The wind threw raindrops hard as pebbles against the tall French doors. Ethan sat up with a gasp, covers held up close under his chin. He stared out the windows at the thrashing tree, the security light outside making shadows fall across his face like a witch's fingers.
Ethan whimpered, almost yelled for Daddy. But if he yelled for his Daddy, his Mommy would hear too, and she got awful mad at him for getting up once he was supposed to be asleep.
Another gust of rain hit the windows, louder this time, the raindrops mixed with hail. Ethan squeaked and jumped out of bed, away from the window and the ugly shadows. He backed up until he bumped into Ace's nose.
"I'm not scared," he told the rocking horse. "Are you scared?"
The horse swayed on its rockers, seeming to nod.
"Don' be scared. There's nothin' in the dark that ain't there in the light. That's what Mommy says." Ethan threw his arms around the wooden neck and hid his face against the thick, musty horsehair of Ace's mane as another gust of wind shook the windows.
Ace's chin rubbed against his shoulder. Ethan looked up into a glinting amber glass eye. "Wanna go for a ride, Ace? Then you won't be scared!"
The rocking horse swayed twice. Ethan pulled his step-stool closer to the rocker bow. He held onto Ace's saddle, and put his foot up into the stirrup, just like Daddy showed him. Ethan grinned as he settled himself into the saddle and lifted Ace's reins. "Giddy-up, Ace! Let's go to
The horse began to sway as Ethan leaned forward and back. Slow at first, then faster and faster until the rounded ends of the rockers drummed against the floor bangbang bangbang bangbangbangbangbangbang.
Ethan laughed and bounced his heels against Ace's wooden sides. "Faster! Faster!"
The French doors blew open with a bang all their own. Hailstones rattled across the floor with a noise like tiny hoof beats.
Gwen groaned and glanced up at the noisy ceiling. "Charlie, what's he up to now?"
Her husband patted her thigh. "I'll go check on him."
"You're too lenient," Gwen sighed. "He knows he can give you the big eyes and poochy lip and you'll pat him on the head and let him up for another half-hour."
"He's only five, baby," Charlie chuckled. "He's hardly got a crushing class schedule in kindergarten."
"You're not the one who has to get him up and ready in time to catch the bus," she grumbled.
"Ok, we'll present a united front," Charlie smiled as he took her hand and playfully hauled her up off the sofa.
"Geez, I'm going to have to pad the ends of those rockers!" he said as the noise level only increased as they went up the stairs.
"The floor's already ruined by that monstrosity, why bother?"
They paused on the landing, when all went quiet and still again. "He heard us coming," Charlie whispered, and Gwen stifled a giggle.
He pushed open the door to his son's room. "Ethan? You know you're not supposed to ride Ace without one of—"
Charlie's admonishment ended in a gasp. The rocking horse was gone. Ethan's bed was empty. He slapped on the light. "Ethan?
Gwen ran around to the other side of the small bed. "Ethan?"
She dropped to her knees to look under it. Nothing was there but a half-transformed Transformer.
"Ethan? Come out this minute!" Charlie called, his voice stern as he opened the closet door.
Dean unfolded the morning paper he'd taken from the rack by the diner's door. "Oh man, not another one," he groaned.
"Another what?" Sam glanced up from his laptop.
"Missing kid," Dean answered, scanning the story.
"Probably a custody kidnapping," Sam grimaced, eyes back on the screen. "Happens all the time.
"Yeah, that’s bad enough, but I hope that's all it is," Dean mumbled, scanning the story as he spoke. He straightened.
Sam looked up again. "What?"
"Five year old kid disappears out of a second-floor room, with all the windows and doors locked. Parents were downstairs, swears he'd have gone by them if he snuck out." Dean handed him the newspaper.
"Huh. That is odd." Sam read the story quickly. "So's this. The only thing out of place is a missing rocking horse."
"Who the hell would snatch a kid and their rocking horse?"
"Could be a smoke-screen for a murder," Sam shrugged and handed the paper back. "That happens almost as often as custody grabs."
"You're a golden ray of sunshine this morning, Sammy."
The waitress stepped up with their food, so Dean laid the paper aside, Sam tucked his computer back into his bag, and all conversation was shelved for the next several minutes. Halfway through his waffles, Dean dropped his fork and dove across the table to snatch up Sam's messenger bag.
Sam barely got his omelet out of the way in time to keep Dean's chest out of it. "What the heck's gotten into you?"
Dean hauled the messenger bag across the table, then stuffed his mouth with most of a waffle in one bite. "Thought of somethin', wanna check it out," he mumbled around it, and shoved his plate aside.
That certainly got Sam's attention. "Thought of what?"
Dean pulled Sam's laptop out and waved a hand as if Sam's question was a circling fly. "Hang on. Eat your eggs before they get cold."
"What are you searching for?" Sam pulled his phone out of his pocket. "I'll look too."
"Kids who went missing along with their rocking horses."
Sam keyed it in, even as his eyebrows rose. "You're kidding. It's happened before?"
"Yeah, at least once. In the teens or twenties, I think." Dean tapped at the keyboard. "I remember reading about it, dang, back in junior high, I think. One of those books about unsolved crimes, like the Black Dahlia murder and Hoffa. Whoa…. "
"Yeah." Sam squinted at his phone, scrolled down the page. "That many?"
"Looks like it. Four in the twenties and early thirties. One in the late forties. Nothing in the fifties. Two in 1967, one case in 1985. Then nothing till little Ethan Bruner last night."
"There's no pattern to it, on first glance anyway," Sam said.
"Other than kids and rocking horses, no," Dean agreed.
"Not all in the same city either, or even the same county," Sam mused, scrolling through the pages again.
"But not spread out across the country, either. All of 'em were in
Sam dropped his phone into his pocket and reached for his computer bag. "Angus and Young, or Tyler and Perry?"
"Tyler and Perry." Dean said as he headed for the door. "Walk this way."
Sam chuckled, swung the bag onto his shoulder and did.
"Uh oh," Sam muttered as they pulled up to the curb to see two other men wearing generic dark suits get out of a Ford sedan that was as generically nondescript.
"Damn, that's quick. Usually takes the Feds longer to get in gear." Dean checked his pockets and got out too. They needed to blow off these mooks before the real Agents got to the door and screwed everything up.
"But this is a child abduction case."
"They're probably part of a CARD team. Child Abduction Rapid Deployment. The FBI started the program up around 2005."
"Shit. I mean, hooray they're finally doing that, but it makes this hunt more complicated by a power of ten," Dean muttered under his breath as they closed the distance to the other "agents."
"If they're from Phillie, we're from
"Gotcha. You lead," Dean breathed and then they both put on their professional game faces.
Scamming the Feds was always stressful enough to cause a major deodorant fail, and these two were more determined to staying on target than most. No wonder, with them specializing in abducted kids and all. You want friggin' human pitbulls on those kinds of cases.
But after a tense few moments of double-teamed assertive
"We can mark
"Me, I vote we stay out of the entire state after this one, for life," Dean replied. "Missing kids and messing with the Feds? That's enough to put us in ugly orange jumpsuits for the rest of our sorry lives."
They went up the walk, and Dean reached for the polished brass knocker on the door. It swung open after the second knock, so fast it almost yanked the knocker out of Dean's hand. The man who opened it looked like nine miles of bad road.
"Charles Bruner?" Sam asked.
"Yes?" the man answered.
"Mr. Bruner, I'm Agent Tyler and this is Agent Perry, FBI," Sam informed him, as he and Dean did their synchronized badge flash. "We'd like to speak to you and your wife about Ethan's disappearance."
"Thank God," the man breathed. "Come in, Agents, please…." He stepped aside and led them into the living room. "The police told us the FBI might get involved because Ethan is so young, but they weren't sure when you'd arrive. Please, sit down."
Charles didn't wait for them to take him up on it. He dropped into a chair as if his knees gave out from under him.
"We try to move quickly in these types of investigations," Sam assured him.
"Is Mrs. Bruner available?" Dean asked. "It might be less upsetting to question you both at the same time."
"We realize how difficult this must be," Sam added.
Bruner's head jerked up and his eyes narrowed. "Do you? Do you have children, Agents?"
"No sir," Sam answered softly. Dean just shook his head.
"Then you have no idea, gentlemen. None." Charles lurched back onto his feet. "I'll go get Gwen."
When he left the room, Dean and Sam exchanged looks. Deception was part of the job description, but at times like this? The job sucked.
A scant couple of minutes later, Charles came back, his arm around a slender woman who looked even more distraught that he did. They sat down, squeezed into the same wide chair, holding hands so tightly their knuckles were white.
"What do you want to know, Agents?" Gwen asked, her voice a hoarse whisper. "We told the police everything."
"They didn't believe us," Charles broke in, his voice tight. "It sounds crazy, but we're not lying—we wouldn't do anything to hurt Ethan!"
"We just want him back," Gwen moaned, her worn voice breaking on a breathy sob.
"I'm sure you do," Sam said in his most soothing tone as he pulled a notepad out of his pocket. "We're here to do all that we can to bring Ethan home."
"Just start at the beginning," Dean urged. "Don't leave anything out, no matter what. Even a bad feeling could be an important clue."
In fits and starts, sometimes talking over one another, sometimes taking turns when the other would break down, the Bruners told the story of Ethan's disappearance. It was surely no comfort to the frantic parents when the recitation was over and they went upstairs to check out Ethan's room, but Sam and Dean exchanged sighs of relief when the bedroom door closed between them and the Bruners.
They combed the room and pretty much came up with zilch. No sulphur, no EMFs, no EVPs, no hex bags, no cold spots. Nothing outside that the local cops missed. Nothing at all but a mood of gloom and dread that followed them right out of the house.
"I dunno, Sammy," Dean said, looking up at the Bruner's house as he got back into the car. "Nothing in there adds up. The windows have safety latches that won't let 'em raise more than a few inches, and the balcony doors are locked with a double-cylinder deadbolt. They said Ethan didn't know where they kept the keys."
He pulled out as Sam frowned down at the photograph in his hands. A little blond boy in glasses and wearing a cowboy hat four sizes too big grinned out at him, perched on an antique rocking horse the size of a large pony. "Even if someone outside picked the lock, how could they have gotten not only Ethan down from the outside, but this freakin' horse, too? The thing must weigh more than a hundred pounds and the Bruners said it was just seconds from the time the noises stopped till they came into his room."
"No tracks of any kind either," Dean said, shaking his head. "Rain could have erased them pretty quick, though."
"Footprints yeah, but somebody would have had to use a ladder, and maybe even a truck to pull this off. That would have torn the heck out of that wet lawn."
"I'm stumped," Dean admitted. "So… we start at the beginning."
"The abductions in the twenties?" Sam asked.
Dean nodded. "The historical society if there is one, or the newspaper morgue. There's gotta be some kind of connection."
"Certainly not a human kidnapper, not over eighty-seven years."
"Nope, but what do we know of that snatches kids and lives that long?" Dean asked.
Sam leaned back, eyes narrowing. "Raw-heads, for one."
Dean shook his head. "Too sophisticated for those bottom-feeders."
"Yeah, could be…." Dean agreed. "But why snatch kids? Shifters tend to go after adults, total identity theft. Where's the advantage in cloning a kid?"
Sam agreed with a nod and a nonverbal grunt. His forehead drew up into tighter pleats. "Are we making the right call, putting the FBI off the trail here?"
"Huh?" Dean pulled to the curb and turned to look at his brother. "What do you mean? Of course we are."
"I'm not so sure," Sam murmured and shook his head. "We're not certain this is anything supernatural. The last case that might be connected to Ethan's snatch is more than twenty years cold. What if this is criminal abduction or child abuse or something? We could be fubarring the investigation so badly that Ethan might never be found."
"It's our kind of deal," Dean assured him. "I feel it in my gut. Besides, it wasn't just that case in '85. There were seven before it."
"Yeah, with ten and twenty years between some of them, too." Sam rubbed a knuckle against his lips.
"We've ganked things before that had longer quiet cycles," Dean pointed out. "Look, I get it. We're dealing with a really cute little kid here. I want to find him alive and in one piece as much as you do. Ethan's more at risk if we walk away from this than if we stick with it—even if it's some pure human molester that's snatched him. You know the Feds are worse than useless taking down anything that's on our menu."
"But we can track and deal with a human monster, just like any other kind," Sam finished for him. "I know that."
"Then why the sudden attack of emo angst?" Dean asked, eyebrow lifting.
That Sam hadn't reacted with some pissy comeback made Dean feel a little angst himself. "We've walked into some damn hairy situations blind before and made it out ok."
"Yeah, but usually by this point we can put a name to what we're after, even if we don't know how to take it down."
"Nothin' new under the sun, Sammy," Dean shrugged and pulled back onto the street. "Whatever this thing is, it's not freakin' Cthulhu. Someone's fought it before."
"If it was Cthulhu, at least we'd know what we were dealing with," Sam mumbled under his breath.
Dean reached over and turned up Stevie Ray Vaughan. When Sam was in that kind of a funk, might as well save your breath and let the mood rain out on its own.