Second-Hand Rumors~ chapter 20

     Honor amongst thieves wasn’t entirely the myth most people assumed it was. In Liam’s limited experience, it had a higher sliding scale for calculating costs than most people’s sense of honor did. That honor to cost ratio was yet another reason why Liam tended to work alone; because he usually ended up regretting it. Somehow, Liam’s priceless value wasn’t as apparent to your average thief as a diamond the size of his fist. His current cohorts weren’t in it for the money, which meant they were in it for honor or some such nonsense.

     As though to confirm his understanding of the situation, his buzzing phone taunted him with the knowledge that this train was about to go off the rails in a big way. Answering the call, Liam pressed the phone to his ear, “You’ve got Liam.”

     “Hey, Liam.” It was Christopher Goodbody, “I had a thought. JJ told me about one of the Fourteen Kings being here. It’s the dwarf king. Let’s just kill him now.”

     “That’s a terrible idea.” Peering down the hall, he could hear glasses clinking and voices chattering away. It sounded remarkably civil for a party of elites being held hostage via blackmail.”

     “Hear me out, Liam. If we start a fight with the King, everyone will bolt. Our two Revers can catch the bad ones on the way out, and we can destroy the blackmail material before we leave. It’s fool-proof.” Christopher sounded incredibly pleased with his plan.

     “And what happens when someone calls the cops?”

     “All the better. If someone calls in the cops, it will be almost impossible for the Society to call in more goons, and the King won’t be able to escape without attracting attention.”
Groaning, Liam hoped his Dirt Gremlins did their work. His original part of the plan was to help escort innocent party goers from the group, their records expunged by his tiny helpers, “Stick to the plan. I know I’m spitting in the wind, but how exactly do you plan to kill the King?”

     “If I start a fight in the middle of the party, everyone will run. While we go at it in the chaos, Robert will find an opening and strike. I don’t seriously think I can win a straight up fight with him, I just need to give Robert the chance he needs. We can leave during the aftermath and get out before anyone knows what happened This way, we don’t need to escort people out one by one. We can just catch up with them later, and we get to kill one of the Fourteen Kings.”.

     “What do you plan on doing about Adrian Denavi? He’s not just going to let you kill the one guest who probably wants to be here.”

     There was a long pause before Christopher responded, “He’s not here, at least not at the main party. Of the guards I’ve asked, nobody seems to know where he is. Look, I talked it over with Robert, so I’m getting started. Trust me, Liam.”

     The phone went dead. Liam knew one thing. He didn’t want to miss this fight. Not out of some morbid curiosity, but from a genuine fear that everything was going to go wrong. Adrian would never miss a Society event this important. From his limited exposure to the man, Adrian seemed obsessive compulsive about his work. His apparent absence meant he was either somewhere more important, or somewhere out of sight at the hostage party.

     Taking a few turns, Liam found himself standing on the outskirts of the gala. Art pieces had been set up along the walls to provide a veneer of class to the event. Two long rows of tables lay along each wall, most of them filled with finger foods everyone was too polite to eat. High ceilings looked down over the attendees, with murals of cherubic angels losing their cloth diapers in hopes of becoming the next sunscreen baby. The height of the ceilings allowed everyone’s voices to echo around the room, which was having a strained effect on the guests. The attendees had split off into groups of twos or threes, slowly circulating around the room in strange social avoidance patterns. When the groups ran into each other, they would split off and two new, but different, groups would emerge and head off in different directions.

      Liam didn’t know where the King was, so he decided to imagine he was parched and needed to find all the alcohol in the world. If their target was as drunk as Christopher said he was, he would be within standing distance of the largest concentration of alcohol in the building. Even without that mental exercise, the King was easy enough to spot, because he was the only one with a large, and ever-expanding space around him. If the dour sounding name, or the proclivity to drunkenness didn’t give away whose king he was, his stature and appearance certainly sealed the deal. He was short, though not as short as Liam might have expected. He wore his beard in thick braids and twined through it were trophies of past conquests. As a fellow drinker, Liam could certainly see the appeal of his decorations. They were silver and gold decorations taken from exorbitantly priced alcohols he had defeated in the past. Even from across the room, he could hear the Kings booming voice regaling anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot of further times when he had become inexcusably drunk and done dreadful things to the upholstery.

     Gorge Doomsayer wore his name on his sleeve. When presented with impending destruction, people react most commonly in one of two ways. They either eat, drink and grow merry for they know their death approaches, or they give everything up and set about destroying the world. Those were not the clothes of avarice. There was something utilitarian about his black suit which set Liam on edge. The muscles which bulged out from under his suit weren’t earned in leisure, that’s for sure. The only sparkly thing about him were the bits of silver and gold twined through his expansive brown beard. Though laughter hung around the edges of his voice, like a surprise party about to break out at any second, he had a haunted expression in his eyes which Liam had seen all too often. It wasn’t that he just wanted the world to burn, he had already seen it somewhere in the past.

     Liam didn’t have long to contemplate this before Christopher showed up. He had never been more grateful to know that two Revers lurked in the background, watching and waiting for an opportunity. Christopher hadn’t changed for the party. He still wore the same ratty clothes he had been wearing when he left the apartment. If anyone noticed him, and his ratty clothing, they were too polite to mention it. Abandoning any pretenses of subtlety , Christopher simply walked up to Gorge and punched him in the face.

The punch rocked Gorge back and almost pushed him straight off his feet into a table covered with bottles of hard liquor. Regaining his balance, Gorge blinked a few times and shook his head, an expression which must have crossed Liam’s own face many times when reality interfered with his drunken stupor.

     “Ha!” That one laugh, barked out loud enough to echo from the walls of the ballroom, was not the reaction Liam had expected. Christopher took a step backwards and raised his fists. His confused expression told Liam that he hadn’t expected the King to react so quickly to that punch, despite his status and reputation.

     “Now this is more like it! Who sent me the party favor!?” Gorge ripped his black coat from his shoulders and tossed it to the ground. His massive shoulders bulged as he rolled the sleeves of his shirt up, random alcohol trophies jingling with every move.

     Christopher smiled, the excitement of a good fight overtaking his common senses, “Does it really matter? I’m going to kill you.”

     Gorge nodded appreciatively, a smile dancing around the edges of his lips, “You must be a Goodbody. Those blue eyes and that absurdly sturdy body give you away. I hope you can show an old dwarf like me a good time.”

     Having said that, he launched himself at an impossible speed towards Christopher, like a human battering ram with a beard. Gorge must have been more drunk than he realized, however, because Christopher was able to step to the side and grab the dwarf by his arm and leg as he hurtled past. Using Gorge’s own momentum against him, Christopher spun around in place and whipped his cargo towards a wall. Hitting it at full speed, he broke through the wall and into the next room. If Liam hadn’t been so worried, it would have been comical when Gorge popped his head back through, his beard slowly popping back out like a glittery brown flower blooming in spring.

     “Oh, you’ll do nicely. I hope you’re ready for what’s coming.” Gorge hardly waited before attacking once more. Rather than slipping back through the hole he had created, Gorge simply walked through the wall. Liam was no stranger to violence. He had seen, and been on the receiving end, of some barbaric acts which still made him shudder to think of it. He had seen fights so fast, his eyes could hardly keep up with them. This fight was entirely without class. It was brutality personified. Christopher, being a Goodbody, must not have been used to fighting someone who could go toe to toe with him. Gorge’s fighting style focused mostly around body blows, as one would expect from a dwarf. When he punched Christopher hard enough to send him flying back a few feet, Liam could feel it in his bones.

     Christopher doubled over and coughed. When his hand came away, it was slick with blood. Gorge wasn’t about to let him rest, however, and ran back to the table he had been standing near. Liquor bottles make convenient rockets in the right hands, and Gorge was a skilled Makers Marksman. Bottles whirred into Christopher, shattering into sparkling showers of glass and high-end liquor. Turning his back to Gorge, Christopher huddled down on the ground and made sure only his back could be hit.

     That wasn’t the worst idea Liam had ever seen. Getting killed by a random bottle to the face felt like an anti-climactic way to go, but that tactic did require him to take his eyes away from Gorge, and the dwarf proved incapable of ignoring such a taunt. Rushing his opponent with a speed which Liam found impossible to believe, given his stubby legs, Gorge leapt into the air, a hitherto unseen dagger in his left hand. He was speeding downwards like a dwarven bullet when he suddenly swung forward gently. Grasping at his neck, Gorge dropped his dagger and swung backwards. Squinting his eyes, Liam could make out the barest glint of metal hanging from the ceiling. He had been alive long enough to notice an assassin’s handiwork.

     That wasn’t the only metal noose hanging from the ceiling. The longer he looked, the more he could see, darted around the ceiling and hanging towards the floor, just waiting for someone to occupy them. Liam wondered whose work that was, Jenny or Robert’s. Given their impracticality, Liam decided that it was likely Jenny’s work. Gorge turned a bright red color and started to bounce up and down. Breaking that filament would be impossible, but the ceiling was less prepared to deal with the exuberant death rattles of a dwarven king. With a resounding crack, a large portion of the ceiling came loose and rained down all around them. With the tension loose, Gorge managed to get the wire from around his neck. Breathing heavily, he was in no state to do any fighting.
Christopher rose to his feet and brushed the glass from his shoulder in a care-free manner which reminded Liam of Sam. Turning to face Gorge, he started advancing slowly, watching him carefully and noting his every move. Reaching into his pocket, Gorge produced a figure of a wolf from his pocket. With a start, Liam realized that figure looked incredibly familiar. He had seen a very similar one amongst the figures in the Nair family vault. That was around the time when Adrian had managed to rob the vault of a few figures. He had no idea what was going to happen, but he knew it wasn’t going to be good.

     Gorge tossed the wolf figure onto the floor and it sprouted, growing rapidly into a living wolf with razor sharp yellowed teeth, about the size of a large grey hound. It stood between Christopher and Gorge, allowing the King a few moments to catch his breath. When Christopher took a step back, it lunged at him, chasing him across the entirety of the room and pressing him into a wall, snapping at his face.

     In his moment of triumph, the dwarf king had failed to watch his own back. Robert, appearing from thin air, materialized behind Gorge and tugged him roughly to his feet. Pressing his own dagger to his throat, he held his captive close and yelled, “Call the wolf off! Now!

      Liam’s blood ran cold as Gorge began to laugh, “Now we’re having a party!” Taking a step back, Liam tripped over nothing and fell to the ground. The sudden movement caught Gorge’s eye, and his eyes registered an expression of recognition which Liam hardly liked the look of. This job was over. Everyone needed to get out right now.

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Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 44

     Death follows the Goodbody family. It was as much a part of their family heritage as hunting or individuality. Somehow, it still caught Jack off guard when someone he cared about died. The brilliant sickening light cascading from the chandelier blinded him slightly, leaving his thoughts fuzzy, and his motions sluggish and slow. The cult leader, who just vanished up to the third floor in an undignified escape, was the goal which kept Jack going. Cults were, almost by design, incredibly suspicious of outsiders, but in Jack’s experience they treated other cults in much the same way major corporations treated client e-mail lists. They often networked and bickered with each other about their dueling insane beliefs. While Jack felt certain that his ineptitude had led to his sister’s demise, he could still find what was left of her and give her a decent burial at home. He doubted her spirit would stay there long. She had never been a homebody in life, and what remained of her would follow suit in the afterlife as well.

      His thoughts came crashing back to reality with Stan’s mallet, which swung through the air in a short, tight arc and smacked his head into what remained of the wall they had just knocked down. The lenses of his glasses shattered and crinkled to the ground, his ruined frames quickly following them, slipping from his face. This would be a race then. How fast could Jack catch up with this farce of a cult leader while keeping ahead of Stan? Slightly dazed, he snatched the shaft of the mallet before Stan could retract it to strike him again, he grabbed the mallet head and pulled it off. Trying to remove the mallet, or break it, would prove to be too time consuming. With this, at least Stan only had a long stick. What damage could he do with a stick?

     When he had a free moment, and Stan was no longer trying to kill him under the orders of a man they had never met before, he would have to examine him to find out what was going on. Only the unhinged and chaotic nature of the moment stopped that question from rising to the top of his mind. Concern for his friend, along with the time it would have taken to fight him, meant that a frontal confrontation was out of the question. Stan wavered for a moment, holding the handle to his mallet with a dumbfounded expression he had never seen before. It must be the light, which was affecting Jack’s ability to focus as well.

     Time felt as though it was drawing to a stop as Jack dodged away from Stan and took his first step towards the stairs. The cloaked cultists rushing towards the stairs to cut him off looked as though they were moving in slow motion. It was a sensation which Sam had described to him often, the feeling of absolute concentration she achieved when hunting. On rare occasions, he had experienced the same sensation, but it was rare that the work he took with Stan pushed him to that extreme. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, he could see the openings between the bodies cascading down the stairs in a river of angry, undulating idiots.

     It was his instincts which saved him, almost pushing him back a step without even knowing why. The mallet handle shot past him and flew off into the building before lodging itself into a wall. Apparently, that’s what Stan could do with a stick. Time to put some distance between himself and Stan. If they got into a fight, Jack would almost certainly win, but it would take precious moments which his quarry could use to escape capture. Rather than let the moment run away, he decided to let Stan be the one to take out the cultists racing down the stairs. It was the least he could do for Jack, given that he had already attacked him twice.

     Once he decided to avoid any fighting, his path became easier. Advancing up the stairs, taking two steps at a time, Jack slipped himself through gaps in the crowd of cultists. Worming his way in between them, he could hardly slow down a moment with Stan chasing him. Anyone who fell behind him was violently thrust out of the way, as Stan struggled to deal with the brainwashed, robed traffic barriers Jack left in his wake. As he reached the top of the stairs, Jack grabbed one particularly hefty cultist by his robe and helpfully shoved him down the stairs. The cultists below him tumbled down like dominoes directly into Stan, who had to brace himself to stop them from pushing him back. That gained Jack a precious few seconds.

     It occurred to him while he ran up the stairs that Stan’s behavior would immensely improve if that chandelier weren’t shining anymore. That must be what was affecting his own movements, and if it were affecting Stan’s motor skills as well, it would explain why he was having a relatively easy time keeping ahead of him. There was something strange about that light, however. Something which clearly went beyond a normal chandelier. The cult leader had mentioned receiving it recently. Mentally, Jack added it to the list of questions he wanted to ask the man when he found him.

     Reaching the third floor Jack quickly located the chain which held the chandelier suspended over the second floor. It had been lowered via a winch to shine down onto the second floor. That was likely why portions of the floors and walls were missing, so that the light could shine on as many places in the building as possible. He wanted to give it a closer examination, but Stan’s footsteps gave him no pause for thought. All he needed to do was stop the chandelier from shining. The walls around him lacked any switches and the cord ran around a wall off into the third floor. With that in mind, he took the chain in his hands and lifted it up slightly to give himself some slack. Just as Stan reached the third floor, Jack snapped the chain holding the chandelier into two with a sharp jerk. Letting go of the chain, it swung downwards towards the floor and shattered into pieces.
The lights from the chandelier vanished with that crashing sound, and the pain which Jack hadn’t even realized was lurking in the front of his head went away. Stan collapsed to his knees, dust rising around him as he fell forward, barely managing to support himself on his hands.

     Jack was at his side in an instant, checking his forehead with the back of his hand and gently pulling an eyelid open to check his eyes. The pupils were dilated and appeared to writhe slightly as though they couldn’t maintain their shape. As Jack watched, the movement slowly came to a stop.

     “Sorry…boss. Ain’ no way I could’a stopped. Them lights was in my head.” Stan slumped forward and gently hit the ground. His heavy breathing reassured Jack that when he came to, he would be back to his old self.

     Getting up and adjusting his tie, Jack scanned the third floor. The walls remained mostly intact, but thankfully he hardly had to look for his target very long. He was the only other person moving in the whole building. Everyone else was either dead, unconscious, or wishing mightily that they were dead, thanks to Stan’s rampage. The few cultists who were conscious merely sat, holding their heads. Stopping, he leaned down and examined one. He seemed disoriented, lost, and entirely confused as to where he was, or even when he was.

     Leaving the cultist, he turned his attention back to their former leader. As Jack listened, he could hear footsteps retreating away from him, headed downwards. Oh, of course. There would have to be some second set of stairs reserved for a making a quick escape in case the Feds got interested in why so many people were coming onto the property, and just decided to never leave.

     In a building with three stories, and stairs which could only lead down, Jack at least knew the general direction he was headed in. Racing back down the stairs, and winding around the bodies he had pushed past only minutes before, he reached the ground floor in record time. After waiting for just long enough to be sure that his quarry hadn’t simply left via a side door, checking from the front door for flapping robes in the distance, Jack decided to explore the first floor. It didn’t take long to find a door which led down into a basement. In his haste to escape from Jack, he had left it open, but it wouldn’t have taken Jack long to find it anyways.

     It led downwards into a crypt of sorts, with a seemingly endless amount of spaces open for bodies. Many of the spaces were already filled, with believers or apostates, not that it made much difference at this point. He found the cult leader desperately scraping away at a wall with his fingernails. Jack scratched his head. Why would anyone go down this path if there was no way out? Maybe he expected Jack would just leave, under the assumption that he had already left. Panic or overconfidence had led to his downfall.
“I didn’t do anything wrong! This isn’t my fault!” The cult leader’s hooded robe fell away, and the result was as spectacularly underwhelming as Jack had learned to expect. He was a thin man, with pale eyes and a sort of dreamy expression on his face. His few wisps of hair spoke of stressful hours running a rat race which, as a cult leader, he no longer needed to run. On the chart of banal evil, he was evil milk toast, capable of hurting people only because someone had given him something so powerful even he couldn’t screw it up. The power in his voice had vanished, replaced by a cowering, wavering voice which sounded more natural coming from his frame.

     “We’re surrounded by those who followed your beliefs, whatever they were, and you have the gall to tell me that you didn’t do anything wrong?”

     “The light! The light will save us all, which shines from any source which has the stone! It knows all, and sees all, and…”

     Jack stopped listening as the situation became clear. It was different than whatever Jack could have expected. This thing he had found, or been given, it was so powerful it had warped his mind. The blind was leading the blind, “And who gave this thing to you?”
“Goodbody!”

     After that, he fell silent and looked down at his hand. He was holding a small black cylinder with strangely familiar black markings. Prying it from his hands, Jack turned away and returned to the first floor without a word. He found a groggy Stan waiting for him.

     “Boss, I ain’t never had that happen before. I got no idea what happened.”

     Holding up the black cylinder he had taken mere moments before, Jack shook his head, “It sounds like everyone was being controlled by this thing. It looks almost exactly like the one we took from Creepy Bug Guy. We can’t let anyone else get their hands on these.”

Stan scratched his chin thoughtfully, “So the reason yer father had them notes on this cult was that metal piece’a…”

     “Yes, it had absolutely nothing to do with the Cult of the Fields, or my sister. We’ve been had, Stanley. All we can do is head back home and get to work recovering what’s left of my sister. I find it hard to believe she’s still alive at this point, given how many of their people she killed in her one woman rampage.”

     “What about them cultists? I smell no blood on you either, what about the guy in charge?”

     Jack paused, “I left him alive, technically, but he’s all alone now. The only member of a cult more helpless than the suckers on the lowest rung is the biggest sucker sitting on top. You learn to think you’re invincible and you forget how to take care of yourself. That guy was a nobody before, and he’s still a nobody now. If the other members of the cult don’t find him, he’s going to die on his own. Nobody will even remember his name.”

     “What’s his name?”

     “I don’t know, I never asked.”

     Tragedy never happens for a reason. People gave purpose to them afterwards, something Jack refused to do. In his haste, and his fear, he had sought out his kidnapped sister and failed to find her. Ezra’s companion, Ishmael Denavi, had sent him on a wild goose chase, and in his eagerness to find his sister, he had fallen for the ploy. He had found another Machina, likely the reason his father kept notes on the place. He had planted a seed, tended it, and watched it grow twisted and evil from afar. That didn’t give this trip purpose, nor did it give his tragedy a meaning. His sister was almost certainly dead, and that was something he would live with. When he found his father, he had some questions he needed to ask him. His father might not like the questions, but Jack wasn’t sure he even wanted the answers. The long trek back to the van and the ride homewards would give him plenty of time to think it over.

A note from the fireside~ 7/22/18

     Hello, dear friends. This will be a short post. I really didn’t want to write this post. God knows I wanted to avoid writing this post. This last week has been such a mess. I have two rough drafted posts, but I finished them far too late for my wife to look at. This last week was mostly spent helping my sister in law move out, and then my wife and I had a mini vacation planned. Between those two things, I got so little writing done. I’m sorry. I was tempted to wait until tomorrow to write a post, but you deserved to hear it from me today. God, I screwed up this last week. For what it’s worth, the added time has really clarified in my mind what I want to get done. Please forgive me, dear friends. I’ve been sick and I’ve been tired, but that’s no excuse. I’m going to give my wife two posts to edit tomorrow, and hopefully this week will be smoother and I can give her two more on Friday. Thank you so much for your patience. You all mean the world to me.

A note from the fireside~ 7/15/18

     Hello, dear friends. I can’t begin to express how much I’ve missed you. This week has been very long, very disappointing and very full. I will attempt to do my best to avoid giving you too much personal details, that’s not really what these posts are about. Neither Cleaners nor Rumors posts are ready. I’ve tried so hard this week to get any writing done.  Today, I rough drafted most of a Cleaners chapter and things felt more certain this week than they have in weeks past. Chapters 44 and 45 will wrap up this arc, and I have something special planned for the end. It’s given me an opportunity to tighten up the last part for Paranormal Cleaners, which excites me greatly. Second-Hand Rumors as well, I felt bad about. Something felt off about this last couple of chapters, and I realized that I may have bitten off more than I could chew. It’s been a learning experience, but it’s not fair that you had to suffer through those chapters.

     I had an epiphany on how to save this last arc and keep my promises mostly intact. I feel bad that there were no posts this week, but everyone had to pitch in to deal with a family emergency. On top of helping my sister in law move, I spent the last couple of days looking after my nephew, who is two years old. Anybody who has a two year old knows exactly how exhausting that can be. That I got any writing done today is honestly shocking. I can’t make any promises for this next week either, because we have to move all their things into a storage unit. I will do my absolute best to find a way to make this up to you. I feel dreadful about the way things have gone. This last week did have some silver lining to it, though. For weeks, I’ve been attempting to function on my desktop. I function much better on a laptop. Maybe it’s silly, and maybe it’s not something I should take seriously, but nobody ever questions the Natural about his bat from a tree struck by lightning, or maybe they do. I have no idea, I still haven’t seen the movie. Anyways, long story short, I splurged and bought myself a laptop this weekend. It’s glorious not sitting in my wife’s grandfather’s studio chair, which is wonderful and sentimental, and had some sharp thing sticking out of it, which pushes into my butt. The seat is almost entirely worn away, in terms of cushioning too.

     Anyways, I just wanted to let you all know what’s going on. I might count this as a break week, and start the five week counter over, though this week was hardly a break. Honestly, taking the time to sit down and write this little note to you has lifted such a great weight from my mind. Once more, I am so sorry that there were no posts this week. I’ll try to be better about posting on my author’s page on Facebook about that in the future. Thank you for coming and seeing me every week. Your visits mean the world to me and my wife. Please come back again soon. I’ll be sure to save your seat right by the hearth where you left it.

A note from the fireside~ 7/8/18

     Hello, dear friends. I hope you’ve been well this last week. I’ve been thinking about you a lot, for more than a few reasons. I have a few things to talk about this round, so we should get into it. This week’s Cleaners was no fun to write. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve had to rethink where the story is going for the forseeable future. The end of this chapter certainly points out some of those problems. Jack needs a reason to stay, as opposed to just leaving. He does have one, and so do I, but it will really change the tail end of Cleaners. Thematically, I think it works better, because the original point of the opening story as a whole is Jack getting intertwined with his family again. His sister getting kidnapped is a good way to do that, and it ties the story back into the main antagonist, Ezra, or Dr. Lightning. Expect to see him a few more times in the next part, looking ahead. Rumors as well is steaming ahead towards its ending. The interruption of one of the Fourteen Kings will certainly prove to have ramifications both for the end of this story, as well as the following series of stories. It was unexpected for me, so it took a long time to get that feeling right.

     I wanted to briefly discuss health issues with you as well. I don’t mention them often, or I try not to, because that’s really not the point of this blog. I will mention it here, because I care about you. I’m sorry the story was late this week. I wanted so badly to post on time. I’ve been having trouble sleeping, and perhaps because of that my bipolar disorder has been acting up as of late.  I’ve also been fighting off some sort of sickness, which has made it difficult for me to recover mentally or emotionally. With that in mind, I’ve decided to plan on posting late this next week. In an ideal situation, that will be Friday. I’m doing this because I plan on spending the opening of my week rough drafting like mad. I’ll come back towards the middle of the week and redraft what I’ve got, get it edited and post it. Saturday or Sunday might be more realistic, but I have high hopes.

     Thank you for being so patient with me, dear friends. My wife works hard editing for me, and I work hard trying to get her work which is easy to edit. This week must have been hard, because I consider these chapters to be a bit of a train wreck. I look forward to next week, though. I’ll miss you, and I hope this week finds you well. I’ll be sure to save your seat by the hearth, right where you left it.

Second-Hand Rumors~ chapter 19

     Liam knew he wasn’t exactly leader material. He lacked some of the most basic, and yet most important requirements to become one. He didn’t have a white cat to stroke, or a fancy chair to sit in while doing it. He lacked the ability to safely incorporate people who couldn’t die into his plans. Most glaringly, he wasn’t exactly able to stop his team from killing each other, which is a pretty sound leadership skill which doesn’t appear on most people’s resumes. It’s not a skill you think about, though, until every person you’re working with is crowded into one room, glaring at each other.

    Scanning the rogues gallery assembled in his dingy apartment, Liam mentally recalculated for the glaring smiling exception to the ill feelings in the air. Jenny just looked happy to be spending time with him, completely oblivious to the murderous face Robert Rever was shooting her. If looks could kill, he would have already done so and been on the road back home. Christopher Goodbody and JJ were also picking up on the dangerous mood in the room, though of the two, Christopher seemed the more concerned. He looked ready to step between Jenny and Robert in an instant, should the need arise. Liam was, quite honestly, surprised it hadn’t arisen already.

     “Is there a reason why you didn’t tell us Jenny Rever was coming to this meeting too?” Christopher spared a sympathetic glance at Robert, which went entirely unnoticed though his haze of anger.

     “Because I knew you wouldn’t show up if I told you she was coming,” Liam responded matter of factly, as though he had just stated the obvious.

     “Sounds legit,” JJ flipped through her phone as she spoke, “Why are the Dirt Gremlins here?”

     “They live here.”

     “And why are you still here?”

     “Because this apartment is dirt cheap.”

     Christopher ran a finger along a wall. It came away black, and when he tried to rub the material off on something, it stubbornly refused to come off, “It’s certainly dirty, I’ll give you that.”

     “Everyone just shut up,” Jenny’s voice had an edge to it that Liam was unused to hearing, “I want to know what the job is so I can help Liam.”

     Liam was slowly gaining an understanding of why Simon lost his temper with Liam so often, “I agree with Jenny. Let’s please focus on the job. You can kill each other and complain about the state of my personal life later. This job was too big for me to focus on alone, so I asked for some help. A week from today, the Society for the Protection of Humankind is holding a blackmail banquet gala.”

     JJ raised a hand, “What exactly is a blackmail banquet?”

     “It’s pretty much the same as a normal banquet, except nobody wants to be there. It’s supposed to be a fundraiser, but really it’s just a bunch of poor suckers the Society has dirt on. They show up, cough up money, and presumably take home some saucy pictures of themselves.”

     Jenny swayed back and forth happily from where she was seated on the floor. A Dirt Gremlin was curled up her lap, snoring peacefully, “And we kill’em all!”

     Liam stuttered to halt, “No! Well, not all of them. Some of these people are good, wholesome folks with families and also people who care about them. They get to go free, once we’ve torched whatever info they have on these people.”

     Christopher ran a strand of his hair through his fingers, “That sounds like two jobs, Liam.”

     “It’s three. Get rid of the info, save the good eggs and smash the bad ones. Oh yeah, and don’t get caught or killed. Simon was strangely specific on that point.” It occurred to Liam that the last instructions were more for anyone who helped Liam, rather than himself.

     With the details and complexity of the job out in the open, the mood in the room changed drastically. JJ got on her laptop and started looking up plans for the location of the blackmail gala. She also worked on getting her hands on a finalized guest list. Christopher was in charge of saving those people worth getting out. He worked on putting together a route to take them out with minimal interference. Liam, despite his protests, was relegated to the position of errand boy. Once JJ knew where the information was being held, Liam would break in and steal it, or render it unusable via Dirt Gremlin.  He couldn’t be seen at the main party, because too many people knew his face. Robert and Jenny were in charge of killing the bad eggs, and Robert worked hard to make sure he knew exactly who his targets were, their habits, their nonverbal tics, anything which would help him kill faster. Jenny helped by putting on plays with unwilling Dirt Gremlins as puppets, which kept her from distracting anyone else. Work went on like this for days. They met at Liam’s apartment, ignoring the Dirt Gremlins who worked on a full sized mural of them all working together.

     With only two days before the gala, they began to rehearse their plans until it felt like a well-oiled machine. The day before, they rested and got all their gear together. Liam sat on the lone couch in his living room and looked around at the maps and the notes, the hours of work they had put into making sure the operation went smoothly.

     Liam generally worked alone, because when one person makes a plan, it’s hard to blame  anyone else if it screwed up. The more moving parts you have, the harder it is to figure out who screwed up. People don’t make multi-billion dollar movies about a row boat crashing, they write them about the Titanic. It’s not that Liam wanted to involve this many people, but there was no way he could get it done alone.

     JJ left first, with her laptop tucked under her arm. She wore a pair of jeans and a hoodie for Long Island University. Nobody ever paid attention to college students. She would monitor their progress, contacting them if something changed. She had access to the security cameras and the building layout for the gala, and she was their eyes on everything. Christopher left shortly after that and headed for the gala. His job was the most complicated out of all of them. He needed to get his list out, in the proper order and not until Liam had erased any information the Society had on them. A few minutes after that, Jenny left, with a disgruntled looking Robert Rever in tow. They merely had to find a small handful of targets and kill them, without anyone seeing it happen, and make it look like the Society did it.

     His apartment felt so empty without people in it. For the first time in his life, Liam felt lonely. Grabbing a backpack from his storage apartment, he opened it up and whistled. Several Dirt Gremlins excitedly hopped over, looking up at Liam expectantly.

     “This is not going to be a regular thing. I just need your help with this one job, then…”

     “Dirty,” one of the Dirt Gremlins said candidly.

     “Yeah, that was an exception too.”

     “Dirty.”

     “Just shut up and get in the damned bag.” Liam zipped his bag up and started for his own job.

     The convention center the gala was being held at looked like a high society fortress. The building was small and squat, with floor to ceiling windows taunting passing pedestrians with a window into opulence. Liam circled around the building and found his way to the back of the building. Unsurprisingly, it was guarded by two Society thugs holding machine guns.

     Slipping a hand into his backpack, Liam snagged a Dirt Gremlin and tugged it out, “I need you to distract those two guards, buddy.”

     The Dirt Gremlin nodded and gripped it’s paint brush, already dripping some unidentifiable black liquid. Liam decided after this job, he was throwing this backpack out. The Dirt Gremlin raced under a car, a small blur in the darkness. Poking its head out from under the car, it flung its paint brush at one of the guards head. That, apparently, was all it took to turn on the murder switch. The guards ran off into the night, chasing after their illusive graffiti artist.

     Liam slipped up to the backdoor. It was locked, but it didn’t take long for him to pick the door and get in. The computers he needed access to were on the third floor. The convention center kept a small room for valuables, and that was where Adrian would stash his things. It would make more sense to keep it somewhere else, but Adrian Denavi was a sadist. He would keep all his knives as close as possible. Liam kept away from the sound of people talking and glasses clinking.

     As he tried to picture the layout of the building in his head, his phone buzzed in his pocket. Slipping his phone out, he answered, “Liam, what’s up?”

     “Liam, we’ve got some complications. Well, potential complications.” JJ’s voice sounded different on the phone, though maybe she was changing the pitch of her voice on purpose.

     “What’s the problem?” Liam eyed a set of stairs as he waited for her to respond.

     There was a long silence before she responded, “Liam, one of the fourteen kings is on the guest list. It was a late addition, they just put it on right now. Gorge Doomsayer. The only information I can find is that he’s the Dwarven king. He must be working for the Society, or with them somehow. “

     “Shit, I thought you said those kings were legendary. You didn’t even know who they were until you found out about this one. We can’t add any more changes to this job. Tell everyone else to get out. We’re bailing, right here and right now.”

     “I never expected to find out them. I wasn’t even sure they existed. Once I got the name, I double checked with my contacts in the Neelan family, and he’s the real deal. I told Christopher, and he just told me he was earning an extra five dollars tonight. What do I do now?”

     Standing outside a stairwell which would have led him up to his own job, he stopped short. This job had just gotten too dangerous. His instincts kicked into high gear. A good thief knows when to give up, but a great thief knows when plans have changed dramatically. It wasn’t anything Liam could put into words. Unzipping his bag, Liam unceremoniously dumped all four Dirt Gremlins on the sidewalk, with their gear.

    “I’ve got another job to do. I need you little hellions to go up to their safety room. It’s on the third floor, it’ll have a red door. Get in there and just destroy everything.”

     The Dirt Gremlins raced for the door. It wouldn’t be long until they were in and doing the work he should have done. At that exact moment, Liam’s phone buzzed again.

     One of the fourteen kings meant all kinds of bad news, and he wasn’t going to let his first real co-workers get killed because they were idiots. The fourteen kings could come later on, once Liam was no longer involved. He just hoped the Dirt Gremlins had enough common sense to destroy all the computers.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 43

     Growing up in a powerful and secretive family, Jack understood the mystique of cults quite well. Loneliness can be a fate worse than death, and being part of a cult made you part of something bigger than yourself. That’s all well and good, until it all goes wrong and the scales get pulled away from your eyes. For Jack, the loss of his brother was the event which caused him to finally leave it all behind. Even before that, though, he had been considering leaving. Cults also come with their own problems, which Jack was intimately familiar with. If you spend all your time looking inwards at your own group, you’ll never notice the intruders slowly sneaking up on you until it’s too late.

     Remaining still, knowing his sister was so close, and forcing himself to allow his eyes to adjust to the darkness was one of the most difficult things Jack had ever done. Successful hunts require three things, things which had been pounded into him since he was a child. Planning, patience, and determination. With his only remaining sibling on the line, he found himself sorely lacking in the first two traits. If he were his father, or his sister, he could have made up the difference in pure talent. Lacking that talent, he would just have to move fast and hope that nobody caught onto their presence until they were already gone.

     Returning to the fence, Jack hefted his broom up into the air. The steel bristles twinkled in the low light before he brought it down twice, slashing a hole in the fence for Stan to clamber under. Looking back to the compound, he studied the buildings and considered which one to attack first. The largest building was the barn, clearly intended as a place of worship. It looked empty, however, and Jack felt safe leaving that building for last. The lights were on at the smallest building, which lay directly next to the gate leading into the compound. That would be the safest place to start, and it would allow for a quick escape route if their rescue went south. The largest building sat atop a hill. The lights coming from the third floor danced slightly, showing movements in the light which he couldn’t comprehend. Instinctually, he looked away from the lights. Best to start with the smallest building first. When you’re trying to rescue someone from a cult, it’s best to work in one solid direction, like rolling up a carpet full of Dirt Gremlins so you can release them all into the wild at the same time.

     The building they started with, which stood by the gate, was a rather deceptive piece of architecture. It’s design was simple, bricks and windows with a small front door. Light streamed out from the windows, illuminating the road leading up to the other buildings. At first glance, it was a completely harmless building, with nothing special to show for itself. A closer examination revealed some troubling features. In a few places on the building, the brickwork had been pulled away to reveal reinforced concrete. The front door, which had been painted a bright blue color, was actually made from reinforced steel. These design choices made it’s sinister purposes quite clear. If you were joining their little club, that building would welcome you inside. Like most cults, it was easy to get in, but very difficult to get out again.

     Jack stood to one side of the door and nodded to Stan. Taking a few steps back, Stan raised his foot in the air and smashed the door into the building. Stepping inside, Jack scanned the room. To his surprise, they weren’t greeted by a wave of cultists occupied by plant monsters. A quick tour through the rest of the building revealed nothing worthwhile. The first floor held only empty offices and some locked doors which leaked the smell of dried blood from the rooms behind them. Though Jack felt sure the blood was too old to belong to Sam, he kicked the doors down anyways to confirm it. He was thankfully right. The second floor was made up of simple bedrooms. Each room had it’s own gun rack, but all the guns were still hanging in place. The beds were warm, and the sheets were flung back to the bottom of the bed as though they had been tossed aside in a hurry.

     “Looks like someone called an emergency meeting.” Jack looked out the window of the room they were in towards the large dormitory building. The lights which shone out from the window gave Jack a slight headache as he watched colors within the lights dance.

     “We best go break them up, boss.”

     Jack headed for the door, the trance of the lights broken by Stan’s voice. Stepping back outside, he once again took a few impossibly long moments to adjust his vision to the darkness. Avoiding the road, they crossed the yard to stand at the bottom of the hill which led up to the building. The slope which led up to the main building turned out to be incredibly useful, due to the tall grass which grew on it. Once they hit the slope, it became difficult to make out any movement amongst the long grass leading up towards the main entrance. Once they reached the top of the slope, they stopped and waited.

     Once he was satisfied that they wouldn’t be seen, Jack dashed to the side of the building. Taking a quick peak through the window, Jack was dumbfounded by what he saw. Whatever original purpose the building had been intended for, it could no longer serve that purpose. Aside from stairs leading to the second floor and load bearing bits of wall, the most of floor had been pulled out, leaving him clearly able to see the second floor. From where he was, he could see the entire cult gathered in one group on the largest bit of remaining floor, looking upwards towards a hole in the ceiling. From the ceiling, a chandelier slowly descended, attached to a chain. That chandelier was what gave out the strange lights which had been bothering Jack’s eyes for so long.

     The light blazing out from the windows made it quite difficult for Jack to see what was going on, but as he got closer he could hear the shuffling inside. The murmuring of the people milling around in what Jack assumed was the opening hall could be heard even from outside, making Jack think the amount of people was far more than he had originally expected. Warning bells started going off in his head as he noticed strange things about this cult. They wore robes, which Jack had never noticed in worshippers of the Elder Plant gods thus far, and not everyone in the crowd was human. There wasn’t a law against non-humans worshipping evil plant deities that he was aware of, but those monstrous plants seemed to view people as produce, so what did that make a lizard person? Jack wanted to know, because several of the cultists had scaled tails poking out from under their robes. Some of the others had teeth poking out from their mouths which indicated goblin ancestry somewhere in their background.

     Since the cultists were expectantly waiting for something, and Jack could see no sign of his sister in immediate danger, he decided to wait. He didn’t have to sit idle long before their leader showed up. He wore a different colored robe, with ornate nonsensical markings along the hood he had pulled ominously low. From where he was situated, Jack couldn’t see the man’s face. Light from the chandelier bathed him in shadows beneath his hood. The arrival of their caretaker led to thunderous applause that was so loud it knocked Jack back onto the seat of his pants in shock. It died down quickly and the speech began.

     “Friends, it’s been three years since I had this wonderful new chandelier installed and in that time we have gained so many new friends.” a man was speaking, though he got cut off by a small shower of applause. This was, as Jack learned quickly, was a usual occurrence in his speech regardless of what he said.

     “But sadly, we have lost friends as well. Some of them have left us for better situations and despite their promises to keep in touch, and some of them had to be sent away for good.” This was punctuated by a loud boo and some hisses from the captive audience. “But despite those losses, our home remains as strong as it ever has. We will not tolerate any weakness from within this family…”

     “He sure rambles on some, don’t he?” Stan leaned on his mallet and rubbed his head before fishing for a cigar.

     Jack simply listened and watched the man’s actions. In the pit of his stomach, he tried to push aside the nagging feeling that something was very wrong. It was more than the strange headache he had, it was a feeling that he had been lied to. Turning to Stan, he noticed his normally placid friend’s forehead was covered in beads of sweat, and his face barely hid the pain he was feeling. The light from the chandelier was affecting him even more than Jack.

     Jack patted his arm and pulled him away from the light a bit more, making sure they both were in the shadows, “Are you alright, Stanley? You can sit this one out, if you want to. I won’t cut your pay, since this isn’t technically a job.”

     Stan laughed, a low rumbling noise that managed to be drowned out by yet another cheer, “Boss, wherever you go I gotta go too. I don’t know no other way.”

     Jack nodded and smirked, a tight and satisfied smile, “Well then, let me make the entrance. The problem seems to be the chandelier so once I take it out, you should be fine with your headache, right?”

     Jack looked back at the front doors in the middle of the building and then returned his gaze to the strange chandelier and the cult. It would take far too long to get in through the front door, especially when they could just make their own by breaking the wall down. Jack nodded to Stan and waited while he found the right spot to attack.

     Stan nodded and tapped the wall a few times, pressing his ear to the wall and listening carefully. Making sure to stay out of his way, Jack listened as well as with each tap, Stan got closer and closer to the sweet spot. Eventually, Jack tapped Stan to tell him that he had, indeed, found the spot. All buildings have some weak points, no matter how hard you try to get rid of them. The problem in making yourself an entrance in a wall became having the proper application of strength and most people didn’t have a Stanley at their disposal. Jack did. Stan wound up with his mallet and looked at Jack. Jack swung his broom out to the side, holding the long handle in two hands as Stan began his swing. The mallet hit and blew a huge hole in the wall, and thankfully didn’t send the whole building tumbling to the ground.

     Light from the chandelier poured out into the darkness, spreading it’s strange multi-colored glow into the night. Stan stumbled back away from the light into the darkness, holding his hands over his eyes. Jack’s headache grew worse as he stepped into the building, but it still felt more bearable to him.

     From his perch high above Jack, the cult leader pointed down at him and shook his finger, “The blasphemer comes to take me away from you! Defend me, my children!”
The man wound up to say more, but Jack used the opening to yell out his own demand, “Give me back my sister!”

     “You can never have your sister back!”

     The whole world came crashing down around him. Jack knew that a demand for his sister would have led to a recounting of his actions in Ramshead. That he didn’t even mention Jack’s sister by name gave him all the information he didn’t want to have, “You have no idea who I am, do you?”

     That statement took the cult leader off guard, “You’re…from the nearby town, right? We just took in a new girl this last week and…”

     Jack hefted his broom over his shoulder and examined the stairs leading up towards the third floor. Every single one of those cultists was going to get into his way. He could tell from the determined, vacant expressions on their faces. Something in their fanaticism felt wrong, however, as though it didn’t come from true belief. As a cult leader, he might have some information for Jack that could help him find his sister. The only thing to do was ask him, and then kill him.

     “I’m going to kill you. Just stay right there, and I’ll come to you. This is what you get for wasting my time.” Jack placed one foot on the steps leading up towards the third floor.

     “Protect me!” The cult leader turned and ran in the most undignified manner Jack had ever seen for a man wearing long robes and a hood. The air shifted behind him and Jack reflexively dodged to the side as a mallet came careening by his head. Stan stood behind him, with a crazed look in his eyes. His cigar lay abandoned on the floor, curling wisps of smoke into the air. As the cultists ran down the stairs to meet him, Stan raised his mallet again, aiming directly for Jack’s head.

     “Well,” Jack realized the light from the chandelier was affecting his friend more than he had realized, “I’m definitely docking your pay for this.” Looking up the stairs, Jack braced himself and started to run. This whole thing had gotten very complicated.