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.