Second-Hand Rumors~ chapter 11

     Having outlived most of his peers, and several generations of their progeny, Liam had gained some of the perspective usually reserved for wise men and immortals. One such lesson is that it’s never too late to learn something new. The desire to grow was what kept Liam in the thieving business, not his greed, crippling laziness, or inability to function while doing hard labor. Thieves live the freest lives of anyone, until they get caught and thrown into jail. Freedom from structure allowed Liam to make his own hours. He could work as much or as little as he could get away with and, most importantly, he never had to worry about getting chewed out by a boss. At least, that’s how it used to be, until he started working for Simon Nair.

     When Simon Nair calls for your presence, you ignore it at your own peril. Sitting on the couch in his study, ignoring Simon for the time being, Liam felt a rare sense of rightness. Normally, thieving was just a living. Liam had rarely, if ever, stuck his neck out for someone else, because it usually ended up getting lopped off. It sounded like this time was no different. Luck is a cruel, lying mistress. Never believe a word she says, because she never stays true for long.

     “Between your expert sabotage and already high tensions, fifteen people died before Adrian Denavi descended from on high and took care of business. He told me he wanted to kill fifteen of my people in retaliation. I told him he could kill you fifteen times if it would make him feel any better.”|

     That last bit snapped Liam out of his reverie, “I’m not worth fifteen of his hired goons.”

“Thankfully for you, Adrian concurs with that opinion. It’s just fortunate that little scam of yours worked so beautifully, otherwise I would be nailing you to my office walls by your femurs.”

     Chuckling weakly, Liam attempted to brush off that comment, “You don’t mean that.”

     Simon looked up with his left eye to glare at Liam, “You know I do. If there was any way the Society could retaliate, you know they would. Your plan was reckless and immature coming from someone over two-hundred years old.”

     In times of doubt and threats of death, Liam found it best to just move the conversation along, “How did they find out it was me, anyways?”

     “There’s been this miraculous invention called security cameras. Your face got caught multiple times on your way in and out. But enough about your latest fuck up, I have work for you. I can’t go to the Neelan family yet.”

     Perking up at this, Liam sat a little straighter in his seat, “Why not? I assumed they caught whoever the spy was.”

    Simon threw up his hands in frustration, “They know who it is, and they won’t tell anyone, outside of a select few. They’re letting him run free for now, in the hopes that this will lead them to whoever is leaking information in the first place. That means I need you to help me find someone.”

     “I’m guessing this will be an unpleasant task.”

     Simon tossed Liam a large manilla envelope, tightly bound with twine, “Working with me, you’ve gotten to experience the high life. Now I’m going to send you so far into the gutters they’ll never find your body. Some members of the Five Families started a murder for hire business, and I need to find out who they are, where they are, and how I can stop them.”

     “Or hire them on, because you seem to do well with the suspicious types.”

     Liam felt the air change before his brain even knew he was in danger. It was one of those animalistic abilities which had kept Liam alive, thus far, “Get out of my study and get to work. Come back when you’ve found something, and Liam? Don’t cross paths with the Society for a while. It was a misguided, but surprisingly noble thing you did, but I don’t want to lay your laurel wreath on another pile of bodies you built.”

     With that, Simon returned both his eyes to his work, leaving Liam to vacate the office with the folder tucked under his arm. Once Liam reached the lobby, he found himself letting go of a breath he hadn’t even been aware he was holding. Pressing a hand to his forehead, it came away slick with cold sweat.

     Normal is hardly a static word. One man’s normal is another man’s radioactive fever dream, but for what it was worth, the Nair mansion felt more normal today. It lacked the subtle, intangible feeling of terror which had permeated the lobby last time. In one of the lines to see a clerk, a brownie and a dwarf had started a fist fight over who got into line first. Simon’s warning on his way out had stuck in his mind. Liam was self-centered by nature, it’s part of what made him a tolerable thief. You have to be reasonably self-centered in order to think you’re entitled to other’s belongings. In this case, Liam decided he liked normality, or what passed for it here. No more death, no more killings. Certainly, no more that could be laid at his feet. He’d gotten his own personal revenge, time to leave well enough alone.

     Once outside the mansion, he sat down on the steps and opened the twine surrounding the files. The Five Families were considered high nobility, but Liam had learned that was a double edged sword. That was all fine and dandy if you were the heir to the family, or the head of a family. That was two people out of dozens. Most members of the Five Families lived in relative obscurity and poverty, the notable exception being the Goodbody family. Their branch families just had to deal with being treated like second class citizens. If you weren’t in one of the main three Goodbody families, you were a grunt soldier on the front lines. Your fate was set from the moment you could hold a weapon. Running with Samantha Goodbody had been a small taste of that. She was older than her younger brother, and thus she should have been heir. She wanted to live life on the open road, and Jack becoming heir had been a more or less mutual decision between Sam and her father.

     The file Simon gave him contained three packets, each dedicated to its own name. Christopher Goodbody, J. Neelan and Robert Rever. He’d never heard of them, as was to be expected, but each of their packets felt heavy in his hand when he lifted it up. Scanning through each one gave Liam all the information he wanted. They were bad news. Worse than bad news, each one was what you would call a taboo in their own family.

     Liam was what you would call a tourist in the Mythic world. His association with the Nair family, via Simon, was what tied him to it, and kept him safe. He would hardly call himself an expert on the Five Families, but he knew enough to know that a Goodbody who had killed his own brother was bad news. Christopher had brown hair which reached his shoulders and sky blue eyes, meaning his dominant personality traits would be from the Goodbody side of his family. He had a thin, dull red scar across his chin and a larger one above his left eye. According to the packet, he had been expelled from the Goodbody family home after murdering his older brother.

     J. Neelan was a young woman, kicked out of the family for selling secrets which got other Neelan family members killed. She had brilliant long black hair, but what caught Liam’s attention were her eyes. One green and one light brown. He would have to ask her about that when he found her.

     Lastly, was a member of the Rever family named Robert. He had been kicked out of the family for enjoying his work a little too much. Since the Rever family was in the business of killing, Liam figured that had been the right call.

     Having scanned the files, Liam mulled over the job in his head. Heading out and randomly searching for them would be pointless. When you’re hunting for someone, you need to think like them. Silently, Liam expressed a little gratitude for being forced to listen to Sam rant about hunting so often. When you know what someone wants, you can figure out where they’re going. Once you know that, it’s just a matter of checking up on each place until you find them. What exactly brought this group of exiles together and why were they killing people? More than that, why did they interest Simon so much? There’s criminals, and then there’s assholes that even Liam would find unforgivable. Giving up for the moment, Liam rose shakily to his feet and started home. Better to take the rest of the day off and start fresh tomorrow. Liam had a few leads he could follow up on to find these unforgivables.

A note from the fireside~ 4/22/18

     Hello, dear friends. Is it strange to say that I’ve missed you? I spend so much of my week thinking of you, since so much of my time goes into writing.  I hope you enjoyed the last chapter of Paranormal Cleaners. It’s definitely one of those points which shifts the world for Jack Goodbody. The original plan was to resolve it before the end of this book, but I wanted to play a slightly longer game with this one. Please forgive me for my chronic inability to get a Second-Hand Rumors chapter out on time. I feel so awful every day I’m late. I wrote till around 1am last night, once I had some free time. I just ended up writing the opening over and over.

     I have a lot of news this week. I’m wondering if I mentioned this before, but the last week of April and the opening week of May, I will be on vacation, of sorts. That week will be taken off, so I can get some work done. Recently I had the good fortune of getting some advice from a fan. Having thought over that advice, Paranormal Cleaners is getting a major overhaul, and I mean major. Chapters 14-18 will be getting entirely rewritten. Chapters 19-20 will be getting an extension and a revamp. Chapter 28-29 will be getting revamped, and there will be an additional fight scene at the end of the Charles Beaufort arc. Chapters 30-33 are being replaced entirely.

     As you can imagine, that’s an enormous amount of work that I’m proposing, but it gets worse. I don’t want those stories to go away, so they are also being revamped to act as side stories. I have no idea when this project will end, but I plan on getting a metric ton of writing done. With that looming on the foreground, I guess I found it a bit difficult to focus on Second-Hand Rumors this week. It’s mostly a setup chapter, but I think it will lead into a really good arc. I’ve got some idea where I’m going, as I usually do when it comes to Liam, though he does surprise me sometimes.

     Sometimes, I think I’m fighting an impossible fight here. You start writing a story, you have no idea whether it’s going to succeed, but you pour so much of your heart into it that you have to keep going. Realizing that your baby has some major flaws that can, and should, be addressed can be distressing. What keeps me going is you. Writing for you matters to me because you matter. Since I want to revamp things, there will be no Paranormal Cleaners this Monday, meaning Cleaners will be going on a two week hiatus. Hopefully, by the time the week after that rolls around, I will at least have worked out some of the kinks and will be able to post the revised chapter 41, as it currently stands. There may be new chapters up, on top of replacements. As always, thank you for coming to my hearth and stopping by for some tales and companionship. You lighten my doorstep with your presence. Please visit again soon. I’ll be sure to keep your chair open, right by the hearth.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 40

 

     One of the first things Jack learned about hunting was conservation of energy. Never do work yourself that you could conceivably get your prey to do instead. That concept led rise to what Jack and Sam referred to as “throwing rocks at a hornets nest.” Why wander around town looking for cultists if you could just get them to come to you? In their ample experience, the best way to do that was to file a missing person’s report. The only thing left was to make up a story. At Jack’s insistence, they decided to do one better. Since neither one of them knew the identity of the person who called them, they couldn’t look for anyone specific. Thankfully, they didn’t have to. All they had to do was call back home and have someone look up a list of people who had recently vanished from the area under strange circumstances.

     Sam wasn’t on the phone for more than five minutes before she had a match. “Chip Sunderson, he came out east from Minnesota to live here. He worked at the diner for a few months before he stopped showing up for work. They figured he must have quit work, but Madeline seems to think it’s far more likely that he just quit life.”

     Jack nodded and scanned the street. The simplest lies were the easiest to remember and also the easiest to come up with. Not that their lie being discovered would ruin their plans, because either the lie or the truth would have the desired effects. They could even combine the truth with a lie and really get the cult worked up. Events were sliding into play quite nicely. The story they came up with was something between the stuff of madness and the actual harsh, cold reality with a dash of telemarketing thrown in.

     For the next hour, they wandered around town, talking to everyone who would listen. The story went something like this. Their friend, Chip Sunderson, moved out here. At first, they had written back and forth, but eventually they lost contact with him. They didn’t know if he still lived in this town or not, but Ramshead was  where he moved and they were ever so worried. They had saved up their money to come here and please help them. Then they left the conversation with the full knowledge that if anyone were interested in making sure they never left town, they would do it that night. Having eaten, Jack decided to pick a few things up for his sister before they turned in for the knife. Her chopper was already gone by the time they went by where they had left it.
Once they had returned to the room, they turned in early. In a town that small, the conflicting stories would be told and the cultists would have to decide on their own what to make of them. Jack knew from sad experience that rather than crushing their suspicions, it would only create more tension.

     Sam slowly flicked her knife open and shut, sitting on Jack’s bed and flicking her eyes at the door, “When are they coming? I’m already bored and I had plans for the evening.”
Jack sat on the floor between the two beds and cracked his knuckles. His cleaning bag was across the room, but he doubted he would need it for the first wave, “Usually, it’ll be around two or three in the morning. It depends on how zealous the curfew crew is and how many rocks hit the mark earlier. You might as well try and get some sleep because they won’t come until they’re sure we’re asleep.”

     No two cults were alike in every respect, but there was one ritual Jack could count on just about every cult possessing. He called it the curfew crew, and their job within the cult was deadly and simple. Weed out the dissidents and the out of town nuisances, and then kill them. Final call, if you will. With a town like this, where everybody was a member of the cult, Jack expected a crew of fanatics with little training in actual fighting. Smaller, more violent cults sometimes employed a special crew hired on just for that purpose. That way, the trouble gets taken care of and the cult’s hands stay clean.

     “But what if we’re asleep when they come?”

     “You won’t miss it. You average curfew crew has around ten to fifteen guys, since these are small town locals not some hardened group of thugs. Other than this kind of work, the messiest thing most of them have had to deal with is throwing a drunk out of the local bar and murdering unsuspecting tourists in their sleep.”

     True to his word, the hotel and the whole town grew suddenly silent around ten at night. The general hush spread out further and further until even the chatter of people outside of town stopped and the lights in the street were unceremoniously turned out. Within that quiet, endless crushing quiet, the sounds of the curfew crew crowding up the stairs towards them sounded like a herd of elephants trying to sneak up on a circus tent in the middle of the night. Jack gestured to Stan, who slid the croquet mallet out of his bag and slowly tread his way over to stand behind the door. When they pushed the door to come in, they would push it right into Stan. It wasn’t like he would be able to hide behind the door, but it was amazing how many people miss Stan when he was standing in a place where one wouldn’t expect a giant like him to stand. Jack stayed right where he was and Sam hardly moved from where she had apparently fallen asleep. Jack almost believed it too, until he saw the slight smirk on his sister’s face.

     Nothing takes longer than waiting to ambush someone about to launch an ill performed sneak attack. After what felt like an eternity, the door finally opened. Around two dozen of them in the hallway and down the stairs, judging by the shadows and the sound. What caught Jack’s attention was what they wore, farmer’s clothes. Well, there was the uniform Jack had been looking for before. It tickled his brain, which was slightly worrying. The first one stepped in and tried very hard to whisper quietly to his compatriots. They all had to see it, so much the better. Jack tried so very hard to keep his eyes closed as they shuffled in, almost letting a slight chuckle slip out a few times in spite of himself. The greatest hunt really was where the hunters were being hunted. It always started with that moment of primal triumph turned into non-comprehension and fear. It almost made up for being in Maine in the first place.

     They filed in one by one, filling the hallway behind them until it was time to spring the trap. One of the burly men grabbed Jack by the suit lapel and dragged him up slightly, raising his other hand above his head. Jack suddenly reached up and grabbed the man, pulling him close and whispering the one thing that would confuse him most into his ear, “It’s a trap, run.”

     There it was. His eyes went wide, surprise and anguish clearly written in them. If this was a trap, why had Jack warned him about it? The man struggled to cry out but Jack rammed his free hand over the man’s mouth, muffling his voice. To complete the effect, Jack kicked his legs under the man uselessly, as though he were struggling to escape. The crowd grew closer until the trap finally snapped shut in earnest. Stan kicked the door hard, sending the thug in the doorway flying back into the hallway. The very instant the door was closed, Sam got to work, her knife a mere whisper of steel cutting through the air like a razor until the blade met the resistance of a throat or some other soft spot on her victim.

     After an instant, Sam sat back on the bed, twirling her knife. The door slowly opened again as all the cult members in the room sagged to the ground. The look of shock was definitely worth the price of admission. Jack held the one last cult member still alive in his arms as his sister looked at him, waiting for instructions. Jack groaned in irritation, “Well!? Don’t stop now, I need some time to question our bold late night visitor and we have an audience. You know how I hate that.” Sam nodded and got up, stalking out the door. Well, there goes one problem.

     Jack flipped the cult member onto his back and released his hand from over his mouth, “So we got your attention, you came here to kill us but now I’m going to ask you one question and you’re going to answer it or my friend there will play whack a dummy with your head.”

     “I will never betray the outer plant gods! I will never talk! ”

     “No, that’s what’s going to happen after we’re done with you. I’m not offering amnesty, I’m offering a postponement. Who called us? It had to be one of your own.”

     “You’re too late…” the cult member cackled softly to himself, Jack only now noticing the insanity in his eyes. He kept laughing, but the sound grew quieter. Without warning, the man’s eyeballs seemed to vanish. In their place, nothing but darkness remained.

     That memory which had tickled the back of his mind came forward to block everything else. All Jack could see was his brother. Ripping open the cultist’s shirt, he found white hairs springing out from his chest. They weren’t hairs, though, they were too white. They appeared to be coming from a vegetable. Wrapping them around his fingers, Jack yanked hard. Erupting from the man’s chest was what appeared to be a large ear of corn. The kernels were black, dull and began to shrivel the instant they met the open air. Towards the bottom end, a mouth and nose gradually protruded from the kernels of corn. It slowly opened, wider than Jack would have thought possible. Before he could react, it started to scream and spew blackened kernels of corn at his face.

     Slamming it against the walls a few times shut it up. It also left black stains on the wall, which immediately started melting the wood around them. The body of the cultist deflated. As it did, the cultist managed one last sentence, “Long live the gods of the trees and rocks and fields!”

     Jack actually shuddered for an instant, “Ah, damn. Stanley. We’re in worse shape than I thought. This is another one of those weird farmer cults.”

     Stan seemed genuinely confused, “What’s the deal with them farmer cults anyways?”

     “They believe in creatures that live out in the fields who were here long before people were even growing crops. I’ve heard those creatures, gods really, were the ones that taught us to cultivate crops in the first place but that was in return for our crops.”

     “People ain’t crops, boss.”

     “Maybe livestock would be more appropriate, but they wanted our first crops in return for theirs.”

     “Is anya’ that true, boss?”

     “I used to think the answer was no. I’m starting to remember the answer is actually yes. That does mean there may be no saving this town.”

     Jack strode over to the window and looked out. They needed to capture at least one cultist alive. This goal was complicated by the fatal error that had been sending his sister out to deal with them first. Peering out the window, the scope of the disaster became apparent to Jack. Sam had already left the building and the rest of the goons they had sent were sprawled out dead on the floor. If he didn’t catch up to her soon, she would kill every single person in town regardless of how connected to the cult they were. Sam was thorough, if nothing else.

     While Jack watched, the streets pushed upward and rippled outward like waves, pushing the streets around it back towards the buildings. His sister stood in the middle of it all, when the street around her erupted. An ear of corn burst from the ground and wrapped its husks around her until she was completely covered. Memories threatened to break Jack’s mind. Memories which had been sealed away for so long, and remained yet hidden just out of sight. Soon, she was wrapped from head to toe and the monstrosity rose from below the ground to stalk off towards the center of town. It stood taller than the buildings on Main Street, none of which were above three stories.  All around it, throngs of asparagus tentacles writhed and twitched. At the top of the corn sat a crown of red tomatoes with grotesque faces, their soundless screams sounding out over the town. Apparently, the cultists could hear it, because they stepped out to follow it. Jack snapped out of it. That elder plant god was running away with his sister.

     Despite the lights still being out, the street was visible. The cultists milled around on the street corners, waiting to ambush any unwary travelers and sacrifice them for crops or power or better cell phone reception in the mountains or whatever the hell their current leaders wanted. Turning to the hallway, Jack followed the trail his sister took. Long strands of blood decorated the walls, clearly his sister’s handiwork. “And this is why I never let her do the dirty work. Sam! You need 1to leave at least one more alive so I can question them! No point if I can’t question them!” Jack grumbled and dashed out into the hallway, followed behind by a determined Stan.

     By the time he arrived at the ground floor, the streets had turned into a churning, boiling mob of people. Other than hurting the outsiders, maybe sacrificing a few to those gods they had, Jack was entirely uncertain of what they wanted. Still, if he wanted to get through this crowd he needed a weapon and that left his bag up in the room. Jack raced back upstairs to grab it. The mop was out of the question as was the broom. The problem with cults like this is that they take away a person’s freedom. No, Jack amended his statement mentally, it took away the desire for freedom. It planted fear and awe and the desire to submit to complete lunatics who wanted power. The dustpan it was, then. Jack yanked the long handled dustpan out of his bag and gave it a swing. The handle at the end and the shaft were heavy in his hands, made of steel that wouldn’t bend or break. The dustbin at the end only swung slightly when he moved it. When he couldn’t kill, he used this heavy duty tool for knocking out. Not that he could kill anyone, given what he had just seen. He, Stan and Samantha were likely the only living people in the town. The cult was made up of plant puppets being controlled by evil produce gods.

     Stan lumbered out to join his employer, his massive mallet slung over his shoulder. A stray cultist ran down the street, unseeing and unthinking beyond the siren call of his ancient produce god. Stan laid him out with one swift tap from his mallet.

     “Well, we got one of them anyways. Stan, tie him up and I’m going to head to the town hall and do a little hunting. This has gone well and truly beyond the point of cleaning.”

     Shouldn’t you switch up for another one a’ them weapons a’ yours?”

     Jack shook his head and stalked off in the direction of downtown cultville, “If we kill them, we can’t get any answers to the questions I want to beat them…I mean ask them. If they’re possessed by those plant things, they’re very likely connected to the plant god. If we’re going to find my sister, we need information.”

     The walk to the town hall took too long for Jack’s liking. Outside the town hall, Jack froze at what he found. Corn husks as large as a man were littered outside the front steps. With no sign of his sister or the god, Jack feared the worst. Grasping his dustbin, Jack marched on towards the town hall. It seemed the most likely place to get some information. Jack was afraid, but the worst thing he could do was panic. He was going to get her back, no matter what it cost them.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Taxes

     The Goodbody family prized individuality above almost everything else. A younger Jack had been encouraged to find that job which made him feel truly alive, and go out to make a living at it. His father hadn’t considered that Jack might run away at the tender young age of seventeen and make a living as a cleaner. His company, which he ran with his rugged companion Stanley Whitkins, was called Paranormal Cleaners. It focused entirely on cleaning those places where the line between banal and bloodcurdling met. He ran into those places with gusto, because to Jack, cleaning was the most basic fight against evil and uncleanliness. He might not be able to remove the hunter from his blood, but he could repurpose it to something that better suited his tastes and desires. That left him with a dilemma come tax time, which had not reached its utmost zenith. Just a little longer until they were finished with their taxes. Then Jack could earn them an audit from a disbelieving government as he had the year before.

     Since he could afford to hire an accountant to help with his taxes, he did so. Turbotax hardly covered the type of business expenses he incurred over the course of an average year. Benjamin Burke was the man who worked with him every year. He wore a suit which appeared to have been ironed into deadly edges. His glasses shone whenever they crossed a stray beam of light. He had grey hair, but it was the sort of grey hair which said that he had experience and vigor. Like Jack, he was incredibly thorough and precise at his work. One would think that would make them the best of friends, but that was decidedly not the case.

     “So you’re telling me the van was surrounded by these vampire cows, and then what happened?”

    “Stanley laid them out with his croquet mallet, and then we staked them with some rosewood. I was wondering if we could deduct his mallet, because it broke on one of their fangs.”

    Benjamin felt his hair growing thinner every year. If Jack didn’t pay so well, he would have quit working with him a long time ago. “Fellas, please. They’ll never take money off your taxes for, and I quote, “Durable croquet mallet made for crushing the skulls of your enemy.”

     “But I need them mallets for crushin’ the skulls of…”

     “Yeah, but Stan they’re never gonna buy it. How much cleaning fluid could you buy for the price of one of those special mallets you break with such frequency?”

     Stan looked up at the ceiling and started holding up fingers. This went on for a long time before he looked down and stated with absolute seriousness, “A lot.”

     “Fifty. It’s fifty. Further on down, you had another goblin hunt. Please, Jack. Tell me you didn’t use your own booze for it this time?”

     “I wish we had, the poor man had a king’s ransom in high end liquor.”

     Benjamin clapped his hands, “Thank God for small favors. I’ve got your mileage for the year already, no thanks to you. Do you have any questions on your end?”

     “If I burned down a motel because it was filthy beyond all reason, the owner is liable and not me, right?”

     “If he had insurance, he should get something for it, but you can’t just go around burning down clients buildings like that.”

     “I’m not sure he was from Earth, so I’m pretty sure he didn’t have insurance.”

     “That would also explain why he never pressed charges. Now we need to talk about your dry cleaning bill, which is substantial. One more thing, fellas. We’re going to have go over your numbers one more time. Just once, before I die, I would like to get you out of an audit.”

     Jack groaned and braced himself. Tax time went on forever every year. They were going to get audited anyways, they always did.

A note from the fireside~ 4/15/18

     Hello, dear friends. Please forgive my absence this last week. I managed a chapter on Monday, but unsurprisingly the Second-Hand Rumors chapter was late. I’m not sure why Liam’s chapters are so hard to write, but I find myself struggling with every single one. I feel like I need to be in a very specific place in order to write him. Maybe his plots take work too, I’m not sure. Anyways, news for the week. Liam’s story is going into a new arc starting this next Friday. I’m not sure exactly which arc we’re going with, so we’ll all be surprised when we find out. Jack’s going to continue forward in his investigation. This next chapter for him…which God help me is due tomorrow…is going to be huge. It’s going to set the course the the coming chapters through the summer and lead up to a conflict with one of the major villains of the series.

As a sort of apology, I’ve written a short thing called, “Jack and Stan- Paranormal Taxes.” This last week has been a little crazy. Recently, I got hired as a substitute teacher at the local school system. Child herding can be a tiring job, but I’m liking it so far. It’s requiring me to keep hours that I’m not used to, so it’s impacting my ability to write. I have been able to do some brief planning for Siren’s Cove, so that’s nice. What really needs to happen is that I just need to make a  map of the damned city. If anyone knows of any programs that are good for that sort of fantasy/steampunk map making please let me know in the comments.

     There haven’t been any more changes to WordPress or Patreon based on that. I’ve been kind of tired and just struggling to keep up. At the end of April/opening of May I am going on a trip with my wife. That week, I will likely take off because we’re going to be on the road. That’s not to say that I don’t plan on doing any writing, I just doubt I can get any editing done for me while we’re out. That being the case, I will work on writing when I get a chance, but I doubt I will post that week. Patreon fans! I am going to keep working on playing catch-up with you. Once we’ve caught up to both stories, I will post the stories on Patreon the day after, or the same day, that I post them here. I can shuffle things around, depending on feedback, but I doubt I will ever post on Patreon ahead of here. Ultimately, I consider posting on both platforms equally important. I just want there to be some options for your convenience.

Thank you so much for stopping by and listening to me ramble, dear friends. Please forgive the lateness of this week’s Second-Hand Rumors and do feel free to join me next week. I will be sure to save a seat for you by my hearth.

Second-Hand Rumors~ chapter 10

      If Liam lamented any one aspect of his chosen profession, it would be the solitude. Co-workers never stuck around long after they found out Liam was a thief. That, and the benefits of having a thief on the payroll are notoriously short. Unless there was a dire need for industrial espionage, Liam’s bag of skills weren’t in high demand. In fact, if asked what thieves were good for, most would respond that thieves are good at taking things from others. Liam wholeheartedly disagreed with this limited view. Thieves certainly were good at taking things, but they were also good at putting things back. The need to employ this vital secondary skill had arisen just recently. While stealing from an auction house for Simon, Liam waylaid a lot of other expensive, small items into the pockets of the greedy and gullible. It was the ensuing pandemonium when everyone made a break for it that had almost allowed him to get away without getting killed. Almost.

     Having spent the majority of his life working solo, Liam’s experience of office life was very limited. Thankfully, he had spent enough time in cities to know what to look for. Every office is like a river. There’s a flow to things that you can see once you look hard enough. Some workers are fish, who swim around the stream and make themselves useful wherever they’re needed. Some are the very river itself, who drift along in a line, passing work and rumors along like flowing waters. Most importantly, are the workers who function as the riverbanks. Those workers are the ones who keep the office drama contained and help everyone to move forward. Those are the corporate rocks which allow a business to function, thrive, and succeed.

     Normally, Liam would be looking for those workers; the stable ones who could weather the storm which Liam was about to rain down on their heads. Perhaps it made sense, given their genocidal business, that stability wasn’t a strong suit at the Society. As Liam stopped at the first few desks and asked some questions their office current rapidly became clear. The atmosphere here resembled a poisonous, stagnant swamp. Asking further workers only confirmed Liam’s suspicions. These were all ex-military, picked for their temperament and willingness to kill for money. They had been hired with Operation Nightingale in mind. That very same Operation had been so recently defunded by Liam himself, with a little help from John Neelan. That left a majority of the workers in a long term holding pattern, being paid lower wages for warming their desk chairs and reading endless reports.

     With that much pent up hostility in one building, all Liam needed to do was set the stage. Working his way from desk to desk, Liam stopped and mingled. He asked questions about what needed repairing. Every person told him something, and gave him far more information than they realized. As he talked, he made a list of these complaints. Lists look official and stop people from asking too many questions. The list would also allow Liam to categorically break everything on his way out of the building. The most notable complaint, which made Liam perk up the most, was about the heat. He had noticed it when he entered the offices. Someone needed to talk to the dragon about toning down the heat because it was summer. Nobody wanted to be the one go to talk to a dragon, so they left that bit to Liam. While he listened, he stole things. Small things, valuable things, inexpensive things, it hardly mattered so long as it fit somewhere on his person. He took them onwards to someone else’s desk and put them down. Some of the objects in question made their way to a common area. One especially expensive looking pen vanished into a potted plant, sticking about halfway out.

     Once Liam made his rounds, the first floor was a powder keg waiting for someone to notice where his heirloom golden pen had gotten to. He also possessed a list of complaints about mechanical problems as long as his arm. Liam felt safe in saying step two of his brilliant plan was done. Leaving the office and taking the elevator, Liam waved at the guards by the front door. One of them actually smiled and waved back, his suit creaking with strained threads as he did so. Apparently, the friendly repairman gets a little attention. The second floor contained far fewer offices. It did have a common room, a break room and a few other rooms Liam didn’t recognize. One of them bore the word “Interrogation” which caused Liam to reconsider exploring too far.

     Before leaving the floor, Liam went over the list of grievances and gave them what his father had called “the spit-polish” fix. It worked thusly. Find a broken thing and fix it just well enough to function until you were gone. His father had worked as a repairman who knew that in order to get more work, you needed things to be broken. What he hadn’t considered was that if you pulled this trick too many times, someone would definitely catch on. Liam still found it a valuable skill to have. His sizable list mentioned quite a few broken things on this floor. Liam worked hard to repair them just enough to work for a few days before they would fall apart again, and catastrophically so. His favorite was the enormous coffee machine. It had garnered a reputation for leaking. Liam stopped the leak and loosened every joint just enough so that using it would cause stress and eventually, the coffee maker would fall apart in a wave of hot water.

    Quickly making an exit to the elevator, Liam braced himself for what was left. The top two floors were where the important people resided. That’s how buildings worked. The elevator dinged once it reached the first of the two Society occupied floors at the top of the building. Liam wasn’t willing to risk running into someone who might recognize him on the top floor. Adrian Denavi, the maniacal red-eyed liaison to the Five Families, was a particular risk. It’s hard to forget someone you’ve tried to kill. It’s not as though Liam was worried about getting caught. It’s hard to get caught in a skyscraper when you can’t die. It might be a long ways down, but so long as Liam could smash himself through a window, he would get out alright. What scared him was his affiliation with the Nair family, though it was tenuous and involved black mail. If Adrian found out Liam had been messing with the Society again, he would blame Simon. It wouldn’t matter if he sent Liam, or if he even knew what Liam was up to, he would still get blamed. Liam was done having people’s blood on his hands. Well, the wrong people’s blood.

     The floor opened out from the elevator into a wide open space. Directly ahead of Liam, a large fountain occupied the center of the floor. Large benches were placed around it at regular intervals, with seats facing inward towards the fountain and outwards towards the windows. Light streamed in through the windows all around the floor, illuminating everything. Suddenly, the fanaticism the Society displayed seemed a lot more appropriate. The floors were marble, the walls were marble, and the ceilings shone in a way that only polished marble can. This floor looked more like a palace than an office. Perhaps once the Five Families were gone, the Society intended to pick up the reigns over whatever was left?

     The dull roar of people milling around waiting for something to occupy themselves with was absent. In fact, as Liam quickly scanned the room, he realized that nobody was on the floor but him. As he searched his memory, he vaguely remembered there being an important meeting for the Society coming up. All the more reason to stay off the top floor.

     All four corners of the massive floor were occupied by corner offices, set apart by glass walls. Each one possessed two desks, a smaller one for a secretary guard, and a massive desk in a smaller interior office. Above the door into each room, the name of a continent was written.

     Each district office for most of the world was represented in these rooms. At the moment, they were empty. It turns out that lady luck smiled on Liam for the time being. That meant he had to hurry and wrap up, before lady misfortune glowered. Rushing into the African office, Liam raced to the bigger desk in the corner and poked his nose into every drawer. Nothing of note, a few small things worth stealing, but nothing else. What really caused Liam’s eyes to light up was the computer on the executive’s desk. Their meeting must have started recently, because the desktop was still on and hummed softly in the background. An e-mail had been pulled up on the desktop. It must have been important, because it repeatedly stressed that this was an internal e-mail meant only for executives. Liam scanned it, hardly understanding what he read. What he did understand were the words “Reply All”. Adding every single e-mail in the poor executives entire notebook, he pressed send.

     If he hadn’t been working on the clock before, he really was on crunch time now. There was no way the Society wouldn’t notice an e-mail intended for upper management had been sent from one of their own to everyone on his e-mail list, from the lowest janitor to his old college friends. Quickly, Liam dashed from office to office. None of them offered quite the opportunity that an open and unlocked desktop had managed to give him, but the office for Australia had quite the juicy memo about potential downsizing. Liam snatched it up and headed for the elevator. Back down he went, to fix a few last things.

     The guards standing next to the doors waved, although one of them seemed confused as to why he had returned so early from his adventures to the top floor. Liam waved as he went back into the offices on the first floor, walking with the determined gait of a man who needed to be somewhere in a hurry or he would get his ass chewed out something fierce. That walk clicked with the second guard and he turned to mention it to his more suspicious compatriot, who seemed satisfied with the explanation given.

     From there, Liam went all the way down to the second level of the basement, stopping in front of the dragon. Taking a quick breath, he wiped his brow.

     “It is not often a human returns to me a second time. You do not even belong here, tiny human. Please, leave me in peace to work.”

     “About that. I was wondering if you could crank the heat up in the entire building?”
“Would that not cause great discomfort?”

     “With everything that’s about to happen, extreme discomfort is the least of their worries.”

     Even though Liam hadn’t given any details on his plan to the dragon, it hardly seemed inclined to argue. Stuck in a basement when you were meant to fly, that would give anyone a powerful chip on their shoulder. Sucking in it’s breath, the dragons chest expanded outward like a balloon, scales pushing outward from the growing bulge. Liam watched with fascination as a dragon brought flame to life. Out from its mouth in a stream that was smaller than Liam would have expected, it went into the funnel and up the pipes. He couldn’t tell if the temperature in the building had gone up yet, but it certainly had gone up in the basement. It felt like standing next to an open vat of molten steel.

     Walking back up the stairs, Liam inspected the work his Dirt Gremlins had done. Their paint of dirt & grease covered almost every globe. As he walked through the room, inspecting the locks and the globes of light hanging from the ceiling, he found himself trailed by three Dirt Gremlins. Once he was satisfied that it was time to get to work, he got to picking the locks of every single globe in the whole room. Now, more than ever, time was incredibly short. It took far too long to get the fairies to listen, and even once they had started nodding, Liam wasn’t entirely sure they had understood him.

     Liam was going to leave the basement, but that heavy door at the top was going to remain just slightly ajar. Liam managed to pack the Dirt Gremlins into the bag and get it over his shoulder. He would go upstairs first. The fairies would wait about two minutes and then fly out after him. The glass doors would hardly stop them. Those orbs they had been locked into only gave them trouble due to their thickness and inability to work up some speed before they hit the glass. With as many fairies as would be flying through all at once, there was no doubt in Liam’s mind they would make their way out. He left them some matches. Liam wanted to set fire to the globes himself, but nobody would be able to overlook a major fire and fairy escape just as he left the basement. With that, Liam fled upstairs and made his way towards the front door. On the way out, he gave a cheery thumbs up to some workers, but already the added heat was fueling tensions that would likely blow out of proportion by the end of the day.

     Crossing the street, Liam walked to the corner and waited, just out of sight, for the fireworks to begin. He didn’t have to wait long. Not even five minutes after he’d left, a shower of fairies blew through the large window at the front of the Society Headquarters, like a tornado made of a million tiny lights. It spiraled upwards before splitting off into multiple directions. Men with guns ran out and began shooting at them, managing to take down a handful as the rest flew out of range, over buildings, into the distance and their freedom. Shuffling his bag a few times to calm the Dirt Gremlins down, Liam turned around the corner and left. With nobody to blame, if Liam had done his job well enough, the pent up aggression would be turned inwards to disastrous results.

     Liam hardly wished ill on them, though he did think anyone willing to work for the Society for the Protection of Humankind was an asshole too large for this world. What they had brought down, they had brought down on themselves. As he trudged back to his apartment, a small paper butterfly landed on his shoulder. Plucking it down, Liam opened it and read the note. “It makes me nervous when I don’t know where you are. Come and see me at once, I have work.” Ah, shit. Liam felt almost a hundred percent certain he had been busted. Well, he knew how to play this game. If Simon wanted to know what he had been up to, he would have to work for it like everyone else.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 39

   Most cults function in a manner that one would expect if you crossbred high school drama with a totalitarian state. The latest gossip traveled at light speed from one side of such highly insular communities to the other. Gossip about out of town strangers asking inconvenient questions traveled even faster. That’s why, when the hotel manager told Jack they were expected for dinner, he decided to eat somewhere else. They arrived early enough in the day that there was no reason not to hit the pavement and start asking questions. The first burning question Jack held in his mind was who exactly had called him. The caller had been cut off before he had finished his request and Jack would never get paid unless he found out what the job was and who had hired him.

     On the way into town, Jack had spied a small diner replete with a diner counter that had resident truckers. Truckers that stopped into small towns like this often ended up growing roots, usually on stools in diners. That’s how they become permanent parts of the establishment. He insisted they left their belongings in the room without locking the door because the people who were most likely to try and rifle through their things owned the hotel, and thus had all the keys anyway. Jack hoped they did search his belongings. It would certainly speed his process up to no end. The diner itself was unlike any Jack had ever seen before. It certainly had the usual focus on burgers and fries, but the menu also had far more vegetable dishes than he would have expected.

     The waitress took their order, brought their food out and smiled gently at all their comments about having been hired to do some cleaning and the phone call that got interrupted. Jack even went so far as to say that he was investigating the case and that got a brief less than subtle look back to the fry chef, whose worried reaction Jack didn’t even need to see to know that the plan was working.

     What did concern Jack was the lack of any kind of identifiable marker. Most cults had something which gave their members away, usually some tacky robes or polyester track suits. On one especially pathetic occasion, the mandated garb had been Snuggies with the cult leaders leering face emblazoned on the front. Another group actually wore giant mouse ears, though that might have been because Jack brought that cult to ground in Disney World. Given Jack’s growing suspicion that the entirety of the town belonged to the cult, he was legitimately surprised to find no such common clothing item. Since they could cut random phone calls at will, this was a seriously proper cult. Maybe track suits were old hat, but he still expected something. Maybe a ribbon or a badge, just something to let other cultists know you played for the home team. Since the townsfolk seemed to be wearing perfectly normal clothes, it must be a physical condition, like a film over the eyes, or gills or some such nonsense.

     As he ate, watching the other customers eat as well, he finally noticed it; an old man walked out the door, passing them on his way. He wore a pair of jeans and a white dress shirt. One of the buttons towards his chest had come undone, leaving a tuft of white threads poking out. A quick glance confirmed they weren’t hair. Jack had a distant memory of them, somewhere buried in the back of his mind. When he tried to think of it, the specifics evaded him. It would come to him soon enough when he got to examine one of the cultists up close and personal. As he continued to watch, knowing what to look for now, many other patrons showed evidence of the same strange white threads on their chest. While it was possible they belonged to some cultic clothing worn underneath the normal clothes, something about those white threads felt unnatural and strange to Jack.

     After they ate, Jack paid and led Stan outside and took in the cool night breeze. The summer heat of the day had turned into a cool balmy night and a gentle breeze blew down Main Street keeping things fresh. Jack almost allowed himself to relax until two separate events occurred, almost at the same time, which completely destroyed his concentration. The first was the realization that he was being watched from every building on the street, even the ones that were too far away to make out his features. The people walking by, smiled through Jack and wished him a pleasant evening even as they plotted where his remains would be planted.

     The second event genuinely shocked him, making Jack feel as though he were going mad for a moment. He thought he could hear Metallica playing in the air, but that hardly seemed like the kind of music that would be played over the speakers in a small town like this. In spite of his continued efforts to convince himself that the music wasn’t real, it kept getting louder until he eventually realized that there was only one source that would show up around now. Soon, Jack could hear the engine and the windows on the storefronts started to shake. Stan heard it too and started looking around to try and find the source. The cultists in the streets renewed their mean high school cultist whispers, speaking ill of whoever dared to approach their town blaring rock at volumes even Jack would consider “extremely excessive”.

     Jack rubbed the bridge of nose shook his head. His sister would be coming into town and much like other drifters, she would look for that place where out of town roots settle down. This would be where she would stop. It took around ten minutes from when they had first heard the music, but she did eventually stop her bike right in front of the diner. She bounded over to Jack and gave him a big hug. Jack returned her hug before gently pushing her back and brushing some stray hairs out of her eyes. Then he adjusted her jacket slightly. Then he tugged her shirt straight and she grabbed his hands and told him to knock it off.

     “What brings you to town sister? Would it happen to be some mysterious phone call that got cut off around halfway through?”

     “Yeah, with some weird line about green eyes at the end that I totally didn’t get.” Sam scanned the street and caught the stares she was being given. Being the wild child often meant getting stares like that in small towns like this, but even Sam was aware enough to know when something was off.

     “In other words, we both got the same phone call from the same person about a cult in Ramshead. It mysteriously got cut off before he could tell us anything. This couldn’t possibly be a trap.”

     Sam smirked and turned her gaze up and down the streets, “You’re on to something, little brother. I wonder if any other Goodbody family members will show up?”

     “You never know, Julian is back in the state with his current soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. He might have gotten a call too, and you know how he adores cute bed and breakfast places.”

     “Oh no, another one? What was it this time?”

     “He got to watch Julian kill a giant snake. That’s sort of a mood killer.”

     “Ah, gotcha. So I’m safe leaving my bike here, right Jack?”

     Jack turned to look at her Harley. It was parked in a fire lane and stuck out slightly into the street, “Might as well, they’re going to find some excuse to impound it anyway so let’s give them a legal one.” The streets had started to quiet down for the night, but ominously Jack could still hear whispers from inside houses and front yards. The shut-down of the town was clearly more for the cult’s benefit than it was for their visitors.

     Jack tugged on his sister’s arm and started leading her back to his hotel, with Stan trailing along behind, “So my thoughts are, we go ahead and clean up the town and when we’re done they either pay us to leave or we find out who called us and we get paid for cleaning up the town. It’s a no lose situation.”

     Sam cocked an eyebrow at the simplistic explanation, “Or the person who called both of us was luring us into a trap that the whole town is either somehow a part of or in on and nobody had any intention of paying us. It’s not a coincidence that we both were called to the same town by the same mystery client.”

     “In that case, we just take the money and pay ourselves when we’re done. Also, setting a trap means free dibs on their stuff, you know the rules Sam.”

     “Alright, you win. So basically, we follow the rules and throw some rocks at this culty hornet’s nest and see what happens?”

     “Way ahead of you, threw a few when we came into town and your arrival essentially functions as one too. That means we really only have one left, the big one. I didn’t expect you to be here but it will be far easier with you.”

     “Phony missing person’s report?”

     “Phony missing person’s report.”

     The missing person’s report usually set creepy cults to red alert defcon one, Cthulhu has landed mode. There isn’t a single cult in the world that wants federal investigators coming into town and ruining their whole perfect town vibe. The investigators would go into the hotel and read their magazines and not even pay for them and arrest the cultists for crimes they committed in the name of some evil deity because they “just don’t understand”.