Give a man a month in the woods and it will last a lifetime in his heart. The office felt suffocating and cramped, after being out in the woods for days on end. Shortly after arriving back Stan had flopped on the couch and lit a cigar, which soon filled the room with the wonderful smell of home and safety. Jack drifted off in his chair, feeling satisfied with a job well done and ecstatic that his cousin was back in the state. After a week of rest, Jack felt rested enough to return to work. The summer slowly climbed to its height and only just now Jack realized that soon the Fall jobs would be coming in.
Jack’s train of thought was derailed by the most shocking source, their office phone. The phone had been stubbornly ignoring both of them for days, as though it had been insulted by their absence. Jack had to race to catch the phone before it ran out of rings, “Jack and Stan cleaning services, the skeletons in your closet are our specialty. How can we be of service?”
“Oh thank God, I’ve been trying to call you for weeks now. The village elders….they’re stopping us from calling out of town. We need someone to uh…clean the town square. We’re in Maine, a small town called Ramshead and…”
The phone suddenly burst into static and Jack could only catch bits and pieces of the words that followed. Killed all those who resisted, cult, they took the children and so on. Two more words caught his ears though. Green eyes. And that was what settled it. Jack pulled out his pad of paper and scribbled out supplies, handing the paper to Stan before returning to his thoughts. It was a long shot, to be sure, but those green eyes had haunted his fascination since he had found a dying Charles Beaufort. The only clue that sad man gave him about the fiend who had killed him and poached Jack’s work was that he had green eyes. Any chance he had to track down their owner, or owners, he would take gladly with no more questions asked. In the worst case scenario, most cults are rich and would pay handsomely to get him to leave. Either way, Jack came out on top.
An unsettling thought occurred to Jack, that he was doing more cleaning of people than he was of things and that this was more his family’s line of work than it was his. Still, he could hardly turn down a job with so many bonuses too it. Maybe, if he cleaned out the town really well, they would actually let him clean some of the public buildings. Contrary to popular opinion, even though they looked the cleanest they were very often incredibly dirty. Jack assumed this was because of all the dirty things that normally inhabit them, dirty money, dirty cops, dirty mayors, dirty judges and all that dirt really adds up. Dirty politicians, however, who also may be cult members, happened to be borderline uncleanable.
Packing took no time at all, since most of their tools were still in the car and only a few things needed to be added. Soon enough, they were on the road again. The road east led into farmlands and rolling hills. Then the mountains began, Vermont was full of mountains. From there, they cut through New Hampshire and up to Maine and their newest job. The road that led into Ramshead turned into a dirt road and then a dirt path. Jack assumed they were lost, until they found the “Welcome to Ramshead” sign perched on the side of the road. It appeared to be larger than the sign which had welcomed them into Maine. The sign for the town ominously had a running population tally of new and deceased residents, turning the town into what was likely a census takers nightmare. The tally ran onto a crude wooden board someone had nailed beneath the official sign.
“Seems like them people don’t know if they’re comin’ or goin’”
“Doubtless they’re going to the local graveyard, Stanley. I think the real question is when they run out of space, do they add another board or do they just make a new sign?”
Stan chewed on his cigar for a moment, lost in thought, before responding, “Which one of them is cheaper?”
“Good point. It looks like it got worse once someone realized their math was off. If I were a census taker, I would be livid. Missing people indeed.” Jack pointed at the left hand column of the running population tally. It would have been more frightening if the less than astute sign maker hadn’t forgotten to carry the one, leading to a whole row of addition and subtraction needing to be done over in a different hand.
The town of Ramshead was larger than the sign would have led him to believe. The main street down through town was wonderfully appointed, with uniform white houses and gardens that looked so much the same Jack wondered if they all had one very obsessive compulsive gardener. The grocery store looked like it belonged in a different time, before neon lights and weekend sales on deli products. The people in the town seemed normal too, and that was what set Jack on edge. The phone call had almost certainly gotten cut off from their end, not his, and that meant someone with sophisticated enough equipment to block a phone call. That being said, their police office looked like it had a capacity of one cell for the mandatory town drunk and the library likely didn’t even have a computer in it. All the buildings in the main financial area were made out of bricks and the stores were so local Jack doubted people outside the area even knew of their existence. All in all, the town was just wrong.
Cults thrive on routine and dehumanization. What Jack learned early on was that the best way to deal with cults was incredibly formulaic as well. Step one, find out who belonged in the cult and who was just standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jack looked around as they drove down the street. Everyone watched the van with wary eyes behind overly genuine smiles. Well, that was easy. It’s everyone.
Step two, find a hotel and get a room. Cults this size almost always had the local hotels on lockdown, and that made getting a room akin to throwing a rock at a hornet’s nest. The local hotel turned out to be a three story building that wrapped around the street corner. It was white, like all the wooden buildings in the town, and every window had a flower box hanging from it planted with lilies. Stan parked the van and Jack hopped out, walking around and heading up the stairs into the inn. The front porch had rocking chairs on it that brought Jack unfortunate memories of a doctor wearing ruby slippers and a witch’s hat chasing asylum patients around which Jack quickly banished from his mind. In this town, he already knew that the inmates weren’t just running the asylum, they likely founded the damned thing.
The front doors opened out from the center and the lobby looked like something directly out a magazine which spotlighted New England cult towns. Oh, there it was in a rack by the front desk. Jack examined the cover as it got closer. Published by the Friends of Ramshead Society, the magazine was called Maine Town Beautiful. Ok, this was getting a little creepy even by Jack’s very liberal standards on what qualified as creepy.
The woman working behind the counter radiated friendliness. She likely even believed in her friendliness too. She wore a simple white dress and on the left breast was a red rose pendant. As soon as she noticed Jack she greeted him in the manner he greeted an old friend, Welcome, stranger! We don’t get many visitors around here. What can I do for you? Dinner, or are you looking for a room?”
“Both, if you can manage.”
“Of course we can, I’ll have a table reserved for you tonight and we’ll give you the best room we have available. Plenty of open space. Dinner starts at seven and the cook likes it when guests are prompt.” She slid Jack the guest book. In the radiant light, her blonde hair sparkled and the wrinkles when she smiled made her seem so very charming. Her smile was wider than Jack was sure his mouth was capable of stretching, not a crime in and of itself, but disconcerting nonetheless.
“Thank you, I’m sure the room will be lovely.” Jack signed his own named and Stan’s and instantly regretted it when she slid the book back across with the names. A frown flitted across her face for an instant but Jack was entirely unsure if it was his imagination, it had been such a quick change of expression. It wasn’t like he needed the expression on her face to tell him what he already knew.
“So what brings you to our humble little town?”
Jack almost broke down laughing. There was literally nothing humble about this town, the hotel least of all, “We’re here for work. We got hired by someone in this town to do some cleaning, but I’m not even sure who it is. Our phone call got cut off as we were still talking. I’m going to have to poke around town to find out who it was. Got any ideas?”
“Not at all, I wish I could help you.” The most disturbing part was her smile never stopped being genuine. It remained friendly and animated the whole time, revealing nothing of what Jack assumed was going on in that head of hers. Well, at any rate Jack had thrown the first couple of rocks. All that was left to do was unload a few more and wait for the hornet defense squad to rain down on the invaders.