Second-Hand Rumors~ chapter 21

     In the school of hard drunken knocks, one lesson gets beaten into most learners early on. Bar fights are maelstroms of fists and feet. You can’t avoid getting pulled into those vortexes of violence if the gods of light beer have your number that night. The convention center that the blackmail gala took place at definitely wasn’t a dive bar, though the Dwarf King Gorge certainly smelled like one. Liam knew from experience that turning his gaze away from this fight for even an instant would draw him into it. The thought of getting killed certainly acted as a deterrent against any sudden heroics, but that wasn’t the only complicating factor. Fighting while protecting your incompetent friend was nigh on impossible. Liam decided it was all around better to leave the fight to real fighters.

     A sharp yelp from the other end of the room drew everyone’s attention. Christopher Goodbody, pinned to the wall by the scrabbling claws of the giant wolf set on him by Gorge, had opted to resort to force. He simply bopped it once on the nose with incredible force.

     The wolf’s front paws remained steadfastly pressed against his chest as Christopher raised a fist to bop the wolf on the nose again, “Bad wolf!”

     Liam winced in sympathy as the wolf pulled its nose away from the offending fist. While Robert’s eyes were on the wolf, Gorge grew bolder. Grasping his captor’s elbow, he yanked hard and twisted Robert closer to him, pulling the blade away from his throat. As Gorge tugged him around and threw him to the floor, Robert rapped him once on the temple, staggering him and causing him to collapse in a heap. Robert hit the ground next to him hard and gasped in pain. They lay on the ground facing each other, both unable to move for the moment.

     The wolf shook its head and started to attack Christopher again. Liam felt sure that giant wolf would be the death of them, until he heard a shrill voice exclaim, “Fluffy!” Jenny came flying in from the other side of the room and tackled the wolf around the neck, crushing it into a wall. With her arms wrapped around the wolf, she resembled a small child cuddling a wolf plushie into nightmarish oblivion. The wolf’s pained expression told Liam it was reevaluating the pecking order in the room.

     Turning a pained gaze to Robert, Liam asked the question on everyone else’s mind, “What exactly am I supposed to do with that?” He pointed a finger accusingly at Jenny, who was now cooing sweet nothings to her newest pet.

     Robert appeared mortified at her actions, “Don’t ask me, you brought her to the party.”

“She’s killing the mood!” Gorge somehow managed to get to his feet. Dwarf folk are stubborn, after all. With a roar, he made a charge at Jenny, but found himself unable to reach her. She still had her arms wrapped around the wolf’s neck, which had risen to its hind legs in a determined effort to shake her off. Gorge’s proximity ended up backfiring when a particularly spastic movement sent Jenny flying into him, sending them both tumbling backwards.

     Gorge rose on unsteady feet, his balance completely thrown by now, “I’ll not let you ruin my fun, you crazy girl!”

     Liam marveled at Gorge’s restraint. He was sure Jenny had been called worse things in the past. She was an acquired taste, one which Gorge likely couldn’t appreciate. The fight slowed for a moment, as the respective opponents sized each other up. The wolf wanted no part of Jenny, and eyed Christopher warily. That left Robert, but when the wolf edged closer to him, Gorge cut it off and grabbed it by a foreleg, spinning around and tossing it into a wall. The wolf rose on unsteady feet before collapsing once more. It didn’t get up again, but it was still breathing.

     “Not him! That one is mine!”

    That moment of selfish determination, along with his lack of balance, is what led to Gorge’s death. Jenny struck, moving so suddenly that Liam was hardly aware she had begun her attack before it was over. Gorge might have dodged well enough, had his balance been good. As it was, when she stabbed at his neck with a hitherto unseen tiny knife, he pulled towards her when he meant to pull away. Grabbing at her wrists with his hands, he let his wound bleed. Pulling her down, he grabbed her around the neck and began to choke her. His focus on her took his attention from Robert, who joined the fight again to break one of Gorge’s wrists. With the force of one arm alone, he was unable to hold on to Jenny. Using the palm of her hand, she punched his jaw and sent the king sprawling.

     Even though holding a hand to the wound of his neck might have saved him, or at least prolonged the inevitable, he kept his arms at his side. At the sight of the dwarf king humbled on the ground, Liam ran to his side. He felt compelled to ask him a question, partially from pure curiosity and partially because he knew Simon would want to know the answer. Cradling Gorge, he pulled close and whispered softly, “Why did you do it? What could possibly have convinced you to help someone like Adrian Denavi?”

     Gorge coughed and whispered into Liam’s ear for a long time. It was hard to understand some of the things he said, but that happens when you’re talking to someone whose throat was just punctured. Liam’s face fell, the more he listened. Rising to his feet, he knew that had been the right decision. Gorge Doomsayer had certainly earned his name, only time would tell how much.

     “I don’t like it.” Christopher walked over to Liam and nudged over Gorge’s body to look at his face.

     “What? We killed the king, we got everyone out, and once I check that the Dirt Gremlins did their job, we can go home and get wasted.” Liam inched towards the door. The longer they stayed, the more dangerous this job got.

     “I don’t like that we didn’t get the job done, and I don’t like how long it took me to notice him.” Christopher pointed to the far side of the room. Standing next to the punch bowl, wearing an expression Liam couldn’t quite place, was Adrian Denavi.

     “Oh, don’t mind me, “Adrian purred as he helped himself to a cup of punch, “I was just watching you all congratulate yourselves on a job well done. I wonder if you would be so happy if you knew you’d played directly into my hands.”

     Liam cocked his head. This had to be a bluff. “How the hell did we do that? We stole your investors out from under you and got rid of the information you had on them as well.”

     “Bravo, you held up your end of the job. I knew gathering all my little wage slaves in one place would be too tempting a chance for Simon to pass up. I counted on him coming to kill them all, but I never dreamt he would want to save most of them.”

     Christopher scowled, “Unlike you, Simon isn’t a monster.”

     Adrian took a sip of punch, “More’s the pity. Not one of the people who left here tonight will ever make it home. The party game of the evening was everyone signing over their property to me in their wills. I am now funded for life. As a fun little bonus, I get to kill the one person who’s been a thorn in my side. Liam, I was hoping he would send you.”

     That look of recognition in Gorge’s eyes suddenly made a lot more sense. Liam backed up a few steps. Christopher stopped him from running, “I wouldn’t dash just yet. If he’s had all those people killed, he’s got teams all over the area. Even if they don’t kill you, they can still capture you.”

     Adrian tossed aside his cup, “Drat. My plans are foiled again. Now, I’ll have to go through all of you to kill him.” Removing his coat and tossing it aside, Adrian slowly started rolling his sleeves up.

     Jenny stepped between Liam and Adrian, “I’ll never let you lay a finger on my Liam.”
Adrian tucked his tie into his shirt and cracked his knuckles, “I was hoping you would say that.”

     The whole mission was a stunning failure. From start to finish, they had been played, and now Liam was in real danger himself. From the way Adrian was looking at him, it felt as though he was the primary objective the whole time. Robert and Christopher edged closer to him, attempting to insert themselves between him and Adrian. With a sudden clarity, Liam knew exactly what he needed to do. It would be considerably more difficult to take money from their blackmail victims if the blackmail were common knowledge.

     “Christopher, hold him here for just a bit. I can still ruin his night!” Liam turned and ran for the room his Dirt Gremlins had been sent to. Maybe, if he were very lucky, they had gotten lost. His directions had been poor, after all.

     “Oh, sure, “Christopher watched Liam’s back retreat around a corner, “I’ll just stay here and fight the murderous psychopath with my friends, then, shall I?”

     Liam raced towards the door which led up to the blackmail material. Seizing property would be impossible for the Society if Liam could prove it was deeded against the owners will. When he finally reached the door, he paused just long enough to catch his breath before opening the door. The Dirt Gremlins were playing with reckless abandon, and nothing useful remained in the room. The papers had been clumped together in a massive pile of grime and spit. It resembled a dung beetles prized possession. The digital equipment had fared even worse, having been smashed against the wall repeatedly to the point where Liam couldn’t even tell what they had been smashing. The Dirt Gremlins stood in the center of the room, looking towards Liam with expectant faces shining full of hope.

     “Uh,” Liam faltered. He had never been a father, but it was hard to dash the smiles on those tiny faces. They would just have to take the hit on this one, “Good work, guys.”
Listening for any movement, he could hear boots approaching. The Society killers must have finished their work and come back to support their boss. As he looked down the stairs, the murder brigade ran by at full tilt, presumably headed for Adrian’s last known location. Liam waited till he could no longer hear them. While he waited, a thought occurred to him. It wouldn’t be a fair fight, even with Jenny, against Adrian. With all those ex-soldiers running it, it would become even more one sided. If they were going to escape, they were going to need a distraction to get out of there. Liam was no good in a fight, but if it was a distraction they were looking for, Liam had the perfect plan right in the room with him.

     Racing back into the room and pointing to the ball of paper, wadded up and gross as it was, Liam turned to his Dirt Gremlins. “I’ve got a job for you,” that got their attention amazingly fast, “I need to take that thing downstairs and light it on fire. I’m not sure this is covered by the Geneva convention, but if it’s not, it really should be.”

     One of the Dirt Gremlins struck a pose, his arm pointing dramatically towards the door, “Dirty!” It exclaimed once.

     The ball looked incredibly flammable, but Liam suspected it also might be highly corrosive. It never seemed to bother the Dirt Gremlins, but his hands couldn’t always take it. Grabbing the ball, which was about as tall as they were, the Dirt Gremlins rolled it down the stairs and towards the hall where he had left his friends. His return went unnoticed by Adrian, who was squaring off with Christopher and Jenny. They were both panting, though, Adrian looked as though he had hardly exerted himself. Robert had his back pressed against the wall, taking in deep breaths to get himself back into the fight.
Fishing through his pockets, Liam found a lighter and lit the ball on fire, giving it a kick towards the center of the room. It’s wet sounds drew the attention of everyone in the room. Even if it had been completely silent, the noxious fumes the ball began to belch almost immediately would have done the trick. Liam gestured to Christopher and mimed putting his hands over his mouth. Who knew if that little trick would be enough, but Liam had to try. Nobody had enough lifetimes to live down letting their friends die.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 45

     Grief is a quiet emotion which happens in the little moments. There’s no room in the noise and the chaos of the storm for hearts to heal. Only once the chaos has died down and everything else is as it should be does loss truly sink in, slowly and with sudden, silent fury. Jack leaned against the passenger side window and watched the once familiar woods fly by as Stan drove them back to the Goodbody family home. With his sister gone, Jack had nothing which linked him to his family anymore. It wasn’t familiarity which drove him back home, but a desire to take a few days to put his head back on straight. Time had left his home untouched, as though it was mired in the past. For once, he didn’t think he would mind that too much. Keeping his sister’s room closed meant her smell would linger. Walking through her doors would be like walking through a portal to the past where she still lived. With a start, Jack realized he understood his father better than he realized.

     All hopes of peace and quiet were dashed the second Jack passed the gates leading towards his family home. The years of debris covering the road in a thick mat had been removed meticulously. The long dormant house was full of noise and laughter. In all the worry about his sister, he had forgotten it. The family meeting was a semi-regular event, which only happened when the head of the Goodbody family called for it. When that happened, all the stray Goodbody’s who had left the family home returned like desperate little birdies escaping the storm. It also called in those smaller families which served the Goodbody family in the field. Each one of them had their own family homes, in imitation of the Goodbody house, only with less bad blood.

     One of the skills Jack had perfected with his sister was the ability to duck responsibility like a well-honed machine. Why waste time talking for hours with people who pretended to like you when you could be training or working? With that in mind, Sam had come up with a path through the house which would avoid almost all the confrontation and get them to the study. The footsteps echoing down the stairs spurred Jack into action. Walking through the hall, Jack took a little used door directly to the left of the werewolf. That led to a hallway which ran the circuit of the left side of the house around to the servant’s quarters. Ignoring the looks Jack got from the staff, he climbed the stairs to the second floor.

     Halfway down the hall was a little room reserved for Uncle Reginald. He never used it, so a younger Jack and Samantha had used it to store things they bought at a novelty shop in town. To Jack’s surprise, they were all still there, useless pieces of junk that they were. It took him one trip to realize what took Samantha dozens. Nothing they ever bought from Remy would work. Still, every time she went, she would browse the store with breathless enthusiasm. Stashed away in a corner was a supply of alcohol from the days when Sam had begun to grow up faster than Jack. A ladder stood in the middle of the room, directly under a hole they had meticulously cut into the ceiling. It led to a room on the third floor right next to the study.

     Climbing the ladder, Jack hopped out into the empty room and closed the hatch behind him. Exiting the hallway, Jack found himself face to face with the one person he needed to see the most, though he would never admit it. Aldea Demois was the current head of her family, and the woman Jack loved. It wasn’t exactly a forbidden love, but he refused to acknowledge it because they were distantly related. She wore a white sundress which came down to just below her knees. She had woven a crown of wildflowers into her light brown hair. The amusement at finding Jack exactly where she thought she would find him twinkled in her blue eyes as she watched him falter in his tracks. That expression quickly turned to concern as she saw the state Jack was in.

     “You look like a wreck, Jack. What happened to you?” That voice was sweet, forbidden music to his ears. “Everyone’s been wondering where you were.”

     “Aldea, I would rather not talk about it right now.” Jack looked at his feet and shuffled back slightly, hoping she would let him pass.

     Cupping his chin, Aldea gently tugged it up to meet her eyes with his, “I’ve known you entirely too long for that nonsense, Jack Goodbody. You tell me what’s wrong right now.”
Unable to avoid the truth when faced with her eyes looking directly into his, Jack blurted out the truth, “My sister is dead.”

     Aldea pulled him into a tight hug, holding him close and refusing to let him go. When she did let go, tears wetted her cheeks. .He knew Aldea and his sister had been close, “What happened to her, Jack?”

     “She was taken from me while we were tracking down a cult in Maine and…” Jack’s thoughts wandered to his father, “Is my father home? He was gone last time I left. Everyone seems confused.”

     Aldea pulled away from Jack and spared a glance for the stairs, “Your father is still gone, and everyone is confused. He called a family meeting, and then he simply vanished? That doesn’t make any sense. With him gone, there’s nobody left to preside over the meeting. If nothing happens soon, people are going to start leaving. I heard Mr. Warden talking it over with his wife this morning.”

     That wasn’t entirely true. Jack was there. He would have argued Julian would make a better leader than him, but Julian valued his freedom and his art enough to throw Jack to the wolves. Maybe he had been running away from this his entire life, but now he had run out of places to hide. He was the de facto head of the Goodbody family, at least until a warm body with more rights to the job than him came along. He thought back to the ride up the mountain, and how willing he had been to wrap himself up in a thick blanket of nostalgia and mourning. The world didn’t need a Goodbody family obsessed with the past. It needed one that was looking forward and thinking about the future.

     Seeing Jack lost in thought, Aldea hugged him again gently, “I’ll let you go into the study. Do you have anything you want me to do, Jack?”

     “Open all the windows. Clean out every room, whether it’s being used or not. Bring in more food and set up the dining room table. I want the whole family in one room for dinner tonight. This is a new Goodbody house, so it can’t keep looking like the old one.”
Aldea walked him to the study door and let him enter alone. Jack took the opportunity afforded by the stunned silence to enter the study and lock the doors. He sat in his father’s chair, which was now his chair, and fell into a deep sleep. It must have been the deepest sleep he’d ever fallen into, because when he woke up, everything had changed. The curtains against the wall had been pulled aside, and the windows left open. The night air came flowing in, dispelling the sickly sweet smell of his father’s long stay in the room. From where he sat, Jack could make out the stars twinkling in a cloudless sky.
One more addition to the room, which Jack certainly hadn’t requested, was his cousin Julian. He had set up his easel in the room, and worked away painting at it while Jack watched.

     “It’s nice of you to watch over me while I slept.” Jack shifted in his chair and finally noticed a plate full of food sitting on the table next to him. Digging in with abandon, he realized it had been a long time since he had eaten regular meals.

     “After your insistence that everyone eat dinner in the same room, there were a lot of people who were quite insulted that you never bothered to show up.” Julian didn’t look up from his easel for a second while he responded to Jack.

      Jack stopped eating just long enough to ask Julian, “Who exactly was upset with me?”

     “The Warden family in general, because they feel very important. Aldea, because she loves you, and a host of others out of misplaced concern showing as anxiety and anger.”

     Jack sputtered out a mouthful of food, coughing in shock, “She doesn’t love me!”

     “Yes she does, and you know she does, you doofus. I heard about Sam, by the way. Nobody is mentioning it specifically, which naturally means everyone is talking about it whenever they get a chance.”

     “It’s my fault, Julian. She’s gone and it’s my fault.”

     Julian stopped painting, “She’s not dead, Jack. At least, she’s not dead yet.”
Racing to Julian’s side, Jack grabbed him by both arms and shook him, “Don’t you lie to me!”

     As Julian shook back and forth, he pointed a violently waving finger at the canvas he had been working on. It was a painting of Samantha, sitting on the ground against a wall. Her left eye was bruised and swollen and she seemed to be nursing a broken arm, but she was otherwise unharmed. It took Jack a minute to realize what he was looking at.
“Of course, even though this is live, it doesn’t tell us much about where she is. I can only see her and her immediate surroundings, so that doesn’t leave us much to go on.” Julian set his brush down and gently pried Jack’s hands loose.”

     “How do you know your hunting magic means she’s alive?” Jack watched as his sister flicked off some unseen person.

     “Because if she was dead and I had attempted to use hunting magic to track her down, it would have killed me. I was willing to take that risk for this family.”

     “Julian, that was crazy. The last thing I needed was to wake up and find you dead on the ground. What would Raul say?”

     Chuckling weakly, Julian tried to brush aside the concerns, “That’s not his name, and we’re taking an extended break. Apparently, killing monstrously giant spiders really kills the mood in a way that you can’t come back from.”

     Jack watched the portrait of his sister move around slightly every few moments. She was alive. That’s all he could think about, until a lurking thought of his father came along which he couldn’t shake, “Say Julian. You know my father up and left, right?”

     Julian shook his head, “I know what you’re going to ask, but no such luck. Hunting magic only works if I have something to tether the painting to the target. I need a hair, some blood, something I can put into the paint. Your sister left enough hair in her room to line the nests of the most liberal minded song birds in creation, with room to spare. I could find no evidence that your father existed in this room. There wasn’t a speck of him. I tried anyways, and the results weren’t good. You can take a look if you like, they’re in the corner.”

     Facing the wall was a stack of portraits. The canvas was turned away from them so that only the rear of the work could be seen. Jack crossed the room and turned over the first portrait before hurriedly replacing it. Whatever his cousin had painted, it wasn’t human. Horrible, blackened fingers grasped out towards the viewer, as though the figure in the painting wished to drag you away never to be seen again.

     “What the hell is that?”

     Julian turned white, and his hands shook a little as he spoke, “I have no clue. I’ve never failed completely, even without materials, to the point where my painting fails to show my target entirely. Either your father is very good at avoiding being tracked, or…” he trailed off, but Jack knew what he was saying. What kid of monster was his father, really?

     That left the matter of the family meeting. With Samantha currently dangling in the wind, it left the meeting in a secondary position. Returning to his seat, Jack sat back and closed his eyes. How does one stop a meeting which has already been planned? Abandoning his sister was out of the question, canceling the meeting was also impossible.

     “Why don’t you just ask them for help, Jack?” Julian’s words cut in through his thoughts like a knife. Of course, he had considered that. The resources he could bring to bear as the head of the Goodbody family were considerably greater than his own. To ask them for help, at an official meeting, meant accepting his position as head of the family. In truth, Jack had only considered himself as warming the seat that belonged to his father until he returned. Ordering the families to do his dirty work would be as good as admitting he was the heir. The alternative was to deny himself the chance to rescue his sister, and that was simply out of the question.

     “Julian, are you willing to help me find my sister?”

“Of course. Just tell me what you need, Jack.”

     Jack paused for a long time before he responded, “We’re having the meeting as planned. I’m going to ask for help finding my sister and my father. Normally, I would ask my sister to come with me to the meeting as my second. With her gone, you’re the only full relative I have left. Will you sit by my side and help me argue we should look for Sam?”

     Nodding, Julian began to pack up his supplies, “I can do that, Jack. I wouldn’t want you to have to face off with the families on your own. Without your father here, I bet some people would even rather deal with my father right about now.”

     Jack hardly heard his cousin as he spoke. His mind was already on the upcoming meeting. Family gatherings were rare in the Goodbody family, and they only happened when the head of the family called them. That his father had called a meeting and the promptly vanished raised many questions, which he wasn’t present to answer. Varnes Goodbody never did anything without a reason. Maybe if he asked the right questions at the meeting, he could find out for himself why the meeting was called.

A note from the fireside~ 8/5/18

     Hello, dear friends. I’ve missed you a lot these past weeks, I really have. Please forgive my absence this last week, I’ve just been doing a lot of thinking about this blog and my goals and how I’m going about them. Firstly, let’s talk about the upcoming chapters, then I’m going to throw down a little writing theory, or ideas. Lastly, I want to talk about my plans going forward from here and see what you all think. Paranormal Cleaners and Second-Hand Rumors are both going into their home stretches. Paranormal Cleaners will see Jack come home to a house without his father. He’s going to have to navigate his changed position in the family. Really, the whole struggle for him is how he doesn’t really want to be involved with his family anymore, and this is the tipping point in the next couple of chapters. Rumors continues the fight from where it left off last week. I’m still working on that, but I should be able to get it out on Friday. I really don’t want to spoil the chapter, but I’m looking forward to it.

So let’s talk about tone. I am, at heart, a humorist. I think I intended something very different for Jack and Stan from the start. I wanted to make it funny, but here’s the catch. So there’s a gag manga I like to read called, “I didn’t ask for this kind of here” or something like that. It’s about a psychic named Naga who joins an organization of superheroes called Spoon to fight against a group called knife. It’s utter nonsense, but it does have a plot. I may be the only one who cares about seeing a resolution, but you can’t keep telling me characters are so badass and then never let them do much of anything. It’s like watching a baseball player wind up to pitch, and then just quit halfway over and over. My writing for these series buzz the most when I’m being funny, and I get that. I just want you to know that, even if nobody else does, I take the plot seriously enough to want to see it resolved. It has a rough ending spot it’s heading for. There’s so much more history than you know, all planned out, that may never get shown.

I may have bitten off more than I could chew as well, which leads me to my third and final point. Effective as of last week, this inn will close every other week so I can get other writing done. That snafu this last month was really not my fault. It’s hard to write when you’re exhausted from moving boxes all day, and then I went on a trip. I also had some medical problems to deal with, but the stress really got to me. In order to provide you all with the best chapters possible, I have to pace myself better. I have other writing projects I need to complete, and much as I love you, I can’t keep breaking myself like this. You all are my world, as a writer, but I need to figure out how to do this in a healthy fashion. I’m kind of nuts, and I would break myself to get you a good story. I’m sorry for my absence, please forgive me. Expect a chapter tomorrow for Cleaners and Friday for Rumors. Next time we meet will be the week after next. I’ll miss you terribly. Please come and visit us again. I’ll be sure to save your seat right where you left it by the hearth.