jewelry?” she asked, gesturing towards a display of hypnotically sparkling plastic. “Maybe a bracelet? Or some earrings? I’m sure your mom wouldn’t mind that.”

Miranda’s scowl softened slightly as she followed her grandmother’s gaze to the display of moderately-priced junk jewelry. She unfolded her arms from across her chest, eye caught by a ridiculously glittery butterfly pendant that scattered rainbows about itself when the overhead lights caught its glass wings just right.

Had Miranda not turned away from Lizzie just then, intent on making her way over to the beckoning pendant, she may have noticed the security camera tilt ever-so-slightly, or heard the faint hum as its lens carefully zoomed in to perfectly frame her grandmother.

But she neither saw nor heard these things, attention completely consumed by the necklace whose cool glass now rested between her fingers, little rainbows playing across her face.

Turning back towards her grandmother, a brief flash of bright light sent her vision suddenly white. Blinking hard, it was a couple of seconds before she could see again, and then all she could focus on were the rainbows in Lizzie Baker’s surprised blue eyes as her grandmother collapsed in a heap to the floor.

The gasp of the other shoppers briefly drew Miranda’s attention before she suddenly found herself racing over to her Gramma’s prone form, oblivious to the concerned onlookers crowding about her.

“Gramma?”

Kneeling at Lizzie’s side, Miranda gently took her grandmother’s hand, looking down into eyes completely blank and uncomprehending, totally devoid of rainbows or of any other color, irises grey and lifeless, pupils huge and black as coal.

“Gramma?”

Miranda never heard the hum of the security camera as it gently tilted back to its original position. Never saw the barely noticeable flare of rainbow-colored light across the lens.

Never heard the man’s satisfied voice as he watched the little blonde kid leaning over the collapsed form of her grandmother on his monitor screen, fingers gently teasing the camera’s zoom control.

“Welcome home, Gramma.”

***

“So who did you say she was?” Sam Winchester glanced briefly over at his brother as he took a bend in the road a little too fast, causing the ’67 Chevy Impala to groan in protest and Dean’s foot to instinctively jerk against an invisible brake. Straightening up the car, Sam grinned at the whiteness of Dean’s knuckles as he clutched at the roadmap. “And I thought I was the control freak…!”

Dean didn’t even dignify that with a response. “You roll my car into a ditch, I roll your ass into a coffin,” he replied sullenly, returning to his scrutiny of the map as Sam reached over and retuned the radio to some chick rock station. Dean scowled harder, knowing Sammy was just trying to push his buttons.

“Driver picks the music…” Sam began to quote with a smirk.

“Shut up.”

“What’s not to like about this song?” Sam demanded, as the Goo Goo Dolls’ Slide jangled out of the speakers. “Apart from the fact that it’s not thirty years old.”

Dean grimaced, burying his head back in the map. “It’s not called Classic Rock just ’cause it’s old, Sammy,” he groused.

“Yeah, okay,” Sam deferred, knowing that any criticism of Dean’s taste in music was likely to get him banned from driving the Impala for the next thousand miles at least. Sighing, he repeated his original question. “So, the woman who called…?”

Dean looked up at him. “Yeah,” he said distractedly. “Said we came recommended.”

“Who the hell would recommend us?” Sam asked, glancing at the road sign streaking past the window that cordially welcomed them to Pennsylvania.

Dean shrugged.

“And to do what exactly?”

Dean shrugged again.

Dean?”

Sam?” Dean mimicked his brother’s irritated tone perfectly. “How the hell do I know? You’re the spoon bender, remember?”

“I am not a…”

“Sam, she said she had a job for us. Said we’d come recommended. Said she’d pay us. Pay us, Sammy! Like, with money. You remember that, right? That green stuff that buys food and gas and…”

“And isn’t illegal, yeah I get it,” Sam replied, vaguely relieved that at least a paying gig meant Dean wouldn’t have to go getting himself involved in something that could land him in jail one of these days. No poker, no pool, no less-than-legitimate credit cards… “And her name’s Kim?”

“Kim Gregory,” Dean confirmed. “Manager of East Nottingham, Pennsylvania’s brightest new shopping experience…”

“I thought you hated malls?” Sam commented.

“If ever there was a Hell on Earth,” Dean muttered.

Sam snorted. “Paying gig though, right?”

Dean shook his head. “The things I do for money…”

***

The Major Oak Mall was not quite the Hellhole Dean had envisioned.

But pretty damn close.

Turning into the parking lot that he was fairly sure was bigger than half the actual town surrounding it, Sam guided the Impala to a gentle stop not too far from the mall’s main entrance, careful to park near a security camera. Just in case.

Dean noticed and appreciated the gesture, although this was verbalized by a grunted, “Hey, you actually managed to park straight this time!”

Mentally filtering his brother’s remark via the First Rule of Winchester-ese, namely, Never say what you actually mean, particularly if an insult will do just as well, Sam justified his response of “You’re welcome,” in relation to the Second Rule of Winchester-ese: Don’t pay any attention to what’s actually being said. It’s what’s not being said that’s important.

Although of the three surviving Winchesters, Dean probably spoke the most, Sam was certain he actually said the least of all of them.

Stepping through the mall’s main entrance, Sam found himself gazing up at four stories of glass, metal and consumer opulence, as garishly-colored shop fronts stretched out as far as the eye could see, connected by curving glass escalators with fake palm trees clustered every few feet.

He could feel Dean hesitating behind him, hovering uncomfortably in the automatic doors as way too many bad mall experiences as a kid, and particularly as a teenager, came back to haunt him. Malls were where “normal” kids hung out, Sam remembered Dean telling him once. They weren’t for people like them.

For his part, Sam had always had an easier time of making friends at school than Dean had and didn’t share in his brother’s antisocial aversion to these temples of consumerism.

Sam glanced back, fixing Dean with one of his “well?” stares, until his brother finally made eye contact, shrugged his shoulders like it didn’t bother him, and started to make his way over to the adjacent Information Desk.

The guy behind the counter raked a practiced eye over Dean as he approached, before turning to Sam and performing the same threat assessment. When Dean just stared back at him, deliberately trying to provoke some kind of reaction on the man’s carefully blank face, Sam decided to step into the breach before his brother wound up getting thrown out on his ass.

“Kim Gregory?” he said affably, the information guy merely blinking and raising an eyebrow. “She’s expecting us,” Sam added with his best conciliatory smile.

“Name?” the man demanded mechanically, lifting a telephone receiver to his ear as his fingers poised over the keypad.

Sam felt Dean start to fidget next to him, and didn’t need to look at him to know he’d got that “I’m going to ram that phone down your throat, pal” look on his face right now.

“Winchester,” Sam said quickly. “Sam and Dean Win – ”

“You made it!” a voice in Dean’s ear startled him enough to spin suddenly, eyes coming to rest on a rather stunning-looking black woman in an expensively-tailored dark blue suit and heels that made her almost as tall as he was. Her hair was pulled back into a long, straight ponytail that dangled halfway down her back, and her flawless skin made her seem somehow ageless.

He whistled mentally. Almost old enough to be his mom, sure. But damn…

“Kim Gregory,” the woman said, smiling broadly to reveal perfect white teeth as she held out a hand towards Dean.

He hesitated for a fraction of a second, barely suppressing his most rakish grin, before taking the outstretched hand. “Dean,” he replied, reluctantly releasing Kim’s incredibly firm grip as Sam nudged him out of the way.

“Sam,” Sam introduced himself, an equally bright smile lighting up his face as he took the woman’s hand.

Damn, Dean found himself thinking. Here come the dimples…

Kim released Sam’s hand, a wry smile on her own face as she took a step back from them both, almost as if she was appraising them in return. “Boy,” she said, hands on hips. “Haley wasn’t kidding. You two really do look like you could have been made in a lab!” She nodded approvingly, and Sam raised his eyebrows, uncertain whether that was meant to be an insult or a compliment.

Dean merely snorted. “Haley?” he echoed with a grin. “Haley Collins? She recommended us to you?”

“Uh-huh,” Kim nodded. “She said you guys helped her and her brothers out with a little – uh – problem they had.”

“Not so little,” Sam replied, shuddering at the thought of the wendigo that had dragged Haley’s brother Tommy off to hang in his larder. That thing had made even Sam look short.

“How d’you know Haley?” Dean asked carefully. He’d kept in sporadic contact with the girl since their untimely encounter with tall, dark and disgusting, but she’d not mentioned having recommended them to anyone.

Kim’s smile faltered a little. “I went to school with her mom,” she replied, before adding a little sadly, “After she and her husband passed, I kind of kept in touch with Haley and the boys. Just to make sure they were okay.”

Dean nodded his understanding.

“She was pretty taken with you though,” Kim added, brightening, looking Dean up and down with a wicked glint in her eye. “And that doesn’t happen very often, let me tell you.”

Sam thought he caught a brief glimmer of embarrassment in his brother’s eyes – something else that didn’t happen very often. Huh. Maybe Dean had liked Haley a little more than he’d let on at the time.

Dean regained his composure quickly, easily finding his trademark immodest grin. “Hey, what’s not to like?” he said, spreading his arms wide.

Sam snickered, an evil grin spreading across his face. “That must be because you nearly are thirty years old,” he muttered, echoing their earlier discussion of Dean’s musical tastes.

Dean tossed him a venomous glare. “Who rattled your playpen, junior?” he snapped. “Go back to your crayons, kid, the grown-ups are talking.”

Kim cleared her throat then, as if to remind her guests of her presence, and Sam just smiled at her sheepishly like a naughty schoolboy, while Dean recovered his grin.

“So,” he said, taking a step towards Kim and lowering his voice. “I guess Haley told you what we – uh – do? So what exactly can we help you out with?”

Kim’s brows drew together pensively. “Not here,” she said, glancing briefly over Dean’s shoulder to the automaton behind the Information Desk. “Let’s go for a walk.”

She led them back out into the parking lot, long strides almost making it hard for the Winchesters to keep up with her. Once out into the fresh air, she slowed, eventually coming to a halt next to one of the tall lampposts dotted about the lot, leaning against it as if she suddenly needed the support.

At the look of concern from her guests, she waved them away with a smile. “Don’t worry,” she said lightly. “It’s stress, apparently.” She shook her head. “Like I have anything to be stressed about. Could lose my job by the end of the week if I don’t get this straightened out, but – no pressure, boys.” Her smile didn’t quite make it to her eyes this time.

“Kim – ” Sam began.

“You see this parking lot?” Kim cut him off with a wave of her hand, indicating the vast expanse of asphalt surrounding her. “We’ve been open three months now. This lot should be pretty damn full of enthusiastic shoppers by now.”

Sam took another look around the parking lot. The almost empty parking lot. Come to think of it, they’d gotten a pretty sweet spot considering it was a Saturday. “Is it a security problem?” he asked. “Because I noticed you’ve not got many cameras around – maybe people don’t feel safe…?”

Kim laughed mirthlessly. “Oh, people don’t feel safe alright,” she agreed. “But not because we don’t have much security.” She smiled indulgently at Sam’s frown, voice softening. “That’s the main road through to Lancaster,” she said, indicating the highway which ran the length of one side of the lot. “We don’t put cameras on that side. A lot of Amish use that road.”

“Amish?” Dean echoed.

Sam nodded, suddenly understanding. “Oh, right,” he said. “They have that whole ‘cameras can steal your soul’ thing going on.”

Kim shrugged. “It’s partly that,” she agreed. “Although it has more to do with the worship of idols, graven images, that sort of thing.”

“Graven images?” Dean wasn’t sure he was following this conversation.

“Like false gods?” Sam clarified.

“Yeah, sort of,” Kim said. “But I think it has more to do with pride. As a sin, I mean. The Amish believe that a photograph – or any image in which a person can be recognized – could lead to that person becoming prideful, admiring their own appearance. Essentially, worshiping something other than God – self-worship I guess. Or that’s how it was explained to me. So we try to keep the cameras away from the highway – you know, we don’t want to offend the locals. Even if they don’t shop here.”

Sam nodded. “So if its not security,” he asked. “What’s the problem?”

Kim sighed resignedly, as if talking about it would somehow make it more real. “C’mon,” she said. “I’ll show you.”

***

The first place Kim took them was the food court. “This is where it started,” she said, hand sweeping in an aimless arc around her, indicating various food outlets standing virtually empty and a smattering of customers occupying the tables clustered in the middle of the huge eating area. “We’d been open two days,” she continued to explain, “when a couple of kids – a brother and sister – just collapsed for no reason, right at the table where they were sitting eating donuts with their folks.”

Sam cast Dean a wary glance. “‘Collapsed’?”

Kim nodded. “The only outward sign that there was anything wrong with them was their eyes,” she added, gesturing to her own dark brown orbs. “It was like something sucked the color right out of them…”

Sam’s own color drained visibly. “Black?” he asked quickly, immediately wary of demonic possession.

“No,” Kim shook her head. “Grey. Like – like the irises were all washed out.”

“That is weird,” Dean muttered.

“That’s why Haley suggested I give you guys a call,” she said.

Sam glanced over at Dean. “Yeah, weird’s pretty much our business,” he agreed. Then, “So what did the doctors have to say?”

“Some form of catatonia,” Kim explained. “They were able to move – to walk, to eat, to sleep. But it was as if – well, as if no one was home.” She tapped her temple. “Up here. Like they were totally unaware of their surroundings.”

“And the doctors didn’t find a cause?” Sam asked.

“No,” Kim replied. “They checked the mall for the usual things – contaminants, problems with the ventilation and air conditioning – but came up empty. Three days later, four more people went down with it.”

“All here?” Dean asked, gesturing towards the food court.

Kim shook her head. “No. In different places all over the mall. At different times of the day. By the end of the week, eight people had been affected.” She sighed, dropping into one of the metal chairs surrounding a blue café-style table that wobbled when she leaned on it. She indicated for the Winchesters to sit, which they did, before she continued. “That’s when the CDC were called in. Closed us down for a week. Last day they were here, one of their own people went down with the thing, and she was wearing a full Hazmat suit at the time.”

Dean whistled. “And they didn’t find anything?”

“No virus? No pathogens?” Sam added.

“Not a thing,” Kim confirmed. “The whole place is as clean as a whistle. Could eat your dinner off the floor. Although I wouldn’t recommend it.” She sighed again, an occurrence which she seemed more than accustomed to of late. “Our owners petitioned for us to be re-opened, and within a day, another – another – ” she glanced down at her fingernails, taking a breath before continuing. “Another man was struck down. Off-duty cop.”

“How many?” Sam asked slowly, not entirely sure he wanted to know the answer.

Kim met his questioning gaze across the table, eyes watery. “Thirty-seven,” she said, shaking her head.

Dean’s eyebrows almost made it all the way up to his hairline. “Thirty-seven?” he echoed incredulously.

Kim nodded. “They’re going to shut us down if we don’t figure out what’s going on,” she told them. “I’ve been given until next Friday.” Another sigh, and she spread her hands across the tabletop absently. “But in the meantime, there are almost forty people languishing away in waking comas. Some of them are in the hospital, others were taken home by their families. The doctors can’t really do anything for them anyway, so they figured at least if they were somewhere familiar, it might help… But that’s almost forty families that have… that have lost someone…” She trailed off, rubbing her hand across her forehead.

“When was the last victim… affected?” Sam asked then, fighting the sudden urge to touch the hand Kim still had spread across the table. He knew he was a sucker for a damsel in distress, but this was more than that. This was a strong woman in trouble, real trouble, not some little chick with a cat stuck up a tree. There were lives at stake here, and, Sam sensed, maybe something else. Something personal. Like Kim had more than just her job on the line.

This was a woman who really needed their help.

Kim looked up at him slowly. “Yesterday,” she replied. “Fifty-six-year-old grandmother taking her twelve-year-old granddaughter shopping.”

Dean glanced briefly at Sam. “Can we see where it happened?”

***

Sam glanced around Little Princesses, the girls’ clothing store where Lizzie Baker had met – whatever it was she’d met, not entirely sure what Dean thought they might be able to find here that the cops or mall security had missed.

“And she was standing right here?” Dean was asking the perky little red-headed sales girl who had been following them around the store for the last five minutes like an over-excited puppy.

“Uh-huh, right where you’re standing,” she confirmed, auburn curls springing up and down as she fairly bounced on the balls of her feet. “It was the little kid I felt kinda sorry for,” she added. “I mean, sure, she was a little pain in the a…in the tushie,” she giggled nervously, “but aren’t they all at that age? Poor kid. Went on and on about seeing rainbows…”

“Was that recording?” Dean interrupted, pointing to the security camera in the corner of the store.

“Twenty four hours a day,” Kim replied. “It’s all recorded straight onto hard disk. The cops viewed it yesterday though…”

“Can we take a look?” Sam asked.

Kim shrugged. “Sure. But I don’t think you’ll find anything. Not if the cops didn’t.”

Dean cast Sam a knowing glance. “Cops aren’t looking for the sort of thing we’re looking for.”

Kim looked between the two of them uncertainly, chewing her lip. “Look,” she said eventually. “You know I wouldn’t have called you guys if I wasn’t desperate. I don’t really believe in…” she trailed off, eyes darting nervously to the red-head, who was still hanging on their every word.

“You know, if you’re trying to flatter us,” Dean said with a lopsided smile, “you really need to work on your sales pitch. Bad enough we’re the first thing that comes to mind when you mention the word “weird” to Haley, and now it’s ‘don’t call them unless you’re really desperate…’?” He shook his head. “Weird and Desperate. They ever turn the story of our lives into a Movie of the Week, I think we got a title right there…”

Kim smiled grudgingly at Dean’s attempt to lighten the mood. “Okay, point taken,” she said. “Come on. I’ll show you the CCTV Control Room.”

***

Dean whistled appreciatively as he and Sam followed Kim into a moderately-sized office crammed wall to wall with TV monitors.

They were in the bowels of the mall now, having been led down to the CCTV Control Room via a maze of identically-painted grey corridors that were a murky contrast to the bright airy malls above them.

The room they now found themselves in held only three chairs, two of which were occupied by men dressed in uniforms barely distinguishable in color from the walls around them. Both stared intently at the monitors stacked up in front of them, occasionally zooming in, or re-focusing one of the camera angles.

The man farther away, a big bulky bear of a man whose thick black hair seemed barely contained by the regulation grey ball cap perched on top of his head, gently caressed a slider control with the fingers of one hand. The picture on the monitor nearest to him zoomed in on a couple of kids ineffectually attempting to tag the wall outside of an electronics store.

Pushing the button on the side of a desk-mounted radio, the camera operator muttered, “Joe, Mall Three, east corridor. Outside Gadgets and Gizmos. Couple of taggers. Both Caucasian males, aged approximately fourteen to sixteen. The first one’s wearing a Green Day t-shirt, the other a Phillies shirt. You copy?”

“Copy that, Control,” a disembodied voice crackled out of the radio, and within seconds a burly security guy appeared on the monitor, the two would-be taggers easily dealt with.

The CCTV guy followed their progress across several of the monitors, as the two kids were unceremoniously dumped out into the parking lot, while Joe the security guard headed hurriedly back inside, having caught sight of the buxom blonde leaning suggestively over the smoothie stand by the door.

“Quite an operation you got here,” Dean commented, eyes roving over the bank of monitors, trying not to stare at the smoothie girl as he scrutinized the various views of what appeared to be every corner of the mall.

Kim didn’t reply at first, merely shook her head dejectedly. “Supposed to keep everyone safe,” she muttered at length. As if mentally shaking herself, she indicated the two security guys. “Tony Lozano,” she said, the big guy sitting farther away curtly bobbing his head. “Howard Grumnik.”

The guard sitting closer didn’t look up, eyes resolutely fixed to the screens in front of him. He was a mousy kind of man, small and slightly built, with a pointed face and beady dark eyes that reflected the light from the monitors so eerily it was all Sam could do not to shudder. Reminded him too much of…other things.

“This is Sam and Dean Winchester,” Kim continued, not batting an eye at the second guard’s lack of response. “They’re – uh – ”

“Consultants,” Sam supplied helpfully, tearing his gaze away from Grumnik to smile at Lozano.

The bigger guard raised a thick eyebrow. “Oh yeah?” he said. “What do you consult on?”

The Winchesters exchanged a look.

“Depends who’s paying,” Dean replied shortly, grinning before turning his attention back to the monitors.

Lozano snorted, before Kim cut in, “Howie, you wanna bring up the Little Princesses footage?”

Grumnik’s eyes slid sideways, but he didn’t look at Kim, fingers playing deftly with the controls in front of him. “Cops already looked at it,” he commented, the monitor in front of him splitting into four images, one of the inside of the store, while the others showed the doorway and the mall outside. “I can de-multiplex the images if you’d like…” he added, clearly hoping to impress the new arrivals with his command of technical lingo.

Dean merely nodded. “Yeah, just display the in-store feed,” he instructed absently, leaning over Grumnik’s shoulder as Sam stared at him pointedly. Feeling his brother’s eyes on him, Dean met Sam’s inquisitive gaze with a shrug. “What?” he asked.

Sam just shook his head. “Nothing.” So Dean apparently had been paying attention all the times he’d grumbled about Sam watching Law and Order…

Grumnik’s beady eyes had settled on Dean while the young man’s attention was elsewhere, but as Dean glanced back at him, he abruptly averted his gaze to the control board. “Here,” he said quietly, as three of the images on the monitor disappeared, while the view of the inside of the store expanded to fill the screen.

Sam and Dean watched as the camera honed in on a middle-aged lady who was standing with her back to the lens, obviously chatting to the little blonde girl hovering over the jewelry display.

“This is in real-time?” Dean asked, eyeing the time stamp at the bottom of the screen.

Grumnik’s head bobbed just once.

The little girl turned then, just as the picture flared and the whole screen went completely white for a second before the image of the store came slowly back into focus. The woman was now collapsed on the floor, a crowd of anxious shoppers almost obscuring her from the camera’s view.

“What was that?” Sam asked, frowning.

“We think it’s a camera malfunction,” Kim replied. “Happened every time someone collapsed, which was why we thought at first that all of this was being caused by some kind of electro-magnetic interference…”

“An EMP would affect the camera,” Dean agreed. “But it shouldn’t affect the person. Not to this degree.” He cocked his head and frowned at the camera feed, as Sam threw him another surprised look. “Can you play it again?” he asked Grumnik, oblivious to his brother’s scrutiny. “Frame by frame this time?”

Grumnik frowned. “Ms. Gregory – ” he began to whine.

“C’mon, Howie,” Lozano put in suddenly. “We talked about sharing your toys, right?”

Grumnik didn’t even look at his colleague, instead pushing a few buttons much harder than Dean thought was strictly necessary while grumbling, “It’s Howard.”

Dean just managed to catch himself before a whiney It’s Sam! escaped his lips, the look on his brother’s face convincing him it might not be such a great idea to be mimicking him in present company.

“Here,” Grumnik said grudgingly, bottom lip stuck out like a petulant six-year-old, as the picture returned to its original time stamp.

“Thanks, Howie,” Dean said, unable to resist getting a rise out of the little security guard.

Sam frowned at the sudden tautness in Grumnik’s shoulders and the grimace on his face. One of these days, Dean was going to get a little too sarcastic with the wrong person…

The image moved jerkily on the security monitor, as Dean watched the frame by frame replay intently. As the white flare began to dissipate, Dean suddenly jabbed his finger at the screen. “There,” he said. “Can you freeze that?”

The image stopped accordingly, and Sam squinted, trying to see what Dean was so interested in.

“The little girl kept talking about rainbows, right?” Dean said, glancing at Kim for confirmation.

“Uh – yeah,” she agreed. “I guess.”

“Look at that.” Dean indicated a tiny sliver of light arcing across the very bottom of the screen. Light that looked as if it had been shone through a prism.

Rainbows.

Sam moved closer to the monitor. “Part of the camera flare?” he suggested.

“Not if the kid saw it too,” Dean observed.

Kim also moved closer to the screen. “What the hell is that?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Dean replied honestly, biting his lip. “But it might help if I could see the rest of the footage…Of the other victims?”

Kim, still staring at the little rainbow at the bottom of the screen in front of her, nodded slowly. “Sure,” she agreed. “Howie…?”

“I have maintenance rounds,” Grumnik replied shortly, before Kim could even ask. “And my shift ends at five.”

Lozano snorted again. “Sure, Howie,” he said. “Like you ever go home…” He glanced over at Dean then, not expanding on what he meant by his last comment, merely meeting Grumnik’s narrow-eyed glance innocently. “It’s okay, kid,” he said, ignoring his colleague. “I’ll get you the footage.”

Dean nodded his thanks.

“In the meantime,” Sam said, stuffing his hands into his pockets as he watched Grumnik scuttle off out of the room, over-sized toolkit in hand. “I think I’m gonna head to the local library – check out the history of the area.” He shrugged. “You know. Just in case.”

Dean raised an eyebrow. “Just like old times,” he observed, slipping into Grumnik’s vacated seat.

Sam frowned. “How so?”

“You heading off to the library while I sit and watch TV,” Dean replied with an impish grin.

Sam shook his head, aiming his next comment at Lozano. “Don’t let him near the shopping channels.”

 

***

Two incredibly tedious hours later, Dean was so fed up of staring at CCTV monitors that he figured calling Sam and pretending to be interested in his geek research might actually be a welcome diversion.

“So, are we sitting on an ancient Native American burial ground or what?” he asked in response to Sam’s initial, “Hello?”

Sam’s frustrated sigh seemed to make Dean’s cell phone vibrate. “Not that I can see,” he replied deflatedly, his faith in the Power of the Library for once seemingly misplaced.

“Okay,” Dean replied, nodding to Lozano as he re-entered the room with two cups of coffee.

As the Control Room door swung to a close behind the big security guard, Dean’s eyes traveled idly to the corridor outside, where Howie Grumnik was hurriedly scuttling past – in the opposite direction to the exit and an hour after his shift was supposed to have ended.

“So,” Dean continued his conversation with Sam, mentally filing away his observation for future investigation. “The mall’s built on the site of a grizzly mass murder…”

“Nope.”

“Natural disaster?”

“Nope.”

“Fire? Flood? Pet cemetery?”

“Nope. Nope. And nope.”

“Huh.”

“Dean, from what I can tell, the site of the Major Oak Mall has been nothing more exciting than a poultry farm.”

“Pissed off chicken spirits out for bloody revenge?”

“Dean – ”

“They’re gonna peck us all to death!”

“Dean!”

“Look out, Colonel Sanders!”

“DEAN!”

“I know,” Dean sighed, boredom obvious in his tone. “Alright. So I’m almost done here. How about you come pick me up in – say – twenty minutes?”

“Yeah, okay,” Sam agreed. “The library’s about to close anyway.” There was a pause, before he added, “So you think maybe Haley was wrong to recommend us for this one?”

“I dunno,” Dean replied slowly, eyeing one of the monitors as Howie Grumnik’s retreating form came shuffling into the frame. “Maybe. But I did find weird color flares – rainbows – on all of the security footage just as the victims did – whatever they did…” He sat up straighter, watching as Grumnik glanced around furtively before entering a door just out of the security camera’s range. “Sam, listen,” he muttered into the phone. “I gotta call you back. Something I need to check out…” He didn’t even wait for Sam’s puzzled reply before slowly closing his cell phone and glancing over at Lozano.

The security guy was absently thumbing through the sports section as he sipped at his coffee, and the thought entered Dean’s head that maybe that’s what Grumnik had been counting on as he snuck past the last of the security cameras and into – wherever he’d gone.

“So Tony,” Dean said, picking up his own coffee and taking a sip. “You take your break at this time every day?”

Lozano glanced up at him quizzically. “Well – yeah,” he said. “When I’m on this shift. Why?”

Dean shook his head and shrugged. “No reason,” he replied, feigning innocence. “You always work with Howie?”

Lozano shrugged. “Let’s just say our orbits collide more often than not,” he said. “No-one actually works with Howie… He’s kind of a law unto himself.”

Dean nodded, keeping his tone deliberately neutral. “So what you said before. About him never going home…?”

Lozano actually laughed at that. “Standing joke around here,” he explained. “Always hours early for his shift…Like he’s been here all night or something.”

“Right,” Dean said, matching Lozano’s laugh with a casual one of his own, before taking another sip of his coffee and smoothly changing topic. “Listen, I’m done here. Just got a couple more things to check out, then I’m calling it a day.”

Lozano nodded. “Okay,” he said, obviously struggling with how to phrase what he wanted to say next. “Well,” he managed eventually. “I hope you guys have more luck figuring out what’s going on here than we did.”

Dean glanced sideways at the monitor where Grumnik had briefly appeared before agreeing, “Yeah, me too.”

Taking a last sip of his coffee, Dean exited the Control Room, hovering on the other side of the door for a couple of seconds, until, like Grumnik, he was pretty sure he could count on Lozano having gone back to scrutinizing his newspaper before he headed down the dingy corridor in the direction the mousy security guard had taken.

Most of the heavy metal doors at the far end of the hall were festooned with yellow and black tape, and big notices declaring, “This area under construction. No unauthorized entry.” The door Grumnik had entered was no exception, and Dean vaguely remembered Kim having mentioned something about the finishing touches of construction work having been put on hold until Major Oak Mall’s little “problem” had been resolved.

Pushing the door gingerly, Dean wasn’t a bit surprised when it didn’t yield to his touch, pulling out his lock picking kit with a sigh and a nervous glance at the security camera.

Although Dean had always been better at handcuffs, Sam was faster with locks, so he silently prayed Lozano’s interest in the Phillies held out a little longer.

Eventually, the lock made a satisfying “click” and the door swung invitingly open, revealing beyond it another grey corridor complete with eerie yellow construction lights and partially completed ceiling panels, some of which dangled dangerously from the metal air conditioning conduits above.

Although this section of the mall was clearly not finished, Dean got the distinct impression that no construction had gone on here in a while, the thick layer of dust covering the floor barely disturbed, save for what appeared to be a well-trodden path to the door on his right, the first in a series which were all covered with the same black and yellow tape.

Following the dusty pathway, Dean pushed against the nearest door, surprised when it offered no resistance. Instinctively reaching for the handgun tucked in the back of his jeans, he cautiously passed through the doorway and into a room of similar size to the CCTV Control Room.

And of almost identical appearance.

Dean fought the urge to whistle again, acutely aware that the room’s single chair was empty, which meant Grumnik could be anywhere.

Laid out in front of the chair, exactly as in the Control Room, was a bank of about thirty TV monitors. But unlike the professional, uniform layout of that equipment, these were all different sizes, shapes, brands and colors, an odd mish-mash of salvaged hardware strung together with sheaves of dangling, multicolored wires, like some freakish avant-garde sculpture. Some of the monitors were tipped at crazy angles, the wiring clearly amateurish and, Dean thought, probably nowhere near up to safety code, while the control panel set out in front looked like something copied from a low budget sci-fi movie, the front of a coffee maker clearly visible next to the slider switches purloined from an ancient eight-track tape recorder.

While the would-be gadget geek in him could only admire the builder’s ingenuity, Dean’s main focus was drawn to the images flickering on the monitors themselves.

Taking a step closer, he squinted at one of the screens, not entirely sure he believed what he was seeing.

It wasn’t the ridiculously bright sunshine filtering through the rose-tinted windows of the chocolate-box-perfect flower shop that drew Dean’s attention. It was the woman standing behind the counter.

Lizzie Baker.

Alive and well and apparently going about her everyday business.

Blinking, Dean reminded himself that Lizzie Baker was, in fact, lingering in a waking coma in the home of her son in West Nottingham.

But on the monitor in front of him, Lizzie Baker was clearly selling flowers to a young woman who looked suspiciously like Lisa Flynn, the CDC tech who had collapsed whilst wearing full Hazmat gear.

Eyes slowly roaming the other monitors, Dean came to the conclusion that either he was completely delusional, or he’d spent way too much time staring at CCTV monitors today.

Because if neither of those options were the case, he had absolutely no plausible explanation for what he was looking at.

Ranged before him, on every TV monitor in the whole rickety structure, was a different image of a town so picture perfect Dean was pretty sure he was getting cavities just looking at it; a town where people waved to each other on the street, smiled at each other, sat on sunny benches in the town square eating lunch out of brown paper bags.

A town which seemed to have a security camera in every store, every house, every building, and on every street corner.

A town exclusively inhabited by the people who had collapsed at Major Oak Mall.

“You shouldn’t have seen that.”

Dean turned sharply at the sound of the low, threatening voice.

Then all he saw were rainbows.

 

 

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