Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 33

     In spite of their desire to remain low tech, the Millers had set up a line of lamps along the perimeter of the woods which lit up the beach in a dim glow. It lit the tips of the waves that slowly rolled towards the shore. Jack walked towards the water and found the edge of the waterline, moving back fifteen feet he dug a hole. Into that hole, he placed the tub. Enthusiastic goblins would knock it over in an instant. Under most circumstances, pouring out bottles of liquor all together would be a horrible idea but goblins lacked the discerning palate that Mr. Miller possessed.

     Jack took a sip from each bottle before upending it into the metal pot. He hated to admit it, but he better understood the dilemma that Mr. Miller underwent when he handed over the bottles. Since Jack could hardly erase his presence, his scent would have given him away for miles on a beach with no cover, the booze would help. That heady aroma of aged liquor would wipe his scent away. It really didn’t take too long for the goblins to sniff it out. They appeared from the grass like shy mice popping their heads out from a nest before darting back into the woods.

     Jack tugged on Stan’s coveralls, pulling him back along the beach slowly until they were a respectable distance away. The goblins crept out from the woods and as they did Jack felt the urge to rub the bridge of his nose. The number of goblins gradually increased until around fifty of them were on the beach, crowded around the hole and jostling to get at the booze. Jack had dug a hole with maybe twenty at most in mind and the hole wasn’t large enough for them. It didn’t take long for one or two to get greedy and start taking pot shots at the other goblins. Goblins with little malice and no brains were hardly a threat, even to each other, and Jack didn’t feel like getting in the middle of a bunch of goblins ineffectually attempting to punch each other and vomiting into each other’s faces.

     Jack sat down on the beach and leaned back onto the sand, “Go ahead and light up a cigar, Stanley. We’ll be here for the rest of the night.”

     Stan sat on the ground and lay back next to Jack, tugging a cigar out of his pocket and lighting it up, “Them goblins are gonna be at this all night, huh?”

     Jack took his glasses off and tucked them into his vest pocket, “Feral goblins couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag. No tools, no smarts and no upper body strength. To top that off, some of them are completely hammered right now. This is going to take time.” Unfortunately, the trail hadn’t stopped and now there was around seventy of them on the beach. The booze in liquid form had long ago been drunken but the main attraction was now the fight that had actually managed to drag in the newcomers who hadn’t even had any booze.

     It soon became clear that the goblins weren’t going anywhere and Jack could allow himself to lay back and watch the stars. They spread out into the distance in their glorious majesty. In the distance, Jack could see the glittering veil that was the Milky Way, stars beyond count that he could barely detect or even see with his bare eyes creating a veil that crossed the sky. The waves lapped up against the shore, coming closer and passing back into the ocean. Each wave brushing against the shore took countless grains of sand with it, pulling them into the ocean to follow the current as far as they could.

     By the end of the night, the final number of goblins was around ninety. Jack rose to his feet and kicked his legs back and forth to get the sleep out of his legs, “I think we should consider this our vacation for time being. I’m going to hold the bag and you go ahead and toss.” Getting up, Jack snatched the bag, holding it wide in both his arms.

     Stan rose to his feet and cracked his fingers, “Should be done soon, boss.”

     The sky had just started to grey as the brawl came to an end. Some of the more active goblins were still stumbling around looking for sand that had some booze left in it. Most of them were bruised. In many cases, they were lost to a deep sleep. Stan grabbed one by the leg and tossed it over his shoulder. Jack caught it in the Bag, and thus the game began. Stan reached out in front of him with both arms, tossing them over his shoulder with reckless abandon while Jack dodged back and forth catching them in the Bag. The each vanished with no trace, except for the few that managed to get stuck on the edge of the Bag. One of them was aware enough to cling to the top of the bag and start to drag itself back up until the next few goblins landed on its head and pushed it down.

     Getting all of them into the bag took about an hour, which included Stan chasing after the few goblins that could actually stumble around and the last couple of goblins that Jack had to cram down into the bag until they vanished. When Jack pulled his hand out it was cold.

     With the job down, and with luck much sooner than they had expected it to, they headed back to the main building. The path to the ocean was lined with stones, “This resort would actually be pretty nice if it weren’t for all the goblins.”

     Stan pulled another cigar out and bit the end off, “Them goblins did liven the place up no end, though.”

     Jack swung the bag back and forth as he strolled along with Stan, “You’re missing the point, Stanley. This is a place to get away from your troubles. You don’t normally bring your work with you on vacation unless you make more money than God or if you’re emotionally dead inside.”

     Stan considered this for a moment, “So it’s like that safehouse we got?”

     “Well, I guess it’s possible that some people here are on the run from someone like the law, but that’s not how it works for most people.”

     The main building had finally quieted down by the time Jack and Stan got back. Mr. and Mrs. Miller had passed out leaning into each other on the front steps, apparently attempting to merge into each other for real. Jack tapped Mr. Miller’s shoe, jarring him awake. He sat up, causing his wife to tumble away from him, waking her up as well.

    To Jack’s annoyance, they went from unconscious to incredibly happy too soon for any normal person, “You did it? They’re really gone this time!?”

    Jack shook the bag and nodded, “I know the bag looks empty, but they’re all in here. There were a lot more of them than we were told, so it is possible that there will be a need for us to return. We’ll stick around in town for a few days to be sure, but we got all the ones we could get our hands on.”

     Mrs. Miller snagged one of Stan’s enormous hands, “Oh, I bet you did.” Stan shifted awkwardly.

    Jack whipped a small notebook out of his pocket and wrote down a fee for the removal. It wasn’t exactly generous, but given the nature of the job and how long it had taken, he could have charged far more. Moving fast, he grabbed her hand and crammed the piece of paper into her sweaty palm. The sputtering the couple did when they saw the number would have been entertaining had it not been directly connected to a paycheck.

     “This number is outrageous, we’re not going to pay it.” Mr. Miller looked as resolute as a man who jiggled like a sponge when he walked could.

     Jack shrugged noncommittally and reached into the bag, “I can put them back into the woods if you’d like, I’ll have to charge you for that as well. I would also have to charge you again for removing them, and they will need to be removed quickly since most of them will wake up with nasty hangovers. They could set the whole property on fire and then the lawsuits will begin…”      Jack trailed off, fishing his hand around in the bag. The goblins would do none of those things. If Jack actually managed to find a drunken goblin from his bag, it would spend the rest of the day trying not let any natural light touch its eyes. Even odds it ran into a tree within five minutes and knocked itself out.

    Mr. Miller waved his hands in front of Jack frantically, “That won’t be necessary, I promise!” With a speed that Jack would have found admirable in other circumstances, he whipped out his checkbook and replicated the number which Jack had given him on a check. Jack checked it over and folded it in half, tucking it into his vest pocket.

     “Thank you for the business, please let me know if they come back. We’ll do the stragglers for free, it’s the least we can do.”

     “It’s the most that you’ll do.”

     “What was that?” Jack fished his hand back into the bag again.

     “Nothing, nothing! Thank you for your hard work.”

     With that, they left the resort in their rearview mirrors and headed into the nearest town. Even though Jack had said they would be nearby in case they needed him the nearest town was about an hour away. Once they arrived, Jack reserved a room for both him and Stan. They needed to lay low a few more days anyhow, before Jack would even bother heading back up to the office. By the end of the day, Jack was wiping down the same table in their hotel room over and over.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 32

     Jack worked primarily as a cleaner. Between the words “Paranormal” and “Cleaner” he considered the word Cleaner to be the far more important. Paranormal wasn’t inherently a line of work, as their current job demonstrated amply. On top of being a cleaner, however, Jack had to function as an electrician, a therapist, and now a glorified wild lide expert. Being an old hand at dealing with wild creatures, Jack felt more than sure this job would be a breeze. Goblins were, by nature, impatient and feisty. If they were feral then they would also be thin and spindly creatures barely intelligent enough to fashion rags into clothes. The only potential difficulty lay in figuring out how many were on the property. Feral goblins were like cockroaches and if you saw some during the day, that meant they were breeding like jack rabbits and removing them would become quite challenging if you waited too long. It wasn’t because they were tough, but it was simply by virtue of being unable to keep up with the population boom.

     Before they left to begin their hunt, Jack loaded Stan down with every trap they had lining the walls of their van. Jack never worked overtime if he didn’t have to, and trapping the goblins before tossing them into the endless void of the Bag would save his clothes and their collective energy a great deal of grief. Snatching that mysterious Bag from his own supplies and tucking it into his belt, they got started.

     It didn’t take Jack long to find the first signs that they had been there. The second cabin along the path had been opened up and the contents spilled all over the front porch. Half eaten apples, an opened bag of chips spilled all around with other pieces of half eaten food and smashed up furniture strewn out from the door. Ripped up clothes hung from the top of the cabin. It seemed things were worse than he had thought. Stepping into the cabin, Jack scanned the living room. The minimalist furniture had been smashed to pieces and the walls bore weak claw marks from the floor to the ceiling. Curiously, besides the food, nothing else seemed to be missing at first glance. Outside, Stan placed a few traps and baited them with leftover food and some soap which smelled like peaches. Feral goblins liked fruit and were often not discriminating about consuming soap that smelled like it.

     The next two cabins bore out that same routine. Jack inspected the completely destroyed cabin while Stan set some traps and they moved on.  In the third cabin from where the trail of destruction began, they hit the jackpot. In the front yard outside the cabin four goblins sat around in a drunken stupor. It suddenly occurred to Jack exactly what the goblins had been taking; everything alcoholic beverage in every cabin. An image flashed through Jack’s mind of attempting to cram vomiting goblins into his mystical Bag. He almost got sick himself.

     For these four, however, the bender was over. It took only an instant and all four of them were in the Bag. In the distance, Jack heard loud chittering and smashing. It seem their luck had held if the goblins hadn’t caught their scent yet. If they were still so close with all the noise Stan made when walking down a path, they were really trashed and given the sounds they were making, he could already tell there was more than forty of them. When sounds of breaking glass emanated from even further down the path, Jack knew he had been licked. Time to regroup, laying traps as they went back to the main building, and consider another option. Goblins aren’t very brave, clever or strong but when they get into a mob Jack often noticed something strange happen. He liked to call it the, “Yeah, what he said” mentality. It was sort of like watching dogs get each other riled up into barking at strangers until their owner comes back and yells at them, only in this case there was no owner and all the dogs were hammered.

     Stan shambled back down the path, placing traps at about knee height for himself, hanging them from branches and nailing them to trees on either side of the path. Jack waited until he could barely see him before he started following. It seemed unlikely to him that many goblins would have been caught by the time he passed, but there was no point in wasting a trip. As Jack had suspected, however, the traps were all empty and hanging loosely where Stan had left them on his trail back to the main office. Jack had often wondered whether or not feral goblins were capable of communication. There were some members of his family, most notably Julian, who thought it could be true. Julian insisted that the only way feral goblins could be capable of such rampant destruction is if they were somehow organized enough to at least let other goblins in their murder know when they were under threat. The scene that unfolded before him reminded Jack why he had never thought that theory held much credence. If goblins were capable of communication, then even drunk goblins should have been trying to communicate with the other goblins to warn them. At first glance, you might think they were organized and moved together in unison. In reality, it was far more likely that a pack of feral goblins simply moved on instinct, with each goblin looking out for number one. When the herd thinned out enough that’s when  survival instincts took over and the rest of them would break and run off on their own. That’s why they needed one big trap that would lure all the goblins into one place, so they would do all the work while Jack and Stan collected the paycheck for cleaning them up.

     Every fifteen feet on the path back, Jack stopped to examine the bushes. Tracking had never been Jack’s strongest suit as a hunter, but with goblins one hardly had to track very hard. Paths into the woods lay on all sides.  Stan was already leaning against the van by the time Jack got back to the front office. The commotion mostly lay inside, but from Stan’s slightly tense posture Jack could tell that it would only be a moment before it spilled out into the driveway and became a pain in their job. In short order the spillage began, as Jack expected it would, with the Miller’s. They both had a weird way of walking that made it seem as though they were clumsily floating along the ground.

     Mr. Miller was the first to speak, “So, Jack…did you get rid of whatever those…things were?”

     “Feral goblins, and no. We’ve set traps all over the path, but that’s not going to work. They’re reproducing too quickly because you waited too long to get help. Because you waited, things will get a little difficult.

     “What?” the old man from earlier in the day came out of the front office, leading a trail of families and couples, “He said he can’t do it! We’ll never get our things back now.”

     “And thus, the prophet of doom appears.” It occurred to Jack that apparently the people who came to this resort were far more interested in getting their things back than they were in the existence of goblins. Well, except a few wide eyed little children who had certainly caught on and were very interested indeed in meeting a few.

     Raising his hands, Jack spoke louder in an attempt to calm everyone down, “We can catch all of them, we just need to set a trap that will lure all of them and fortunately for you, we do seem to know what the goblins want.”

     An elderly woman towards the back of the crowd, bedecked with jewelry, spoke up, “They want my jewels!”

     A man closer to the front took up the cry, “They want my suits!”

     Even the children, perhaps sensing a chance to mock their elder or perhaps in earnestness, took up the cry, “They want my Thomas the tank engine!”

     Jack decided he had played the guessing game long enough, “They want to get hammered. Every place they broke into, all they took was the booze. Everything else got trashed because they drank the booze.  Drunk goblins aren’t exactly known for their delicate nature. So if anybody is holding onto some high end hooch, now is the time to hand it over or we can do it the long way and that could take weeks.”

     It took Jack a few moments to realize that the crowd had redirected its gaze to Mr. Miller. All the crowd, that is, except his wife who had grown a sudden interest in the ceiling and was gazing heavenward, whistling in an entirely too suspicious manner.

     Mr. Miller blustered uselessly, “But…that’s my private stash! I can’t just…give my private store to those creatures.”

     The elderly woman in the back of the crowd spoke the one word on everyone’s mind, “Refund.”

     Mr. Miller caved immediately, “Oh, very well, but I get to choose the bottles you take and I get one last glass before they go.” Jack nodded his ascent and Mr. Miller vanished back into the front building to get into his so-called secret stash. A loud grinding of gears and a hollow sound of a staircase being lowered could be heard from inside the building.

     “Oh dear, he really did have a secret stash. I expected some mid-level hard liquor in his desk, but we may be giving a king’s ransom to feral goblins.”

     Stan cocked his head slightly, “Which king boss?”

     Jack sniffed the air and winced at the smell, “Several, it would appear.”

     Mr. Miller appeared at the entrance with several bottles of liquor that appeared to have been bottled during the Renaissance. He seemed to have sampled the contents himself, as he staggered towards Jack, keeping a tenuous grip on the bottles. “I’m excited to be a part of this. I always wanted to get out and see the world.”

     Jack snatched the bottles away from Mr. Miller and turned towards the beach, “Goblins aren’t really dangerous but you should still stay in the main building and keep quiet.” He gestured to Stan and headed down the path. Goblins are naturally agile little buggers so the best thing to do would be to get them all hammered and then toss them all in the Bag. We’ll need a bowl or a tub to put the booze in and then we’ll just need to wait. Stan parted ways and headed towards the cabins while Jack continued on towards the beach. Once he reached the ocean shore, Jack took the time to enjoy the ocean view spanning out ahead of him. Stan arrived shortly after with a giant metal wash bin perfect for their trap.

Second-Hand Rumors~ chapter 3

     Out of the many valuable life lessons Liam had learned over his long and oft’ tarnished career, several stuck out in his mind. Never bet on horses, grey hounds or loose women, because you will always lose your money. Never mix cheap whiskey with expensive vodka. Most importantly, never attempt to rig sporting events that are nationally televised. They were such valuable life lessons that Liam indulged in all these pursuits as often and vigorously as possible to make sure he thoroughly learned the lessons and could pass them on to others. While waiting for Jenny, he learned that even if the woman happens to be an assassin, you can’t rush perfection. Fortunately, Liam had company while he waited for his partner in espionage. Unfortunately, that company happened to be gigantic teacup Yorkies, who surrounded him and shivered threateningly.

     As soon as she returned, all the dogs scurried to her side. Jenny’s transformation stunned Liam and left him speechless for a long moment. In place of her errant curls, her auburn hair now surrounded her face in elegant flowing locks. Her shocking pink mask had been swapped out for a pair of dark, reflective sunglasses and she wore a dark red shade of lipstick to accentuate the paleness of her skin. Her outfit, while subdued, was classy and would fit in perfectly while wandering crowds accustomed to good taste. She wore a white blouse with a navy blue blazer and a matching short navy blue skirt. What struck Liam most was her change in demeanor. Her normal, frantic energy had vanished and in its place he saw cool, confidence and calm.

    Standing up, Liam offered his arm to Jenny, who took it with a slight giggle that sounded more like that Jenny he had come to know so well over the week he had been casing her cousin’s house to rob him. For the first few steps, Liam felt like he was leading, until he tried to pull her away from the front gate. Resolutely, she walked right up to the gate controls and keyed in her code to open it. From there, it would be a long trip to the beating heart of the financial world; Wall Street.

     When Liam first thought about the current job, he wanted to hire Charlotte and her limo company to ferry them around. Careful consideration left Liam with an increasing desire to work out transportation on his own, at least at first. The man Liam was tracking, himself, was not dangerous. The same couldn’t be said for the people he worked for. Using a limo service as a short-hand visual for wealth and power would work for a neighborhood where nobody asked questions, ever. If he used Charlotte to ferry him to and from this job, people would start to ask questions. Dangerous people who would look up license plate numbers, locate addresses and send other burly, unpleasant people with metal bats to ask inconvenient questions. Liam knew from experience that when that happened, Charlotte would fold like a bad poker hand in a high stakes game, and it wouldn’t even be anything personal. It’s hard to drive a car if you’re missing a hand.

     Liam wanted to start, therefore, by dipping their toes in the water and getting a feel for what sort of crowd they had stumbled into. Matthew Bergson, their mark, worked with a financial group that did things with money. Liam’s view on money was remarkably narrow, as one would expect of a thief. Either you had your money or Liam did. The miracle of Wall Street, and other such financial institutions, was that your money vanished, but you still felt like it was safe. That left people like Matthew ample time to invest your invisible money in whatever way they wanted, and yet somehow you still had all your money. It was like a magic trick Liam wished he could learn.

     Having looked at the packet of papers Simon handed over to him when he took the job, Matthew Bergson liked to invest in quasi-governmental bodies solely dedicated to murdering anything not human. The real question was whether or not the rest of the group he worked with knew that’s what he was supporting, or if they would even believe Liam if he told them. His picture gave the impression of someone more at home dealing with money than people. He had stringy brown hair and thin lips. His face drooped slightly, as though the weight of the world were slowly pushing him to the ground. His dull eyes hardly had any color at all in the picture, a strange grey which revealed nothing of the man in the image. Matthew Bergson was also a creature of habit. He went to his office in the morning. In the afternoon, he went out for lunch at a different place every day, in the same cycle every week.

    Having Jenny with him gave Liam an amazing opportunity to vanish in plain sight. Nobody paid attention to a dopey looking guy like Liam when a stunner like Jenny walked by. She looked so calm and collected, though she did spoil the look a bit by bouncing around when Liam announced his plan. She would find Matthew Bergson and get to know him. Liam would stay in the background for now, watching and waiting for his opportunity to insert himself. That wouldn’t come today, nor the next day and likely not for the first four or five days, unless they were very lucky. She was going to play the part of his rich wife, looking for some cause to invest in, preferably against his wishes. Men never give information faster than when they give it to rich, naughty women.

    Following someone in a crowd takes a sharp pair of eyes, because it’s like dropping a pebble into a river and trying to watch the ripples while the stream carries them away. Thankfully, for an old hand like Liam, this had already become routine. When you’re robbing someone, it’s best to play a longer game. You could be quite successful at the smash and grab technique, but eventually that haste and impatience will always catch up to you.

     When it came time for lunch, their dance began. Jenny silently pursued Matthew. Liam followed Jenny. What he saw, he did not like. Matthew was being shadowed by at least two pairs of eyes. They belonged to men with hard faces wearing dark suits who failed to blend into the crowd entirely, at least to Liam’s trained eyes. That first day Liam and Jenny followed Matthew, he met nobody and only returned to his office before leaving work to go home at the end of the day. Liam split up from Jenny at that point, when she decided to leave as well. Waiting in the plaza where Jenny had walked, Liam watched as the crowds slowly dispersed, only to be replaced by a new one.

     He waited until he was sure they had lost any lingering mutual friends before meeting up with Jenny in the park near where she lived. He found her sitting on a park bench tapping her foot impatiently. He sat down next to her and leaned back into the bench, “This is going to take longer than a week.”

     “Yup,” Jenny confirmed with her characteristic bubbly nature returning to the surface, “I’m not sure we can get all the information we need just by following him around either.”

    Liam stared off into space, “I saw two pairs of sharp dressed men following our fella around. Before I attempt any kind of breaking and entering, I want to make sure I won’t be interrupted.”

    Jenny giggled, “And you missed a couple more that were staking out the path ahead of him. Whoever Simon sent you to follow around has a lot of friends. This might be easier if I just killed them.”

     There was something about the casual way she said that which chilled Liam to his core, “That won’t help. If you kill a few flunkies, they’ll just send more and then they’ll know we’re targeting the fella. On top of that, if he really is working for the Society, technically his bodyguards are government agents and that sounds like an excuse to start a war to me.”

     Jenny blew a raspberry at him, which he ignored. No, even though Jenny was willing to ply her trade to help, the best course of action would be to take the slow and steady approach. When they knew his schedule outside the office as best they could, it would be time to put the second and third phases of their plan into action.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 31

     Jack considered himself to be fairly competent at conflict resolution. His skills in this field lay in his ability to aid conflicting parties in seeing eye to eye. That and, failing the diplomatic approach, in his talent for knocking them out when he couldn’t. That approach didn’t exactly work where his father was involved. In the case of Varnes Nair, conflict management consisted of turning around and leaving until you ran out of places to run to. As they traveled down to their next job, Jack found himself contemplating the choices that he had made over the last few days. All his decisions had been represented on a wooden board with pegs in it, but Jack felt like his last choice had taken him right off the edge of the board. Perhaps, when this job was over, another reading would help Jack figure the situation out. The road stretching on endlessly ahead of them combined with the familiarity of the smell of Stan’s cigar knocked Jack out for hours. The trip ended in a blur of waking and sleeping and staring out the window. Jack had never been to this resort, and though they had been given the address they didn’t know the name of the owner. The resort lay in a coastal part of Maryland where the ocean brought in cool breezes. It was apparently a place where politicians could relax and get away from the stresses of their various offices.

     After an hour of driving around the most picturesque city Jack had ever seen, they finally found the resort they were looking for. It was called Hopeful Homes by the Sea, a somewhat ironic name under the current circumstances. After arriving at the front gate it took them a full half hour of driving along a suspiciously windy and picturesque driveway to hit the office. The drive down to the office was lined on both sides by immaculate arbor vitae. Jack sighed a bit with relief that these goblins were feral. The more intelligent type had a tendency to graffiti everything they found, sometimes with paint and sometimes with blood. The front office was a white building that stood three stories high. Most of the windows had clothes hanging out to dry, leaving Jack to assume that the majority of the residences had been cleared out with the arrival of goblins on the property.

      “Wait here, Stanley. I’ll go see if they’ll accept our help or if we’re just wasting our time.” Jack hopped out of his seat and walked over to the front door of the office. He knocked twice before opening the door and stepping inside. The front of the office had four chairs lined on either side of a table that had all the latest boring magazines that waiting rooms have. Against the wall next to the door was a water cooler and a coat and hat rack that couldn’t possibly accommodate more than one or two coats before it collapsed from the sheer weight. The waiting room had around fourteen people in it, all directing their ire at a small plump woman on the far side of the room who stood behind the employee’s desk, gripping it tightly as though it were a shield.

     “I told you before, we hired someone to take care of the goblin problem.” The woman seemed frazzled in the extreme. She wore a red one piece dress that would have seemed at home on a sitcom from the 1950’s. Her arms were tan to the point of being slightly baked and her glasses sat on her long black hair like they were used to being perched there.

     “That’s what you said two weeks ago!” Jack located the crotchety one who had yelled that, “All of our things are just sitting in that bungalow and my wife needs clean…unmentionables.” The old man who had spoken was thin, balding and angry. Well, barring that last line for which he turned a bright red and looked at the floor causing Jack to stifle a laugh. He failed and in the sudden silence, the whole room looked right at him.

     Jack decided to try and take advantage of the situation as best he could, “We were contacted about a cleaning job and…”

     It was like a switch flipped. The woman smiled as big a smile as she could manage and she sauntered over to Jack, “My husband was expecting you, I’m Mrs. Miller.” She turned to her patrons, a slightly accusing look taking the place of her smile, but the joviality hadn’t lessened in the slightest, “Didn’t I tell you someone was coming? My husband never lets us down.” The small crowd laughed and started to disperse and Jack was suitably impressed. It’s no small feat to put a crowd down, make them laugh, reassure them and most importantly of all make sure that none of them use the dreaded word, “Refund” all in one go.

     Jack found himself being forcibly dragged to the office by Mrs. Miller, who had not stopped talking since she had reached Jack. He could only assume that she was speaking English, but she was speaking it very quickly so that every sentence seemed to come out in one word. Since nothing she said seemed to require an answer from him, or even his understanding what she was saying, he just let her prattle on and followed her closely until they reached the office. Jack had to stop short and do a double take at the sight of her husband sitting in the office chair. The main office had interior blinds, which were down and closed which Jack had always taken as a universal sign of something having gone wrong, so he couldn’t have seen Mr. Miller before now. He had to check that Mrs. Miller had not somehow teleported into the chair, but she still maintained a firm grip on Jack’s arm.

    Barring the length of hair, the bright red lipstick, and the extravagant moustache the man sitting in the chair could have been Mrs. Miller wearing a dapper tweed suit to combat the summer heat. He rose and his face morphed into the same peculiar smile, “The cleaners finally arrived! Thank you for bringing them in, dearest.” He sprang up from his desk in a manner that Jack would have thought impossible for a man of his plumpness. “Does he look good to you?”

     Mrs. Miller nodded quickly, sending her curls flying around her hair in a messy halo, “He seems like he knows what he’s doing. He even has an unmarked van.”

     Jack wasn’t entirely sure what that had to do with the quality of his cleaning, but they had known to send a message to his family, or his sister rather, so somebody here knew what was what. Jack had doubts about it being either one of the couple, “Oh, wonderful! So Jack, do you know what to expect? We’ve had a bit of an…”

     “An infestation.” His wife finished his sentence for him, using the same tone of voice that she might use to conspiratorially whisper about a black sheep in the family. “We’re hoping that we can get rid of these goblins as soon as possible so that people can go back to their bungalows. We’re not really set up to take so many families into the main office building.”

      Jack reached into his front pocket and pulled out a small pad of paper, “So do you know how many there are?”

     “I’m fairly certain there were about thirty or forty, would you say dear?” Mrs. Miller pulled closer to her husband and to Jack’s mild surprise they seemed to merge together into one person wearing two outfits and with an extra head.

     “Thirty or forty sounds about right, honey.” Mr. Miller rubbed his extensive, bushy mustache over his wife’s face.

     Jack slowly backed out the office door and turned to the entrance, “We’ll get right on it, thirty or forty. Thank you for the job.” Jack reached the outside and took out a deep breath. Awkward love always took a certain amount of courage to deal with and Jack had run out of that a long time ago. Fixing his suit, he managed to get over to the van without too much trouble. Stan had pulled their two bags out and left them resting against its side.

     “What’sa play, boss?”

     “We’ll do this orthodox, no reason to get fancy for a tribe of feral goblins. Take the mallet and I’ll take my broom. Make sure to bring the bag and we’ll just try and send them to another place. No reason to kill them unless we have to.”

     Jack fished his mop out of his bag, careful not to touch the mop head. The bag jangled slightly when Jack tossed it back into the rear of the van. Stan pulled his mallet from his gear and fished the Bag from the back of the van to Jack. The path from the office led further into the property and the bungalows. They were called bungalows, but in reality judging from the buildings Jack could see they were just minimalist cabins with large front porches and screens with curtains. They were painted a brilliant white and the minimalist aesthetic was completed by a lack of any wires leading to the cabins, barring one wire for electricity. The bushes and trees provided security and privacy and in the distance Jack could hear the waves crashing against the shore.

     Jack took his jacket off and tossed it into the passenger seat of the van, “Better to get to work.” Jack started down the path to the left with his broom held in one hand. Under most circumstances, Jack expected his partner to follow behind at a distance and try and keep their presence to a minimum. Even so, Stan was a small walking earthquake in the underbrush, sounding like a small herd of bears trampling a Red Wood Tree. He tromped along behind Jack, swinging his mallet low over the ground.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 30

     The trip back home was in silence. Jack had received a simple job by Varnes Goodbody, his father, and not only had they failed it, they had failed it in spectacular fashion. The worst part was that Jack had offered to help his father and he had failed. He failed in the same city in which his father had worked so hard before Jack had been born. That Jack failed did mean that someone had gotten the information out to that mysterious punk first. This meant someone either knew about the set being collected or knew that Jack was going to grab it and poached it before he could. Either way, it would be best to find a job out of the state as soon as was possible. Jack hardly liked the idea of leaving his normal customers in a lurch so soon after he had taken his last trip, but under the circumstances it was safer to lay low.

      They ended up stopping for the night at the safe house on the outskirts of town that Jack had set up for occasions when he didn’t want to deal with family members. Only one family member knew about it and that was his sister, Sam. Early the next morning, he regretted his decision to  disclose the location to her when the AC/DC approaching down the road was loud enough to cause a glass coffee mug to bounce off the table and shatter on the floor. Oddly, despite her normally boisterous manner, a minute or so after the music had stopped, she actually knocked on the door. Sam knocking on the door was never a good thing. Polite Sam was confused Sam and confused Sam was scared.

     Jack opened the door a crack and peeked out at his sister, “To what do we owe the honor?”

     Sam pushed past Jack and skipped into the room. She had forsaken her usual work outfit, keeping her jacket but wearing looser fitting jeans and a white t-shirt, “So I guess the last job father sent you got messed up.”

     Jack seethed for a moment before calming down and closing the door, “We got poached. Whatever it was Father wanted, it got taken before we could get there.”

     Sam patted his shoulder gently, with a flat hand very slowly three times, “I figured, it’s not like you to screw the pooch this bad without help.”

     Jack brushed her hand aside and ignored her slight smirk. Despite the circumstances, some siblings just can’t help themselves, “We had help from someone else who found out about the silverware before us. It seems like I have a secret admirer. This summer has been very strange. Has father found out?”

     “An admirer, Jack? Seems like you’ve been busier than you know. Father hasn’t found out yet, but I figured you would want to be gone when he does. I know that I will.”

      Jack let out a deep sigh that came from the depths of his frustration, “Pretty much, but we can’t just head out without a job. We’ll be stuck here for weeks at this rate.”

     Sam waved a piece of paper in front of his face, “Thank me later, brother.”

     Jack snatched the piece of paper from his sister and scanned it. There was a sports resort looking for cleaners to prep their cabins for the incoming tourists and also to kill the pack of feral goblins that had taken over the resort grounds sometime in the off season, the note was vague about the specifics, but the situation seemed pretty dire. The very end of the note, which trailed off into a scrawl of almost unreadable letters, promised a chance to really unwind. Jack crammed the note in his pocket and rubbed the bridge of his nose. The resort was in Maryland, a job that would take them out of state for around a week at least. “Thank you,” was all Jack could manage.

     “Don’t worry, Jack. I’ll come and collect on this favor later, you know I always do.”

     “I was hoping you had forgotten, but no such luck it seems.” Closing his eyes, Jack mentally scanned the things they would need. Their most important tools were already in the van and everything else they would need was readily available on the road.

     “Stanley, we’re leaving for Maryland! Pack up everything we can from here and we’ll restock later!”

     Stan shambled into the room and started gathering up supplies, “We gonna leave before that family a’ yours finds out we goofed?”

     Sam covered her mouth with her hand to stifle a sudden burst of laughter, “Something like that, buddy. You two better leave town fast, though. Father is scary quick at finding out when we’ve screwed up. It’s uncanny, really.”

     Jack looked out the front door at the town they lived in off in the distance. Leaving it really was no problem because Jack hardly considered it home. His office was a place where he rested his head. The road and his job were the places where he rested his heart. In times of doubt and confusion, Jack found he could drown out the pain in the cleaning and the simple acts that comprised each job. Even kicking a rogue tribe of feral goblins out of the area, killing them or getting them to leave, was simple enough when you got down to it.

     Stan sat down in the driver’s seat, leaning the van towards his side with a slight squeak when he got in. Jack stayed in their safe house for a few moments longer before locking up and getting into the passenger seat. The open road no longer held the thrill that it did at the opening of the summer, but nothing held him back and recent events pushed him forward so on he went. The trip to Maryland would take a couple of days from where they were, and while the recent trips had been rested from or uneventful, Jack found himself worn thin by the stress. Perhaps this trip could ease the tension and restore a little faith in himself.

 

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 29

     After their visit to the family oracle, time stopped. They arrived home and the next two days passed so slowly, they seemed like one long, empty fragment of time. On the third day, Jack received a letter in the mail. In all the years that Jack had been working in that office, he had never received a letter. Much like the rest of modern man, he possessed an office phone for a reason, to keep people out of his office as often as possible. When clients visited the office, it tended not to go well. What was more confusing, until Jack noticed his father’s overly elegant handwriting, was the fact that it had no postage on it. Since Jack didn’t have a headache, he knew his sister hadn’t delivered it to the ever present rock that blared from her chopper.

    Inside the envelope was a check for an amount of money so absurd that Jack had to do a double take and then clean his glasses off before he even believed it and a note from his father. It was a request, of course, and a request done in the normal way his father made requests. When you ordered someone to achieve a goal, you must choose a task that aligns with their heart. This is the path to making sure all your orders are followed. Jack had even watched this logic in action recently, when his sister had come and got him to go and hunt down a notorious serial killer that they had longed to take down when they were children.

     The letter read simply, asking Jack to go to the house of another childhood target. This target also possessed a few items Jack now knew of, namely two silverware settings from the Denavi set. One spoon had taken months for Smiling Jimmy to acquire but whoever had managed to gather two forks, two knives and two spoons was clearly in need of a quick and sudden ending. The job itself was one that Jack would never normally take under the current circumstances. The house he lived at was in a suburb of New York City in a relatively well to do neighborhood, so apparently the target had done alright for himself.

     The target in question had always given Jack a Mr. Roger’s kind of vibe. He had soft brown hair and light brown eyes and when he smiled he did look like the host of a children’s show. He also had a penchant for collecting unusual and often dangerous things, which led him to the slight problem of being eternally short of money. As Jack well knew, when you’re short of money the best thing to do is find something that you’re very good at that nobody else can do. Unfortunately for everyone else, what he happened to be good at was murder. Normally, there would have been a packet of information with the letter but apparently Varnes expected Jack to remember Charles Beaufort quite well.

     Charles Beaufort was the worst type of serial killer, far worse than Creepy Bug Guy. Creepy Bug Guy killed as a hobby. Charles killed because he needed to make a living. That trait meant he had no traditional patterns, no plausible motivations and made him almost impossible to track. He had apparently ended his career around five years ago and while he had been on the Goodbody family’s radar, he was kept of the target list for reasons Jack had never understood. Now it made far more sense. You don’t kill a man with valuable information. If somebody else collects something you’re looking for, then you let the man collect the damned things and you sit back and watch the body count rise. There was a certain cold logic to it and Jack could easily detect the hand of his father behind the decision making process.

     “So this is the first choice I get to make.” Jack tossed the letter onto his desk and leaned against it, taking his glasses off and letting them hit the table.

     “Where are we goin’ boss?”

     “Fetch and carry, basically. We’ll need your bag, my bag and The Bag. Hopefully this will be plenty messy because after the last job, I really need to unwind.”

     Stan got up and started to pack up both of the bags and carry them to the van. Jack stood over his desk while Stan worked, looking at his glasses and gently pushing them from side to side. “Am I making the right choice? This path I take is my choice, but is it right?”

     Replacing his glasses, he headed down when he heard the door slam and he hopped into the van next to him. “Onward, Stanley. We have some dinnerware to collect.”

     The road stretched on ahead of him and at the end of that road lay the result of his choices. New York City wasn’t all so far from where he lived, they had already made a longer road trip, but Jack never liked going back to New York City because New York City was where the war had taken place. As the road trip went on, Jack found himself shifting more and more, gazing out the window and longing to undo the choice that he had made.

    “You sure you wanna do this boss? We ain’t never taken a job in the city before.”

     “I just don’t like going back to where the war took place.” Jack sighed heavily and examined the dark blue suit he had chosen.

     “I don’t remember no war in the papers, must not a’ been important.”

     Jack chuckled in spite of himself, “It was before our time and the newspapers never would have heard of it. I just don’t like going back to places where my father covered himself in glory. Those days make him smile a little too much and I like taking even just a little of that away from him.”

     The traffic started getting heavier as they got closer and closer to New York City. The house they were looking for was somewhere in a nice neighborhood in Queens and getting to it would take some patience and liberal application of the horn. When they finally arrived, Jack had a pulsing headache and was entirely ready to collect the items with interest and go home to deliver it. Jack froze in his seat when he realized that he had mentally associated the Goodbody family with home and safety. This was not going to be Mr. Beaufort’s night.

     The neighborhood their target lived in could be considered a gated community, but only if it was a series of gated communities. Every single one of the positively opulent houses was surrounded on the edge of its property with a prohibitively high gate. Some of the properties had two gates right next to each other since space was at a premium in New York City. The property of their target seemed to be in the middle of a “who can built the highest fence contest with the next door neighbors. Stan parked the van on the side of the street and hopped out. Jack got out on the other side and tossed his suit coat back onto the passenger seat.

     It seemed unlikely anyone would question an unmarked white van sitting outside an opulent mansion on a night like this. The neighborhood was notorious for being an upscale pond onto which exorbitantly rich pond scum had settled, like a film of human disease. Most residents in the neighborhood would never consider calling into the police, it would create too many problems for them and their neighbors. On this block alone around three or four houses in the neighborhood were owned by mob bosses, so unmarked white vans, owned by various caterers mainly staffed by the FBI and the CIA, were already likely a common sight. Stan opened the back of the van and tossed Jack his bag of cleaning tools. Jack slung it over his shoulder and waited for Stan to haul his enormous bag of tools over his shoulder as well.

     The real question was how to go about this. As Jack stood in front of the gate contemplating this, an alarm system went off in the house and Jack could hear dogs barking from the other side of the house. Smash and grab it was. “Stanley, a door please.”

     “Sure thing, boss.” Stan grabbed two bars of the front gate and yanked them off with ease. Sparks flew through the air at the contact but that didn’t stop Stan from pulling off a few more bars on either side to make a solid entrance for Jack. Jack ducked through the front gate and started off at a brisk walk for the front door. In smash and grabs, the important thing is confidence. When the neighbor looked out the window and saw Jack, followed closely his enormous partner Stan, he wouldn’t assume that he belonged there. He might very well assume, especially given Stan’s large size, that this was something better left for the police and by the time they arrived Jack and Stan would be long gone.

     The front door opened at the touch, which worried Jack and made him wonder all over again exactly what his choice had led him to. The house wasn’t just wonderfully appointed, it was tastelessly opulent with items purchased from a lifetime of murder for profit. Some of them, Jack recognized. Directly ahead of him was a set of stairs that looked fit for royalty to process down, complete with enough space for trumpeters and pages, and on the right of that was an enormous elephant tusk ringed with ornate gold. The tusk of Uganda, or some such nonsense. Jack had heard that owning that tusk gave the owner the ability to grant wishes. It was all bunkum, of course, but people like Charles Beaufort often spent huge amounts of money on insane stories just like that.

     Every single piece of furniture in the opening room likely cost someone’s fortune and had been collected painstakingly. Jack picked up a solid gold apple and tossed it up slowly. The piece of fruit weighed a ton and looked exactly like a piece of fruit from a certain myth, “For real?” Gold really held no worth for a family that could easily produce gold, but the apple itself had a certain charm to it. Jack was tempted to toss it in the bag, but he had the realization that he would likely never get it back. He tossed it over his shoulder to Stan, who accepted it without question and shoved it into his coverall pocket.

     The next room ticked. Clocks lined the walls from top to bottom. Some of them were old German clocks with ornate figures that chased each other around when the bells tolled and some of them just seemed to be cheap kitsch picked up at a garage sale. No doubt, he had still paid an arm and a leg for it. Still, something about the whole mansion was off. The alarm was still sounding in the distance and though Jack could hear the dogs barking in the distance, they hadn’t gotten any closer which means nobody had unleashed the hounds. That meant the alarm was tripped by whoever was here. It seemed Jack’s father wasn’t the only one who had gotten word of the set.

     “We’ve been played, Stan. Get the van ready.”

     Stan hefted his bag and started for the door, “What about you boss?”

     “I’ll be out as soon as I check on the set, won’t be long.” Jack sprinted back to the front entrance and raced up the stairs. Normally, he would have checked the kitchen first but this was a man who collected rare items and loved nice things. A set of silverware that multiple, very dangerous people were willing to counter-murder you for were not kept with the rest of the cutlery, they were kept in an office or a safe. As Jack reached the top of the stairs, the smell of blood reached his nose. It seems they really had been beaten out.

     The hallway split up into two different directions and the only light in the house seemed to be coming from down the left hall, streaming out from around an open door. Jack crept down the hallway and peered around the corner to see what he had suspected he would find from the moment he realized the place had been burgled already. Charles Beaufort, dead or dying on the ground. Jack felt no sadness. The man couldn’t be called a cancer on society because cancer took time and Charles Beaufort worked quicker. Better check his pulse to see if he was alive. If he was alive maybe he could be woken up so Jack could ask him a few quick questions before he had to hit the road. An open window on the far side of the room waved its curtains at Jack enticingly, telling a story of another intruder who had already come and gone.

     Charles coughed loudly, a streak of blood trickling out his mouth. Jack raced over and cradled him in his arms. A quick examination showed no obvious wounds, but despite that Jack could already feel his pulse getting weaker and weaker. “Who took the Denavi silverware!? Who took it!?’ He shook Charles in his arms, the man was clearly going to die so no need to be gentle.

     Charles coughed again, his eyes focusing on Jack above him, “I had…no idea that silverware was so valuable. I paid a hefty price for it.”

     Jack shook him again, being a little gentler this time, “Tell me who took it.”

     “He came in through the window, a young man with a knife…had no idea who he was. He had such lovely green eyes. He killed me proper though. I’d never fought someone who overwhelmed me so single-handedly.”

     Jack let him fall to the ground and started for the door before he got cut short by a whispered voice from the floor, “Don’t go. I don’t want to die alone.”

     Turning back to him, one hand on the door and distant sirens wailing out over the city, “I’m sure a lot of people you killed wanted one last meal with their family, or better yet to live till they died of natural causes. I’d say it’s pretty fitting that you die alone in your office surrounded by your wealth.” Turning back to the hallway, Jack raced down the stairs and out the door to the van. Hopping in, Stan floored it immediately and soon they were past the radius where a police barricade would be set up. Jack actually wondered whether or not the police would set up a statue in their honor given the things they would find in that house. A lot of long unsolved murders were about to get suddenly solved and a lot of families who had been left waiting and wondering were going to get some sudden, blissful and horrible resolution.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 28

     Job satisfaction is never guaranteed, no matter what job you perform. Jack Goodbody chose to work as a cleaner because he enjoyed the simplicity and purity of it. Work was supposed to be uncomplicated. You go in, clean, kill all the bad things, and then leave. You don’t have to deal with bizarre vomiting pink unicorns. Jack found himself jerked completely awake at the realization of how similar to his father he sounded. “We’re taking a few days off, Stanley.”

     Stan tossed the remnants of his cigar out the window, “I’ll unpack them supplies and get the van ready.” Jack nodded and headed up to the office to lay down. Going on a vacation, for Jack, only meant one thing. They were going to meet the family oracle. Technically speaking, seeing the future is impossible. Tomorrow alone is a thousand criss-crossing roads all with unique destinations and with drivers who have minds of their own. On top of that, the roads could suddenly change direction at any moment or intersect with another road unexpectedly. That didn’t mean there were no signposts, however, and the job of the family oracle was to read the signposts and point out a variety of ways forward.

     Jack didn’t really care about the specifics. The road of the future always led forward no matter what you did, but he did want an interesting road to travel. The oracle lived a half a day’s drive from the Goodbody house. Sam liked to frequent her house when she was looking for fun. Trudging up the office steps, Jack took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. This summer was going nowhere fast. He and Stan needed something to really turn this next job around. Opening the door to their office, he staggered to his seat and sagged back into it, looking out the window into the small town they lived in. What really bothered him was the news about his family. Why on Earth had his father been sniffing around Sister Agnes’s orphanage of all places?  Every child deserves to grow up in a home where they won’t be exploited for their abilities or powers.

     Feeling the darkness of sleep closing in around him, he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. Normally, there would be a fight involved, but the sooner he got rested up the sooner he could go to see the oracle. Stan lumbered into the room and collapsed with a dull crash onto his couch, “Ain’t we gonna head for the oracle now?”

     “No, Stanley. We should leave for the oracle when the time is right. I’ll know when that is.” He stretched his arms over his head and pulled his suit jacket off to use as a makeshift blanket.

     They awoke the next morning to a day filled with promise. The rains of the previous few days gave way to an early dawn that rimmed the horizon with red. It promised a new heatwave, and hopefully a new adventure as well. It was time to visit the oracle. After getting cleaned up, they started their drive towards her house. When people pictured a person who served as an oracle, they had many different ideas about what she would look like. Jack had heard them all from various family members who had never seen her, possibly out of a desire Jack would never understand to live as boring a life as possible. They told him she was an old woman who lived in a modest, if run down, house with thirty seven cats and a mangy wolf named Hercules. Or maybe, the would further conjecture, she was a tiny woman with a penchant for kitsch and style from the seventies, which Jack always referred to as the linoleum decade. Truth be told, Jack had always found her to be sweetheart with a bit of an acidic tongue.

     That was slightly unfair, it would be more accurate to say that her understanding of human feelings varied greatly from moment to moment depending on a variety of circumstances that Jack had yet to have fully explained to him. She lived in a small green one story house in a neighborhood that seemed a little worn down, but it had a good school district according to her. She was married, though her husband was often gone for long periods of time. More than once, his sessions with her had been cut short by a phone call from said mystery hubby.

     Their drive to see her took an hour and a few wrong turns before they reached their destination. Jack stepped out of the van and took a quick look around. The normally neat front lawn was in clear need of a mowing. The bushes around the front bay windows were looking quite unruly and in just a few months someone was going to need to complete a paintjob or the house was in serious danger of going naked. It took Jack a few moments to realize that it had been a few years since the last time they have visited the oracle and things must have changed drastically in that time.

     Walking slowly to the steps leading up to the front door, Jack raised a hand to knock before the door suddenly opened. The oracle, Caroline, stood in front of him cradling a cat in one hand and a squirming baby in the other. She blew at a loose strand of dull brown hair that had wandered in front of her eye, “You’re late, get in and sit down.”

     Jack waved at his partner to stay with the van. That was the other thing about Caroline, she said exactly what she meant. If she didn’t invite you inside there was always a reason to find a sudden interest in her yard. Jack had refused to leave multiple times in the past till she had seen him. Stepping into her front room and gently tapped his shoes on a mat to get the dirt off the soles.

     The front door took Jack directly into the living room, and it certainly could have used a little tender loving care from a flame thrower. The wall to wall carpet, as well as the majority of the furniture, had once been a vibrant lime green color. Years of sun bleaching had left the entire room colored in varying shades of vomit, and the cats scattered around on various pieces of furniture gave the impression that the vomit was flecked with hairballs. A small table sat near the front windows between two large faded orange chairs. The table was made from a dark black wood. All along the top was a series of long metal pins that had been stuck deeply into the table. The row on the very edge of the table had a series of colored twine hanging from the pins that dangled on the ground. In a basket next to the table was a large pile of twines that looked like that had been put through the cat twine shredder.

     Choking back to urge to vomit himself, Jack attempted a more polite approach, “I see it’s been awhile, do you need any cleaning done?”

     “That’s a fine thing for you to be asking, I suppose I’ll have to pay for it will I?”

     “Consider it on the house, given that you’re about to provide a service for me.”

     Caroline trucked her loads into the living room and sat down in one of the two oversized chairs in the room. The cat escaped at this point, the baby quickly following suit crawling after the cat. Jack sat down in the chair across from her, “I know what you mean when you say “clean” Jack. You mean replace everything in my house with something more to your liking, but you don’t get to decide how to pay me for my service. I just haven’t decided how I want you to pay me back yet.”

     Caroline cracked her knuckles and got to work. Her fingers were a blur, moving over the board and wiring strings around pins until every string worked from one end of the board to the other. Then, impossibly quickly and surely she started to adjust them without removing even a single pin from the board. Jack looked up from her hands to realize that she was no longer even looking at the board. Her long hair had come undone and fallen in strands over her eyes which had rolled up, showing only whites. Her mouth was slightly open, making noiseless motions as though she was silently speaking to an occupant of the room that Jack couldn’t see. After fifteen minutes, she settled back in her chair and pushed her hair back out of her eyes.

     “Done. I need a drink of water. The cups are above the sink in the cupboard, we can look at the paths once I’ve had a sip.”

     Jack rose from his seat and went to grab the glass of water. The sink made a horrible squeaking noise when he used it, but the water was clear enough after the brown passed through the pipes. Returning, he handed her the water which she greedily gulped down.

    “So I take it you want the interesting route. The one that will lead you to something fun?”

     Jack nodded carefully, “Since I’m not really trying to achieve some goal like my father I’m more interested in the road than the destination.”

     Caroline slowly lowered her gaze to the tangle of wires and took a bright red string in her hand, “During the next job you receive you’ll have a choice to make. You can either help or hinder someone and while the choice may seem obvious, a less attractive option will yield more interesting results. The string frays past that point and I can’t tell you which way to take, but it will be messy no matter what you do.”

     Jack crossed his arms and examined the string carefully, “Essentially, if I want to have more fun I have to choose the option that makes no sense.”

     “Pretty much what the board seems to say. Given the string it will be a close choice too. There are other paths to take which have similar results so just move when you feel it’s right.”

     Jack scratched his head and raised a brow, looking up at Caroline with a puzzled expression, “So what’s the right answer?”

    “There isn’t a wrong answer. Whatever path you choose is fine so long as you’re fine with your choices.”

     Jack coughed and scratched his head again.

     She sighed, “Oh, get out and just pay attention. In the next few weeks you’re going to encounter some interesting choices and which way you decide to go to is all up to you.”

    Jack rose and turned to the door, “I’ll just take your word for it, then.”

    Caroline laughed and went to scoop up her baby, ignoring his struggles to free himself again, “You showed up, didn’t you? And when have I ever let you down?”

     Jack found himself heartened by this reminder and he opened the door to the front yard, “Well, we should get going…Stanley.” Jack trailed off as he took in the front yard. Stanley had taken the time to mow the lawn and trim the bushes. Jack smiled as he got into the passenger side of the van and tapped the side twice. Stan was waiting in the driver’s seat for his boss. He started the van. “Good news, boss?”

     Jack sighed and leaned out the window to look at the houses passing by, “Not really sure. We’ll be getting a good job offer soon, but that’s about all I know.” With that, they pulled out and headed home, both ready and unprepared for what the world had to offer them.