Sam's head whipped round just in time to see a woman emerging swiftly from the darkness.
Missing a shoe, she ran in a frantic, limping hop past him. Arms flailing, her indeterminately dark hair flying; she was clearly in a state of high distress: her breathless screams splitting the thick night air as she repeatedly turned to look behind her with wide eyes glazed with terror.
She had run straight past Sam, without even noticing his presence, however, by the time she reached Dean a little further along the deserted walkway, he had stepped out into the middle of the path on hearing the furore and she cannoned straight into his solid form.
"Hey, hey, steady lady, what's wrong?"
She struggled furiously, wailing incoherently, but he held her fast in a firm but gentle grip.
"Let me GO," she writhed and tugged, shrieking as she desperately tried to pull away from this unknown man who was holding her, keeping her from escaping. Seeing her very real distress, Dean reluctantly loosened his grip without actually letting go.
"You're okay, you're safe with us," he murmured, adopting his most soothing tone and looking over the top of her head at Sam who stood staring at the scene in confused dismay.
This was one contingency they hadn't discussed.
"A man, a man, tried to hurt me, h-had a knife; help me …" she sobbed.
"This man, where did he go?" Dean asked urgently.
She looked up into his face and seemingly satisfied he was genuine, she pointed back past Sam; "that w-way," she stammered, "back away from the river, up towards the Mermaid Theatre," she paused as if to compose herself; "he grabbed me and he was trying to drag me down here, but I stamped on his foot, and managed to get away."
Her face, already grey-streaked with mascara, crumpled and the tears began to flow again; "he was going to kill me," she sobbed.
Dean's heart pounded as the urgency of the situation gripped him. This creep was on the move, a freakin' big hole had been blown in all their great plans by this poor woman, and every second he spent standing here playing mom was a second wasted.
He heard Cyril's laboured steps running up behind him and turned, trying to guide the terrified woman towards the older man.
"Hey, stay with my friend here, he's a taxi driver, he can take you home," Dean tried to reassure; "me an' my brother are gonna go after this bastard."
Her grip tightened around Dean's wrist and she grabbed a fistful of his shirtfront, shaking her head frantically. This man she had finally decided to trust was suddenly going to abandon her and leave her with a complete stranger?
Dean realised reluctantly that he was going to spend so long arguing and reasoning with this woman, the moment for action would be gone.
He glanced at Sam and shrugged helplessly. Taking his meaning straight away, Sam nodded, turning to run in the direction she had pointed.
"Cyril, go with him," Dean commanded, unwilling to allow Sam to face the evil creature alone.
He wished with all his might that he had Sam's back, not Cyril, but the frightened woman was clinging to him like a second skin, and he couldn't find it within himself to shirk his duty to protect her.
Slipping the knife from the back of his jeans, he pressed it into Cyril's hand; "you'll need this," he whispered, and watched the older man recede into the darkness after his brother.
He wrapped his arms around the woman's shoulders and made comforting noises which masked a deep sigh. He hoped and prayed that this whole fiasco hadn't given the Ripper the chance to slip away and find another victim. What if Cyril had been wrong? What if this wasn't where he planned to kill? The sheer magnitude of what they were trying to do was crushing. Had they lost their chance? Had they messed up?
Dean's head spun with the sudden weight of fears and concerns that whirled around his mind.
Over-riding them all was his fear for Sam.
He looked down as he heard the shaky voice muffled into his chest.
"S'okay," he replied softly, unwrapping his arms to allow the woman to step back and look up at him.
Dean reflected that under very different circumstances he would welcome a hug, probably quite a bit more, from this woman; long dark hair, high cheekbones (mascara streaks notwithstanding), soft brown eyes. Yes, nice face, shame about the circumstances ...
"You saved my life," she cleared her throat modestly as she spoke, "that man was going to kill me."
Dean shook his head; "you're okay now;" he smiled weakly, "when my friend gets back, he'll take you home in his taxi."
She nodded, wiping the grey smears across her cheeks with the heel of her hand, a shaky smile crossed her pale face.
"I don't think he will, though."
Dean looked down at the face beside him, "huh?"
The weak smile on her face twisted into a smirk; "I don't think he will be taking me home; I think he'll be far too busy," she whispered.
Dean barely had time to ponder on her meaning when a well-aimed knee struck him with vicious force square in the groin.
He folded bonelessly, clutching himself and dropping helplessly to his knees with a hoarse yelp as shock and pain squeezed all the air out of his lungs.
Looking up through a bug-eyed haze of tears, he saw the woman's soft brown eyes suddenly glimmering cold and hard, as black and soulless as the night sky.
A cold hand gripped him by the throat and, with the unnatural strength of a demon, pulled him up to something approaching as much of a standing position as his rubber-kneed legs would allow.
Gasping and retching, he clawed helplessly at his constricted throat, still trembling from the intense pain of his battered crotch.
"Do you really think I'm that stupid?" it asked, sneering from behind the poor woman's face at the choking, breathless figure; "do you really think I didn't imagine that some damn hunter wouldn't have worked out the pattern?"
"I've been watching you watching out for me all evening; it's been rather entertaining."
It tightened it's grip, still ensuring it was just not quite tight enough to kill - straight away - and Dean began to gape, goldfish-like for air.
"The thing is, you hunters are so pathetically predictable, I knew the last thing you'd expect was some panic-stricken little bint begging for your help."
The smirk widened; "oh help me, help me, my big handsome hero hunter," it squealed mockingly, turning on the tears; "I knew you three saps couldn't resist."
Dean could feel his legs beginning to buckle; he tried to respond, but a combination of pain and lack of oxygen had robbed him of his voice.
"She was a great little actress, this meat suit, just what I needed," the demon continued; "did a couple of minor stints at the National Theatre, but never did get her big break;" it shrugged in mock regret; "never will now."
It took a step forward, forcing Dean to stagger backwards guided by the hand that still clutched him with tormentor's force around his neck.
Another step forward, another shuffle backwards for Dean and he suddenly felt the rails that marked the Thames edge of the path pressed up against the small of his back.
"So all I had to do was create a diversion, get rid of two of you and, hey presto, I have my final victim; a hunter – what a deliciously ironic way to wrap up the spell."
Dean's furious glare was lost beneath a yawning crimson mask of pained tears.
The demon's hand forced him further and further back, until he felt himself arching backwards over the rails, with the inky black torrent of the Thames tide rushing back out to sea ten feet beneath him.
His arms flailed wildly, as he at once tried to reach out toward his assailant, and fought to maintain his balance to stop himself toppling backwards into the fierce current below him.
The face of the demon was stretched into a venomous sneer; as it pushed further and further until Dean's back was arched painfully over the rail, only the toes of his boots scrabbling to maintain any kind of grip on the path's smooth asphalt.
He felt his vision fading; specks of light flickering and bursting around him like his own personal July 4th celebration, as his body began to shut down.
He briefly considered letting go; allowing himself to fall backwards over the rail into the river. In his weakened, disorientated state and in that fierce current, he would almost certainly drown, but to do so would leave this creature to kill again. If someone was going to die horribly at the demon's hand, better him than some other poor bastard.
He flinched as he felt the pointed tip of a blade slide up under his T shirt and trace a teasing trail down his stretched abdomen, the cold steel of the knife against his skin sending a shiver through him.
"I'm going to split you open like a ripe peach," the demon taunted, pressing down harder and harder on his neck, forcing him further back over the rail, "and I'm going to enjoy the fruit while it's fresh; just like I did with little Mary Kelly."
Without the awareness to feel outraged, Dean didn't feel the pain of the metal rail digging into his spine, nor the pounding throb of his abused groin; he just gaped helplessly, sucking in feeble, inadequate scraps of oxygen, as his unco-ordinated arms scrabbled blindly at the tightening grip around his neck.
He barely felt the blade slice open his T shirt; His sightless eyes didn't see the demon licking it's lips in anticipation of the destruction it was about to wreak on the weakening body beneath it's hand.
His blue lips curled into a silent grimace as he felt the the keen blade carve a shallow gash down the centre of his abdomen and the demon's black eyes glimmered in wicked glee as his body finally went limp.
It raised it's knife to begin it's work, and finish the job it had started practicing for one hundred and twenty years ago, relishing the sight of the dark blood trickling down the contours of the pale torso draped over the rails in front of it.
In it's arrogant triumph, it didn't see the two men approach it from behind, nor did it see the moonlight glinting off the knife they held poised.
But it did feel the razor sharp point of the blade which Sam buried deep between it's shoulder blades.
Dropping it's knife, the demon howled through fiery death throes, convulsing wildly and releasing it's grip on it's victim's neck. Sam and Cyril had no time to enjoy the moment, they both ignored it as they dashed past to grab Dean just as his limp form began to topple backwards over the rail.
His head was floating, chock full of cotton wool.
He wasn't entirely sure if he was dead or alive, but whatever he was, he couldn't have processed a coherent thought if his life, such as it was, depended upon it; he was aware, however, that the crackling, sparkling firework display that had replaced his normal vision had subsided, thankfully taking with it the rising nausea that it had induced.
His back hurt like a bitch. No, check that; he felt like he'd been snapped in half. His carved belly was sore as hell, and his poor throbbing jewels … well, they felt ten times their normal size (can't be all bad) but his throat was the worst.
He felt like he'd swallowed a whole freaking pineapple.
So if he was dead, and he had no reason to believe he wasn't, and he was still feeling battered and bruised all over then that was just full-on, totally craptastic.
Suddenly, he could feel hands all over him, feeling him up, pulling him about. Then he seemed to be moving; he wasn't sure if that was real or whether it was just his head spinning, but whatever it was, it was so not good for the nausea.
His aching body protested aggressively as he puked, blinking back pained tears, heaving and retching; jeez, it felt like freakin' molten lava forcing its way up his throat.
Then there was a hand on his back, rubbing gentle circles. Oh, now that was much nicer.
All in all, Dean had to admit he felt totally like ass. On the face of it, however, he also had to admit that being disembowelled by some psycho demon with a big knife didn't feel quite as unpleasant as he'd expected it was going to be.
He supposed he ought to be thankful for that.
He began to suspect he wasn't dead when he cracked open his eyes to see that he wasn't in Hell or even Heaven for that matter. Nor was he and his rearranged intestines spread out on a mortuary slab, floating face down in the Thames or lying in a hole in the ground.
He was lying in a familiar bed with Sam's concerned face looking down on him.
"Dude, are you a sight for sore eyes," Sam's voice drifted across him like a healing balm, "you've been out of it for a coupl'a hours."
Dean tried to respond, but all that came out of his mouth was a pathetic gravelly squeak.
There was another voice in the room.
"Don't talk, sweets, you got to rest your throat, it's really bruised and swollen."
He realised there was a hand on his head, long fingernails working rhythmically through his hair, grazing his scalp; the hand was Josie's.
Squirming backwards, he tried to sit up, but two pairs of hands gripped his shoulders preventing him from doing so.
"Just stay where you are for a while, sweets; you don't wanna pop your stitches," Josie's soft voice admonished him gently.
It was then Dean noticed that he was stripped to the waist and that his midriff was tightly strapped, the crisp white bandages holding a thick pad of gauze in place against his stomach.
He looked up at Sam enquiringly; "what in hell happened? How did you know to come back? Did you gank it? Is the girl ok? Where's Cyril?" The thoughts spun wildly through his mind.
What actually came out of his mouth was that pitiful, huffy peep.
What in the hell was that? Did a cockroach just scuttle into the room and fart?
Sam smiled; having Dean silent was an appealing novelty, but he knew every one of Dean's facial expressions well enough to know exactly what his brother had asked.
"The demon cut you dude," he confirmed, pointing to the gauze strapped across Dean's belly; "Josie stitched you up, real fine job she did too; much tidier than I could have done!"
Not to be deterred, Dean tried again. This time, he managed an abrasive whisper which hurt his throat so much, it left him wishing he'd stuck with that squeaky cockroach fart.
Josie frowned, her fingertips momentarily ceased their soft massage and flicked the top of his head. "Listen cowboy, what part of 'don't bloody talk' is givin' you trouble?" Her dangerous glare twitched as she tried not to laugh. "I'm goin'ta gag you if you don't stop bloody rabbiting."
Dean looked up at her from under a cocked eyebrow, wearing a 'you should be so lucky' expression.
She shook her head as she lost her fight not to laugh. "Handsome and mute; what more could a woman want?" she muttered.
Reaching over, she patted Sam on the shoulder; "I'm going to bed love, but I'm just in the next room, you come straight in and get me if you need to, okay?"
Sam smiled his thanks; "goodnight Josie."
"Sweet dreams boys."
Sam offered Dean an ice chip from a cup beside his bed; "these are good for soothing your throat," he explained softly.
Taking the ice, Dean slipped it in his mouth and looked back to Sam expectantly.
"It was Cyril you've got to thank dude," Sam began.
"When we went after the demon, we'd spent a while looking for it," Sam rubbed his head as he thought back to the events of only a couple of hours ago; "then Cyril stopped me; he said it was eleven pm; if the demon was gonna kill today, it only had an hour to do it in. That being the case, why was it leading us off on a chase miles away from where it had to be."
"We both realised we'd been had at the same time; dude," Sam gulped as if the memory was hard to recall; "we realised we'd left you alone with it. I've never run so fast, oh God when I think …"
Sam paused, sucking in a deep breath as he felt Dean's hand grip his wrist.
Dean nodded to indicate that everything was okay.
"We thought you were dead at first," Sam continued, his voice breaking as he tried to explain; "we just managed to stop you taking a swan dive over the rail into the river."
Shuddering as he recapped the night's events, Sam's voice dropped to a whisper; "I couldn't see if you were breathing, dude; I was watching you and just couldn't tell, but then suddenly you sucked in a massive gasp, nearly inhaled my damn face, and puked up all over me. We brought you back here in Myrtle".
"Josie helped me patch you up," he smiled shakily; "you can tell she's had to do it a lot in the past, she's a real pro."
"Anyway, I reckon you're gonna be stiff as a board for a few days, your back's bruised to hell and you won't be able to bend in the middle for a while," Sam smiled; "and, trust me man, you don't wanna see your neck!"
Dean's hand instinctively moved up to rub his grotesquely bruised and swollen neck and jawline. His expression suddenly grew solemn, and Sam didn't have to ask what he was thinking.
"We couldn't save the girl," Sam stated economically, his voice loaded with regret, "but we've both said it before, Dean; we can't save everyone."
Sam knew that the knowledge of the Ripper's innocent victims, including the vessels, would hurt Dean every bit as much as his physical injuries, he was just thankful that Dean, ever the pragmatist, would eventually see through the tragedy to the bigger picture.
In this case, a bigger picture of not having twenty-thousand and whatever the crap it was, demons prowling the streets of London carrying out wholesale slaughter.
"If it's any consolation," Sam explained, in an attempt to salve Dean's fragile conscience, "In his journal, Cyril's great grandfather theorised that the vessels were dead from the moment the demon possessed them. It wouldn't risk having them survive and knowing what it was up to." He shrugged, "so I guess they wouldn't have known too much about it."
"Cyril's out clearing up and sorting out the cover story at the moment."
Dean sighed and tried to sit up again, giving up with a pained grimace until Sam slid an arm across his shoulders, and pressed a palm over his bandaged midriff to help him. Once he found himself somewhere approaching upright, Dean gestured toward the door with his head. His eyes asked the question.
"Josie?" Sam confirmed, "she knows everything, she knows exactly what we've just faced."
Dean winced, stretching his neck and palpitating the swollen flesh with his fingertips.
"We did good, you know that don't you?" Sam asked cautiously.
Dean nodded unconvincingly.
"Jack the Ripper's dead; I mean, really dead this time and that's all down to us. You really took one for the team there."
Dean's hand strayed down towards his faintly throbbing vitals, and his brows knotted into a pained frown as he nodded again.
"Wow," Sam grinned, "I'm not used to seeing you with the volume turned off; I could get used to this."
Dean scowled, and mouthed something inaudible, but Sam's lip-reading was adequate enough to see that it involved the words 'shut', 'your' and 'piehole'.
Over the next few days Dean rested and recovered from his ordeal well, thanks in no small part to the devoted attentions of his brother, and even moreso the enthusiastically stifling attentions of Josie; Sam really didn't remember ever needing to get Dean out of his T shirt to change his dressing and check his stitches anywhere near as often as Josie felt the need to.
Not that Dean seemed to mind at all. Josie may have been the wrong side of fifty but she was still very much, as Dean would so delicately put it, a looker, and Sam would later swear that Dean almost purred as Josie's nimble fingers worked a skilful magic on his sore neck and back. Poor Sam's calloused, well-meaning mitts couldn't hope to compare.
When Dean began to sound like he was watching one of his Casa Erotica episodes, Sam felt a sudden urge to leave the room. He was sure Cyril must need some help with something nice and boring like research.
Dean wasn't quite so rapt about the liquid food diet Josie had imposed on him to protect his throat. For three days he had reluctantly and ingraciously submitted to eating nothing but soup, porridge and ice-cream, all the while watching in wide-eyed, slack-jawed envy as Sam ravenously demolished every mountain of food Josie put in front of him; steak, fish and chips, lasagne and a particularly alarming-sounding dish called 'Toad in the Hole' which turned out to have nothing to do with amphibians and everything to do with huge meaty sausages and baked batter pudding.
When Dean's voice finally began to return, it was husky and broken, and his first words were to beg Josie for that froggy sausages thing.
Almost a week on and Dean was well on the way to recovery, especially after Josie had finally removed his stitches enabling him to become much more mobile.
She stood behind the bar and watched the brothers across the room as they sat with Cyril and bickered; Dean making up for lost time now his voice, still raggedly husky, was on the mend, and Sam teasing him by cupping his ear and repeatedly saying "pardon?"
Dean for his part allowed his fingers to do the talking.
She was delighted Dean was recovering; knowing what the three hunters had faced and how close Dean had come to being the Ripper's final victim, but a part of her was sad; those two sweet boys had brought so much energy and fun into her life, an energy and fun she hadn't realised had been missing since her own sons had flown the nest to build their own lives so many years ago, and soon they would be leaving.
Her lips softened into a smile as Dean leaned across and cuffed Sam round the head; of course, it didn't hurt that they were both drop dead gorgeous on the outside as well as on the inside.
She turned to pour three beers, and caught the briefest glimpse of herself in the mirror at the back of the bar.
Being surrounded by morose, world-weary hunters didn't do a lot for a woman's looks and vigour, but looking in the mirror she swore she could see a tiny sparkle of joy in her brown eyes that wasn't there a fortnight ago. Just briefly she saw a flash of the energetic beauty she had been in years past, back when the Union Street fete committee had voted her the Borough of Southwark's pearly queen in 1977 on that stormy May bank holiday and her big ostrich-feathered hat had blown away.
The same day that her errant hat was caught by a stocky young man with a scarred brow, a cheeky manner and an irresistible air of mystery about him.
She looked across at that same stocky young man as he sat with the boys, roaring with laughter as they swapped jokes.
She watched the exchange for a few moments:
"… so, anyway," snorted Cyril; "this bird goes to the solicitor and says she wants a divorce, an' the brief says, "you can't just divorce the old man for no reason, has he ever been unfaithful?" An' this bird goes, "you know, I think we got him there - I know for a fact me youngest nipper ain't his!"
She smiled, Cyril still had the cheeky manner, and the scar. Plus a few more pounds round the waist, significantly less hair and a gammy knee.
And she still loved him as much as if they had married yesterday.
Strolling over, she carried the drinks across to the uproarious laughter that surrounded the table; and leaned over Dean's shoulder as she placed them down.
"Here y'go, cowboy."
Dean grinned; "you tryin' to get me drunk again?"
"Don't tempt me," she winked at Sam who rolled his eyes with a grin.
She poured a glass of wine and as she joined her husband and her guests, she couldn't help a broad smile.
For right here were three reasons why Josie was the luckiest woman in the world.
Two days later ...
The rain pelted down on the top deck of the gaily coloured open-topped tourist bus; and all but two of the tourists on board were hunkered down inside the cabin.
On the rain-swept top deck, the Winchesters sat, heads swivelling from side to side as they passed the gothic edifice of the Palace of Westminster, with Big Ben looming over Parliament Sqaure looking down on the bustling crowds around it.
Sam glanced across at his brother who was staring up at the giant clock tower, his mouth hanging slightly open with fascinated glee. He smiled; they were supposed to be flying home tomorrow. If Dean was dreading the flight, he was doing a good job in hiding it.
"Hey Sammy, it's great to finally see some of the nicer bits of London history," Dean grinned, distracting Sam from his musings.
Pulling his collar up as a raindrop tickled a chilly path down his spine, Sam stared at his brother incredulously; "you want to see the 'nicer' parts of London history? We've just been to the Tower of London where you spent half the morning reading about a block of wood where they used to chop peoples' heads off!"
Dean shrugged, "yeah, well it's educational, isn't it."
The bus turned slowly through Admiralty Arch into the Mall; "hey Sam," Dean leapt to his feet, elbowing Sam so hard he almost fell off the seat, and pointed up the length of the red-paved avenue. "There's Buckingham Palace, that's where the Queen lives."
Sam grinned in excitement as the bus approached the golden memorial to Queen Victoria that marked the entrance to Buckingham Palace.
Dean turned to Sam, his face suddenly serious; "shouldn't we do something?"
"Don' know," Dean hesitated; "salute or something?"
Sam shrugged, "I don't suppose she can see you from all the way in there," he suggested, "she might not even be in there, the flag isn't flying."
Dean leaned on the front bars of the coach; "more to the point, is Pippa in there?" He whistled appreciatively; "holy hell, is that one sweet ass!"
They stared at the imposing building as the bus turned round the green expanse of St James' Park and continued its sedate journey down Birdcage Walk.
It was early evening when the Winchesters, footsore and dripping wet, crashed back into the Bridge House.
Armed with photographs of a grinning Dean slipping an illicit mint to a great black Irish draft horse bearing a glowering, scarlet-clad guardsman, photographs of Sam admiring Nelson's Column and a car air freshener in the shape of Big Ben (a present for baby), Dean proudly pulled open his jacket to reveal a brand new navy blue T- shirt bearing the legend 'My brother went to London and all I got was this lousy T-shirt'.
Yes, it was going to be good to get the flight over with, to get back to their homeland, to Bobby, and to Baby, but the Winchesters were going to miss London.
But nowhere near as much as London was going to miss the Winchesters.