Working as a cleaner for many years had given Jack a multitude of skills he couldn’t quite classify. One such skill was an uncanny ability to learn everything he needed to about a town in a single glance. It came in handy when he rolled into towns that had been overtaken by cults. Oldport’s prosperity and happiness had been crushed by something far more mundane and common, but just as deadly, economic depression. In a bygone age, Oldport drove the local economy with it’s textile mill and a plant that manufactured steel pots and pans. The town also boasted a few sizable farms, which also attracted work and helped to support the local population. Sadly, it became chic to move your mill down south to take advantage of cheaper labor. That move left Oldport in a similar position to many other New England mill towns. When you put all your financial eggs in one boat you’ll do fine, until the boat sinks. Then you’re really up shit creek with no taxable income.
As they drove through the town, Jack could see signs of a stuttering economic restart. The majority of the buildings on Main Street had brickwork fronts and appeared close to brand new, even if many of the store fronts were empty. The health center in the middle of town had become the largest employer, and their recent addition had attracted a new business called, “The Thoughtful Wellness Clinic”. It was the type of name which told Jack everything about the business, while saying absolutely nothing. It was the sort of name you used to hide nefarious deeds, which made Jack immediately suspicious.
The house they were looking for sat at the top of a giant hill on the outskirts of town. As they climbed the dirt road in their van, Jack could see the entire valley spill out behind them in the rearview mirror. Once they got closer, the road became enclosed by apple trees on either side. The apples were still growing, swaying gently in the summer breeze. Underneath the trees, Jack spied the occasional goat wandering the rows and munching on the grass and the stray apples which had fallen before their time. Just as they crested the hill, the view of the valley on the other side spilled out in front of them.
The main farm was a testimony to those old days when farms ran on the blood of large families. The dirt road ran into a circle, which ran past all the buildings, before returning to the top of the hill. One building immediately stuck out. It was built in an entirely different fashion than the other buildings. It was much smaller, clearly built for one person. That was likely where they had to begin.
Sitting on the front steps of the porch was a slight man wearing jeans and a t-shirt. He had a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, which he removed and flicked away when he caught sight of the van. His black hair was cut short to combat the summer heat and his brown eyes shone in the afternoon light.
Jack stepped out of the van once it had come to a stop and shook the man’s hand when he got closer, “I take it you’re Mr. Meriet?”
The man took his hand with a surprisingly firm grip, “Yes sir. I’m glad you could come on short notice. Let me give you a few warnings before you go on in.”
“Please do, I’m still not entirely sure what exactly this job entails.”
“We built this house for my grandmother a few years back. She moved right in, and it worked out great. She’s always been a neat one, and a hard worker too. Honestly makes the rest of us look like slackers. A few weeks ago, she went to that new Clinic in town. When she came back, everything went wrong, it was like she was a different person. She became a complete wreck overnight. I’ve never seen anything like it. Now, she won’t even let anyone inside the house.”
“And that’s it, your grandmother became a bit of a recluse and now you’re concerned? I hope you’re prepared for how expensive this is going to be.”
“No!” A look came over his face that Jack recognized immediately. It was the face of someone swimming desperately against the tide to do what he thought was right. It wasn’t the face someone made when their idle suspicions were questioned.
“Ah. I see. Well then, Stanley, grab your bag. We’re going to find out what’s going on with Mrs. Meriet.”
Mike sagged forward in relief, tears dotting the edges of his eyes, “Thank you! Nobody else believes me, they just think she’s old. Maybe they’re right, but I think something’s wrong with her and I can’t figure it out.”
Jack stepped up to the front door and gripped the handle, but it wouldn’t budge. Pressing his free hand against the door, he ripped the handle from the door and let it swing open. The scents from inside washed out, twisting his stomach into equal knots of nausea and excitement. Some of the scents, he recognized. There were a lot of smells battling for dominance. Cats, rotting food, and a lot of garbage. Layered on top of those was a slightly tropical scent, which was commonly used to cover the scent of death. What made Jack’s hair stand on end was the one scent that was missing. There wasn’t a scent of people in the house at all. Jack could make out the faint scent of Mike Meriet’s cigarettes under all the other dueling scents, but nothing else. No other person had been in that house for weeks.
“And she’s in there now?”
Mike cocked his head in confusion, “Sure, why?”
“Just a hunch. Stanley, smell the inside of this house and tell me if you can catch a scent of Mrs. Meriet.”
Stan slowly plodded over, his heavy cleaning bag slung over his shoulder. Ducking his head down, he sniffed at the air wafting out of the house and grimaced, “Ain’t nobody in there, boss. Just a ton’a garbage.”
“I thought so.” Jack’s training to hunt monsters in all conditions often came in handy, especially in jobs where finding your client suddenly became important. Stan’s sense of smell was still considerably better and when he needed a second sniffer opinion, and Sam wasn’t around, his compatriot was the go to nose. If Stan said nobody else was in the house, no trace scent of her could be found. That just left a house to clean and an elderly woman to locate.
Stepping into the house, Jack surveyed the mess to get a feel for the occupant. Every sort of mess has its story. The debris left lying around can tell a cleaner a great deal about what their client finds important, and how much they really value it. It often gave Jack more information about people than they ever could, because people lie, but messes are incapable of obstructing the truth. The mess he was presented with here could barely be caused by a human, or even a creature capable of functioning. Important family documents lay strewn across the floor in small piles leading into the living room and the kitchen. Their yellowed pages shifted slightly as a breeze blew in from the front door. They lay scattered in trails around the room, as though Betsy had been tearing through them, searching for some meaning which Jack could only guess at. Dirt spotted the walls from potted plants which had been recklessly thrown at them. Overturned furniture lay in a heap in the middle of the living room, covered with embroidered quilts and blankets. In short, this mess was a war declared against Betsy by herself.
Cracking his knuckles, Jack turned to look over his shoulder at Stan, “I’ll start in the living room. Stanley, if you could please take care of the worst of the mess in the kitchen, I’ll work my way around and join you when I’m done. We’ll go upstairs after that.”
Nodding, Stan ducked under the door and worked around Jack to get into the kitchen. Jack marched into the living room and took off his suit coat. Looking around for a place to hang it up, without letting the stink of the place seep in, he quickly realized no such place existed. Stepping back outside, he hung his coat on the side view mirror of the van and returned to work. Sometimes, to order your mind, a great mess is needed. Things make sense while cleaning, and Jack let his mind wander while he cleaned. Inspiration can come from the dirtiest places.
Order from chaos. Jack righted the furniture and cleaned the carpet, returning to the van repeatedly for supplies. The largest and most troubling task by far was collecting all the old family papers and putting them back together. Jack was no bookbinder, but he put them in order as best he could. Many of the pages were dotted by tears, left by the vanished Betsy Meriet no doubt. In order to banish the stagnant air Jack opened the window and let a breeze in, banishing the residual smells from the home.
The next room to focus on was an office, which had been made to facilitate Betsy’s love of art. That was a love she apparently took to great extremes, painting all over the walls. It was clear nobody had been in the study, because her grandson, Mike, would be a lot more concerned if he had seen this. The art on the walls was pretty new wave, so Jack hardly understood what she was trying to say. It mostly consisted of writing in various colors of paint. Things like, “What am I?” or “Kill me.” The most telling one, which told Jack everything he needed to know read, “I am a monster.” The room itself could be cleaned, but getting the paint off the walls would take time and Jack wanted Mike to see that before he took it down.
By the time he returned to the kitchen, Stan had mostly wrapped up his cleaning tasks. With Jack’s added efforts, they soon had the kitchen up to snuff. Gathering their gear, Jack led Stan up the narrow staircase to the second floor. Before they reached the top of the stairs, he stopped. They weren’t alone anymore. He could feel it. Even though Jack knew he wasn’t alone, he still couldn’t sense any source of life coming from the second floor. The job had suddenly become far more interesting.