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.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “What’s his name?”

     “I don’t know, I never asked.”

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

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 43

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “We best go break them up, boss.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “You can never have your sister back!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 42

     The world made more sense when it was clean. That, more than any other reason, is why Jack loved his work. Hunting quickly became so complicated, but cleaning was simple and pure. When it was just he and Stan, they worked one job at a time to create a more organized world. A clean world meant that everything had a place where it belonged. If something got out of place, one simply had to lift it up and put it back where it needed to be. That was true of people as well. Even someone as contemptible as Jack’s father belonged right where he was, cooped up in his dingy office with the blinds closed and the fire roaring in the middle of summer. Sometimes, all you can do is hide away the stain so nobody can see it. Samantha also had a place where she belonged and it wasn’t kidnapped by some crazed plant cult. This was a hunt, and one which Jack had hoped he never would see again. Hunting made even less sense when you’re hunting for a family member in order to save them.

     On this one occasion, Jack was truly glad that his father had a place he belonged. Varnes was sick, and had been sick for as long as Jack could remember. He hardly ever left his study, except for rare occasions when he went to sleep in his own room. That predictability meant that he would be home, and even Varnes Goodbody wouldn’t be so calloused as to let his only daughter get dragged off by the same cult which had stolen his youngest son from them.

     The road stretched on eternally in front of them. Once Jack started recognizing the landmarks which led him home, the road grew even longer. As the van raced along, he willed himself into a state of calm. A frantic hunter would do no good for Samantha. He needed to be sharp and prepared to move at a moment’s notice. What he really needed was information. Running off wild would waste valuable time.

     They arrived at the house in the early hours of the morning, when the mists were still curled around the tree trunks and the sun had barely risen enough to dispel the darkness. Jack hopped out of the car and raced through the front doors. It only took a few steps into the house to realize something was wrong. He could smell it in the air which lazily washed past him out the doors. It smelled stale, the Goodbody house always did, but it lacked that sickly sweet edge it normally carried. Fear, true fear and panic set in. Slowly, Jack walked around the first floor, trying to find someone to question. All the furniture was exactly where he remembered it. The kitchen was still warm from that morning’s breakfast. In his entire circuit of the ground floor, he only met a few maids and servants, and they would barely respond to him.

     Trudging up the stairs with heavy feet, Jack barely noticed Stan hovering in the lobby with a concerned look on his face. The stairs led his feet to his father’s office. The door into it was open, the fire was cold and the chair Varnes normally occupied was empty. The one time he needed his father to be a guardian and a guide, he had vanished without a trace. Surely, someone who knew where he had gone would come soon, but Jack had no time to waste. He only had one clue to go on, and that meant it was time to research on his own.

     Crossing the room, Jack drew the blinds aside from the massive windows which overlooked the backyard and flung the windows open. Cold mountain air poured in, dispelling the scents which had been idle in the room for so long. The fresh air helped Jack calm down and think. Time to research. Ishmael had told them the cult had a massive complex in Connecticut. Since his father had let it go this long without reacting, that meant he didn’t know it was there. That hardly meant there would be no records on cults in Connecticut, he just needed to narrow down which one he was looking for.

      Hours passed, and the research in his father’s office proved fruitless. No book in the study, no file in the cabinets, and no job on the personal message board provided anything which meshed with the clue Ishmael had given them. Sitting back in his father’s desk chair, Jack pushed back a ways and kicked the desk hard enough to lift it up off the ground. The center drawer came loose and hit the ground with a solid thud. He expected the contents to spill out all over the ground, but surprisingly there were only two files in it. One of them was the file which Jack had given him, taken from Ezra’s(?) office before all this madness had begun. The other was a file which his father must have compiled. Most of it made little to no sense to Jack, but one stray piece of paper caught his eye. It was the address of a building in Connecticut, which belonged to a cult. The name, “Children of Light” was as generic as it got. What really caught Jack’s eye was the mention that the cult lived in a massive building next to a farm.

      Rising to his feet, Jack memorized the address and tucked the piece of paper into his pocket, slipping the file under his arm. If the cult took her there, Sam wouldn’t have been there even for a whole day by that point. Dashing down the stairs, Jack found Stan sleeping at the bottom of the stairs, leaned against the wall next to the trophy werewolf. Gently kicking his leg, he roused his companion to wakefulness. That nudge from Jack sent him shooting upwards at incredible speed.

     ”We ready to take off, boss? The van’s prepped, the tools is ready to go.”

      Jack nodded and handed Stan the piece of paper he had located in the drawer, “I found this in father’s desk. It’s the place where they took our sister, if Ishmael is telling the truth.”

     Stan took the piece of paper in his gargantuan fingers and held it up to his eyes, “Is we sure we can trust them guys?”

      Looking out the door, Jack could tell Stan worked hard making sure the van was in tip-top shape. It sat higher than usual, and the windows looked cleaner.

      “We have to look. Let’s go, Stanley. We’re going to get Samantha back.”

      Stan nodded and stomped out for the driver’s seat, fishing for a cigar from his pocket as he went. Family is family, no matter where they came from. Jack adjusted his tie and checked his suit before hopping into the passenger seat. As Stan drove down the drive towards the main road away from home and towards his sister, Jack struggled to keep calm. Just because his sister was at risk was no reason to break from the usual procedure when dealing with a cult. If anything, that was all the more reason to keep to the tried and true methods. Getting anything wrong here would have disastrous consequences.

     The cult property, which the cultists had fled to with his sister, was located in North Haven. It was a good choice for a recruitment ground, because it lay directly on the border of Haven. North Haven had seen better days, but Haven remained fairly prosperous. That meant they were able to recruit from the poor and desperate, as well as those who were bored and searching for meaning in empty materialism. Before Jack was going to bulrush the cult complex, he wanted to find out as much information as he could about the location.

     The building wasn’t hard to find. It sat at the top of a large hill, overlooking a road which wound its way down to the main thoroughfare which ran through both towns. The property was surrounded by a tall chain link fence capped by razor wire. From the road, Jack could only see three buildings. The largest of the three was a barn which resembled a Romanesque cathedral if it were built by the Amish. It was a barn made for worship, and for human food. Close by, was a large brick building which looked to be their dormitory. The third building sat at the bottom of the hill, close to the fence. Jack couldn’t see anyone around the building, but if he had to guess, it served as an intake house for new members. It also probably housed some guards. In the distance, Jack could see a field of wheat swaying gently in the breeze.

      Getting back into the van, Jack nodded and Stan drove them back into town. Asking questions of the locals about the giant ominous complex on the outskirts of town would ring too many alarm bells, and he didn’t want them to know he was there yet. He had two sources of information to tap at his immediate disposal. The first was the file his father had left behind in his desk. The second was word of mouth he could catch just by eavesdropping, and getting a little lucky.

      They chose a diner in the middle of town and sat down to eat two days’ worth of meals, which they had missed while on the hunt. As they ate, Jack flipped open the file and examined the contents in more detail. The cult he was looking for was hardly mentioned at all, but there was a list of Machina and suspected current locations at the back of the file, written on a page in his father’s simple, but elegant, handwriting. So the cult were looking for Machina as well, were they?

     It made sense. If you wanted to bring your evil Elder Plant gods into being, you couldn’t do much better than a piece of magical equipment which could bring those dark realities to life. It also explained why Ezra(?) was helping the cult. If he was looking for a quick way to get his dead wife back, the Deus would be the fastest and most cost effective means of doing it. None of that sacrificing a close friend nonsense, just the press of a button and it’s done.

      They spent the rest of the day wandering around the town window shopping for information. Jack knew he was being overly cautious, but any wrong move could have consequences for his sister. It was only after the sun began to set that he started to give up on the idea of getting more information. It had already grown dark by the time they reached the cult’s property again and parked on the side of the road. If they couldn’t go in prepared, they could at least go in quickly and find her as fast as possible.

     The fence around the complex looked completely unattended, but Jack expected there to be security cameras or some unearthly horror show of plant monsters guarding the cultists. Stepping up to the chain link fence, he tentatively touched the metal and found nothing. No alarms sounded, no cameras whirred, the fence remained completely quiet in the darkness.

      Stan tromped over to await instructions, both of their cleaning bags slung over his shoulder, “Cults ain’t got no common sense. How come they had no idea we was comin?”

     Jack removed his suit coat and folded it over, placing it gently on the ground, “I don’t know what they’re thinking, but I intend to find out. Get me over the fence.”

     Stan shuffled the cleaning bags from his shoulder and handed Jack his bag before hunkering down and cupping his hands for Jack to place a foot on them. Placing his right foot on Stan’s outstretched palms, Jack braced himself and placed his hands on Stan’s shoulders. With a heft, he sent Jack rocketing skyward and over the fence, sailing a good distance onto the property before he landed. He surveyed the property and slowly pulled his steel broom out, waiting to see if there was any reaction to his intrusion. The sharp bristles glimmered in the light which poured from the windows into the night. Time to let Stan in and find his sister.

Second-Hand Rumors~ chapter 17

     Friendship was a concept which Liam found frightening. In his long existence, he had only known a handful of people who genuinely cared about him enough to help him without asking anything in return. Universally, people who were that kind died young, though maybe Liam’s long lifespan skewed his opinion on what dying young entailed. When Simon returned to the surface, he took Liam with him, rather than making him walk up the steps all by himself. The trip with Simon took much less time and the stairs up the long dark corridor felt much less ominous while they walked together. Maybe, Liam realized, Simon had put their relationship into the cast of paying off a debt because he knew Liam wouldn’t understand any other sort of relationship. Thinking back on their time together, Simon didn’t seem to care about the monetary value of possessions all that much. Maybe, just maybe, Liam had found a home at last.

     As they reached the top of the stairs, something black and furry with sharp teeth rubbed against Liam’s leg. As it’s head passed, Liam could tell it had sharp teeth. Somehow, he didn’t feel threatened, as though it was just saying thank you. Thinking back, Liam remembered the muffin and the chewing sounds which had seemed so threatening the first time.

     “Awww,” Simon exclaimed, his yellow left eye turned towards Liam, “You made a friend! I’m happy for you Liam.”

     Strangely, Liam didn’t feel like making a sarcastic retort. Maybe it was the coffee, or the lingering remnants of his hangover, but Liam just felt grateful for the experience.

     Simon opened the door at the top of the stairs and the sunlight poured down the hallway, dispelling the darkness which before had seemed so cold, but now felt quite warm. Stepping out into the world with him, Liam gave Simon a head start before he followed him again. His path was much more direct this time. There were fewer twists and turns, and his steps were surer and less frantic. As they walked, Liam watched Simon’s back very closely. He still saw flitting images of something following, just out of sight.

     They kept on like that until they reached a large apartment complex in Grenwich Village. Once he reached the front door, Simon stopped moving and looked back in Liam’s general direction. Liam slowly caught up and Simon turned to look at the front door, “I think this is an important question for you, Liam. How are you going to take responsibility for your actions? I know you didn’t mean to hurt them, but you did.”

     Liam turned his gaze to the ground, “I think I’ll just be honest.”

     Simon clapped a hand to his shoulder, “That’s a good start.”

    Walking up the steps, Simon opened the door and stepped inside. The apartment complex was like nothing Liam had ever seen. The gnome village was all inside the building. Houses were stacked on top of each other and set into the walls. Small walkways started from the ground floor and worked their way up sets of stairs to different levels, allowing access to different floors. The outsides of the tiny houses were painted bright colors, like yellow or blue, but many of the houses had heavy damage and showed signs of burning. In the center of the room, which encompassed the majority of the apartment, there was a large stone pillar. Homes were set into the pillar, with stairs leading around the edge. Spread all around, in orderly corridors, were the streets and shops of the village. When the inhabitants caught sight of Simon, they waved and cheered. Liam noted there were fewer gnomes than he would have expected. Many of the shops and houses had sustained damage recently as well. Life continued for the gnomes, in spite of their losses. Two members of the Aliway family were working on restoring the houses on that floor as best they could. They entirely ignored Simon and Liam when they came into the village.

     A human sized stair case went up to the next floor, and Simon led him up the stairs until they reached the fourth floor. In the middle of that room, in dire need of repairs, was the residence of the gnomish mayor. The street which led to it’s relatively sizable front had been made wide enough for Simon and Liam to cross. Once they reached the building, Simon tapped on it with his finger and waited. The gnome, Abram, which had met Simon earlier popped out of the house and closed the door behind him.

     “Simon! My friend, thank you for all you’ve done. Who is this you’ve brought with you?”

     Simon bowed his head to the somber gnome, “This is Liam. We talked at length about his involvement with your village.”

     Abram peered up at Liam, pulling a pair of spectacles from his pocket to get a better look at his face, “Well, it’s nice to put a face to the name.”

     Liam sagged forward a bit, “That’s a far nicer greeting than I expected.”

     Tapping his foot, Abram looked around at the work on that floor, “Evil people don’t need excuses to do evil things. I explained this to Simon, and yet, he’s still mad. Your friend is a very serious man. Repairs are going well, and with the added protection we’ve been seeing a lot of new arrivals to the community. How long can we expect your guards to stay?”

     Simon scratched his chin thoughtfully, “As long as you need them. Under the circumstances, it would be foolish to have them go. If my dad needs them somewhere else, I’ve got other means to watch over you.”

     “Thank you, Simon. That’s the best news I’ve had all day,” Abram peered over his shoulder, “Does your friend like wine?”

     “He dabbles,” Simon responded.

     “I overindulge.”

     “Normally, I would council temperance, but with guests here and repairs well under way, it’s a day to celebrate.”

     It hardly took a long time for the village to set out a feast. They must have been preparing it before Simon and Liam even arrived. Each family took their table from their house and placed it on the main street in a long row, so the whole community could eat together. Simon and Liam sat against the wall to stay out of the way. Liam drank more than a few cups of wine, but the cups were so small that it was going to take far more booze to get him drunk. Simon neither ate nor drank, he simply watched the gnomes celebrate their newfound friendships and the new birth of their town with a small smile dancing around his lips.

     It was late in the day before they finally left. Liam didn’t know where Simon was going, but he walked slowly, as though he were lost in thought. Liam continued to follow him as arranged, but more closely this time. He was buzzing a bit from the gnomes wine, and tired after a long day of walking. Suddenly, Simon whirled around on his heel and punched with his right hand straight at Liam’s face. The change of pace was so sudden, Liam hardly had time to react at all. Simon’s hand went whirring by his head, grabbing at something Liam couldn’t see. With his right hand holding onto what looked like nothing, he repeated the gesture with his left. When Liam looked closer, he could tell that something was wriggling around in each of Simon’s hands.

     “I should have known it was you two. You’re the only ones who could’ve stayed out of my sight for so long. You might as well stop fooling around now that I’ve got you in my hands.”

     The air around Simon’s hands shimmered for an instant, and gradually two small figures became visible in them. They were tiny, winged creatures with sharp teeth and spiky hair. It was hard to tell, because they were so small, but they looked related to each other.

     “What the hell are those things?”

     Simon looked genuinely shocked for an instant, “These are two pixies. They came from Trash Island, which is not the nicest town. Their names are Snickers and Speed Queen.”

     Liam scoffed, “It sounds like they were named after whatever their mother first saw after…”

     “Pretty much. Pixies get names like that around there. These two are no good scoundrels. If they were following me around, they weren’t doing it for fun. Who asked you two to follow me?”

     Just as Liam was wondering which Pixie was which, one of them spoke, “Hihihi, we just followed you because we were bored.” The other pixie frantically tried to fly from Simon’s grasp, as though she could get away through sheer force of her wings.

     “I will pull your wings off and burn them if you don’t tell me who told you to follow me.” Liam realized that his friend would follow through on his threats.

     “Denavi!” Speed Queen yelled.

     Simon let them go immediately. Standing on the sidewalk, with the setting sun lighting them, he watched them fly off into the distance, vanishing before they had left eye sight with whatever strange ability had allowed them to become invisible in the first place.

     “I guess we know who the culprit is, since they just gave us a name.”

     Simon exhaled from the pit of his soul, “They told me nothing, and they weren’t going to give me any more information.”

     Cocking his head, Liam looked at Simon, “He said Denavi. I only know one person who has that name and who would hire little fiends like that to follow you.”

     “There are no more Denavis. There haven’t been for a long time.”

     “Why is Adrian called Adrian Denavi then?”

     “That’s a story for another time. Come on a walk with me, Liam. I have more work to do, and I don’t feel like doing it alone tonight.”

     Liam followed him without another word as he walked forward. Somewhere in the last few years, Liam realized that he would follow that man anywhere. As the stars came out and twinkled down over them, breaking through the orange glow around the city, they visited the Mythic peoples. Everywhere they went, Liam saw many emotions played out all at once. Hope, fear, courage, sadness, determination and so many more, all because one man came to visit them. Somehow, a petty thief like Liam got to come along for the ride. Maybe this job was the best thing he had ever stolen.

     “I want your help getting some information, Liam. It’s going to be dangerous, but you’re the only one I can ask.”

     Simon’s voice cut through his thoughts as he followed him, “Sure. I can do it. Hey, how did you know they were going to follow you today?”

     “I had no idea, but I figured you would attract the attention of whoever was following me with your distinctive face.”

     Liam bristled a little at that, “So I was your bait? What a dick.”

     Simon chuckled, “You would be madder at them then I if you knew the gestures they were making at you. Besides Liam, I knew you would be alright. I trust you.”

     The world stopped, while Simon continued to walk away. Had anyone ever said that before? Liam felt determined to get the next job right, no matter what.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 41

     People live their lives possessed of an inherent, and flawed, understanding of the possible and impossible. Even Jack, for all the fantastic things he had seen, had such a mental list. At the very top of that list, just below his father ever saying a kind word to him and above rehabilitating a Dirt Gremlin to be clean, was his sister getting beaten in a straight fight. Jack liked it better when that was still impossible. Jack spent his childhood watching his sister grow and envying her abilities. Even though people called him a golden child, destined for greatness, he knew otherwise. Samantha Goodbody was his older, far more talented sister. If she had taken her duties more seriously, there’s no telling how far she could have gone. In her heart of hearts, Sam loved the open road and the thrill of the hunt. That love had gotten her into trouble before, but it also got her out of it, for the most part.

     The trail of corn husks and cult resistance led to the town hall, which hardly surprised Jack. Town halls represented power and authority over the masses, something all cults both desired and loathed. A cult occupying a town hall was madness clothed in sanity and order, just like the real government, only with more plant gods and human sacrifices. In front of the town hall, his sister’s trail and Jack’s blood ran cold. Hefting his long handled dustbin over his shoulder, he eyed the town hall with suspicion. Either she was in there, or she was being taken away. One option led to his sister, and the other option lost her trail, perhaps forever. With a limited time to make a choice, Jack chose the option which made sense to him. A cult so heavily established in a town such as this would never run from their holy ground, and they would never give up such a valuable prisoner.

     The town hall stood next to the village green, at the center of which a row of corn stalks had been planted in neat rows. It might have seemed silly, or innocuous before, but now it seemed downright ominous. The town hall itself had been build atop a small foundation, which allowed it to tower over the other relatively short buildings. Due to its height, it was impossible to see in through the windows without marching directly up the front steps or getting a tall ladder to peer in through the enormous windows on the sides of the building. Steps from the sidewalk led up to massive front doors, which opened in the center and led into the building. Even from the street, Jack could tell they were locked.

     Gripping the handle of his dustbin, Jack walked up the steps towards the building. Standing in front of the double doors, he hefted the incredibly heavy dustbin over his head and brought it crashing down on the door. It smashed through the center and ripped any locks on them apart. Both doors went swinging inwards and crashed into the walls. Stepping inside, he readied his dustbin for another swing, if he was attacked.

     To his surprise, the walls and offices inside the town hall remained intact. Somehow, he had expected the interior of the building to be covered with plants, or lit with candles made from human flesh. Given their feverish dedication to maintaining a façade of wholesomeness, he wasn’t quite surprised. The doors led into a wide hall with clerk’s offices on either side before they reached another set of doors, which probably led into the town meeting hall proper. From the windows of every office, there were cult members watching him. From under their shirts, the plants occupying their hosts wriggled and squirmed, moving the shirts around and gently poking out small roots which seemed to examine Jack as he walked forward. As they watched, they swayed gently back and forth, as though their bodies were remembering being swayed by gentle summer breezes.

     None of them made eye contact with him as he progressed slowly towards the doors to the town meeting hall. Since they made no effort to stop him, he made no attempt to attack them. His sister was the priority, and that meant no more distractions. The worn floors creaked under Jack’s feet, drawing attention to him with every step. The doors into the meeting hall looked old and worn, as though a stiff breeze would push them over. Pressing his hand to the doors and gently shoving, they swung forward with no resistance at all, until they hit the wall.

     Originally, the town hall must have doubled as the local church. It still had the pews, although they had been rearranged since the cult took over. They had been moved to face a small stage in the center of the room, with aisles leading up towards the raised platform. On the platform, a man stood with his face turned away from Jack. In front of him, laid out on a gurney, Jack could make out a pair of feet. The man worked so intently that he hardly seemed to notice Jack enter, but Jack could hear the metallic clink of small metal instruments. As he got closer, he could see the bloodstains all around the platform. A single light lit the platform, but the windows all along the wall let in some moonlight at well. A nagging thought pulled at the back of Jack’s mind as he walked closer, but the blood around the corpse was old, and the feet were too large to belong to his sister.

     “Are you going to stalk me all night, or are we going to have a nice chat?”

     Jack gripped his weapon tighter, swinging the heavy dustbin out to the side in order to swing it more easily. It’s heavy metallic end knocked over a pew as he passed it, “I don’t have anything to say to crazed lunatics who help cults take over the world by replacing people with plant monsters. Just tell me where my sister is and I’ll make it quick.”

     Once more, the metallic sounds stopped, “I suppose it’s too much to ask for you to just let me get back to work?” Dr. Lighting grunted in annoyance, “Very well, Jack Goodbody. You ruined my lab, so I suppose I can spare you a moment of my time. I’m not helping this cult entirely of my own volition, but they’ll help me all the same. I just want to bring my wife back.  As you’ve learned, the material I’d been collecting falls apart when another human’s spirit is inserted into them. The materials the cult has been giving me experiences no such setbacks. I was hoping to learn how to transfer the effects to human on human transfers and bring my wife back.”

     “I would tell you that you’re mad, but I suspect you don’t care. You do realize they’re just using you, right?”

     For the first time since he entered the room, Dr. Lighting stopped working. Pulling off his surgical gloves, he turned to face Jack, a curious unreadable expression on his face, “I’m not without protection, Mr. Goodbody.”

     Jack scoffed at the very notion that someone would be willing to help Dr. Lightning for anything other than money, “And who exactly is your sponsor?”

     Dr. Lighting merely raised a finger and pointed it at Jack. The voice behind him caught Jack so off guard, he almost fell over when he heard it, “Hi, Jack Goodbody.”

     Diving to the ground with a grunt, Jack rolled into a defensive position, but the man standing behind him made no move to attack him. He was thin and wiry, and he had long brown hair which reached down to his shoulders. He seemed young, almost too young to be called a man, but the confident look in his green eyes spoke volumes of his confidence. Green eyes? The last time someone told Jack of a strange young man with green eyes, it had led to his death.

     Ignoring Jack, the young man looked up to Dr. Lighting, , “We’ve done everything we can here. I’ve called the federales, if we stick around any longer we’ll get caught up in it. Time to go, Ezra.”

     “I told you to stop calling me by my real name, Ishmael. How much time do we have?”
Ishmael looked slightly thoughtful for a moment, “Hours, at most. Pack your things and get ready.”

    Swiping at Ishmael from his crouch, Jack missed his leg by a wide margin as he stepped back. His movements were strange. They looked slow to Jack’s eyes, but in reality they must have been impossibly fast in order to dodge his movement, “You’re not going anywhere until you tell me where my sister is, you scum!”

     Once again, Ishmael’s movements confounded Jack. His eyes could see the foot rise up and move to kick him in the chin. He simply couldn’t keep up with the motion, and the kick sent him flying upwards from the floor and into some pews.

     “I’m going to have to stop the little Goodbody first. Ezra, you should get ready to leave.”

     Ezra hopped off the stage and started for the door. Rising on unsteady feet, Jack watched the man who knew where his sister was going head towards the door. Hopping over the nearest pew, he dashed for the entrance to stop Ezra from leaving. In an instant, Ishmael vanished and reappeared directly in front of Jack, with his hand laid flat on Jack’s chest.

      “We’re not done yet, Jack. I can’t have you ruining my fun while I’m still playing.” With a shove, Ishmael sent Jack flying across the meeting hall and crashing into the wall.

     Rising with a grunt, Jack knew his dustbin was simply too heavy to keep up with Ishmael. Those green eyes kept bothering him as well. With nothing to lose, Jack simply asked, “You’re the Denavi who stole the silverware from Charles Beaufort.”

     Ishmael nodded, his grin growing wider and his eyes showing a little of the madness his family was infamous for, “If you had gotten there first, I would have killed you both to get my property.”

     Tearing the side from a pew, Jack brandished it and readied himself for another attack. Ishmael advanced, the bloodlust evident in his eyes. The sound of glass breaking, the sound which saved Jack’s life, was all that stopped him in his tracks. Stan must have gone back to their van and grabbed his bag, because it came launching through the window and landed right next to him. Ishmael began his advance again, dashing towards Jack. If Jack couldn’t react on time to where his opponent was, he just needed to stop him at the point of impact. As Ishmael closed in on him, Jack grasped his long, thin bag and waited. Ishmael pressed his palm to Jack’s chest once more and pushed. Grabbing Ishmael’s wrist, he came along for the ride this time. Crashing against the wall once more, he managed to hold on and stop Ishmael from getting away. Grabbing the Mop handle with his free hand, he pulled it out and brushed it across his opponent. He hated using that Mop, which erased the existence of anything it touched, but there was simply no way he could catch up to Ezra while fighting a Denavi.

     To Jack’s utter shock, the mop did nothing to Ishmael. His shirt fell away, but the man himself was unharmed. Before Jack could react, Ishmael slammed the butt of his palm into Jack’s chin and sent him rocketing towards the ceiling. He lost his hold of the Mop, which clattered to the floor, taking a section of wood away where the Mop head had landed. Jack fell to the ground heavily, unable to move. Looking upwards, Stan’s hulking form was already hovering over Ishmael, a massive fist hurtling downwards like a meteor. Impossibly, Ishmael stepped to the side and used his friend’s momentum to flip him into the wall. Stan sagged forward and landed next to Jack.

     “You two need a lot of work before you can catch up to me. I’ll give you a reward for playing with me, though. If you want to find your sister, the cult has a big compound in Connecticut. They’re headed there. It’s in some ritzy town I’d never heard of before.” Turning his back on them, Ishmael headed towards the door. Every other step was a skip, as though he had really just enjoyed himself.

     “Why are you telling us that?” Jack coughed up some blood after be spoke.

     “What? Ezra never expressly told me I can’t stab the cult in the back. It’s not like we’re friends with them either, and besides that, I want to see if you can rescue your sister before she gets used for monster mash material.”

     Jack seethed with rage, but he stayed down. Getting up and fighting again would just result in getting more hurt, and that would hardly help Sam right now. He needed to get home and ask his father for help. Surely, even though he was sick, even though he hardly seemed to care about his children, his father wouldn’t let her die like that.

     Ishmael waited to see what Jack would do. When he was satisfied that Jack was staying down, he left the building, following Ezra. Rising on unsteady feet, Jack put the Mop back in his bag and gathered his dust bin. If Ishmael was right, they didn’t want to be around here when federal agents arrived either. Helping Stan to his feet, they beat a hasty retreat to their van and began a desperate journey back home. If Ishmael was telling the truth, they had precious little time to figure out where his sister had been taken, before she would truly be lost forever.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 40

 

     One of the first things Jack learned about hunting was conservation of energy. Never do work yourself that you could conceivably get your prey to do instead. That concept led rise to what Jack and Sam referred to as “throwing rocks at a hornets nest.” Why wander around town looking for cultists if you could just get them to come to you? In their ample experience, the best way to do that was to file a missing person’s report. The only thing left was to make up a story. At Jack’s insistence, they decided to do one better. Since neither one of them knew the identity of the person who called them, they couldn’t look for anyone specific. Thankfully, they didn’t have to. All they had to do was call back home and have someone look up a list of people who had recently vanished from the area under strange circumstances.

     Sam wasn’t on the phone for more than five minutes before she had a match. “Chip Sunderson, he came out east from Minnesota to live here. He worked at the diner for a few months before he stopped showing up for work. They figured he must have quit work, but Madeline seems to think it’s far more likely that he just quit life.”

     Jack nodded and scanned the street. The simplest lies were the easiest to remember and also the easiest to come up with. Not that their lie being discovered would ruin their plans, because either the lie or the truth would have the desired effects. They could even combine the truth with a lie and really get the cult worked up. Events were sliding into play quite nicely. The story they came up with was something between the stuff of madness and the actual harsh, cold reality with a dash of telemarketing thrown in.

     For the next hour, they wandered around town, talking to everyone who would listen. The story went something like this. Their friend, Chip Sunderson, moved out here. At first, they had written back and forth, but eventually they lost contact with him. They didn’t know if he still lived in this town or not, but Ramshead was  where he moved and they were ever so worried. They had saved up their money to come here and please help them. Then they left the conversation with the full knowledge that if anyone were interested in making sure they never left town, they would do it that night. Having eaten, Jack decided to pick a few things up for his sister before they turned in for the knife. Her chopper was already gone by the time they went by where they had left it.
Once they had returned to the room, they turned in early. In a town that small, the conflicting stories would be told and the cultists would have to decide on their own what to make of them. Jack knew from sad experience that rather than crushing their suspicions, it would only create more tension.

     Sam slowly flicked her knife open and shut, sitting on Jack’s bed and flicking her eyes at the door, “When are they coming? I’m already bored and I had plans for the evening.”
Jack sat on the floor between the two beds and cracked his knuckles. His cleaning bag was across the room, but he doubted he would need it for the first wave, “Usually, it’ll be around two or three in the morning. It depends on how zealous the curfew crew is and how many rocks hit the mark earlier. You might as well try and get some sleep because they won’t come until they’re sure we’re asleep.”

     No two cults were alike in every respect, but there was one ritual Jack could count on just about every cult possessing. He called it the curfew crew, and their job within the cult was deadly and simple. Weed out the dissidents and the out of town nuisances, and then kill them. Final call, if you will. With a town like this, where everybody was a member of the cult, Jack expected a crew of fanatics with little training in actual fighting. Smaller, more violent cults sometimes employed a special crew hired on just for that purpose. That way, the trouble gets taken care of and the cult’s hands stay clean.

     “But what if we’re asleep when they come?”

     “You won’t miss it. You average curfew crew has around ten to fifteen guys, since these are small town locals not some hardened group of thugs. Other than this kind of work, the messiest thing most of them have had to deal with is throwing a drunk out of the local bar and murdering unsuspecting tourists in their sleep.”

     True to his word, the hotel and the whole town grew suddenly silent around ten at night. The general hush spread out further and further until even the chatter of people outside of town stopped and the lights in the street were unceremoniously turned out. Within that quiet, endless crushing quiet, the sounds of the curfew crew crowding up the stairs towards them sounded like a herd of elephants trying to sneak up on a circus tent in the middle of the night. Jack gestured to Stan, who slid the croquet mallet out of his bag and slowly tread his way over to stand behind the door. When they pushed the door to come in, they would push it right into Stan. It wasn’t like he would be able to hide behind the door, but it was amazing how many people miss Stan when he was standing in a place where one wouldn’t expect a giant like him to stand. Jack stayed right where he was and Sam hardly moved from where she had apparently fallen asleep. Jack almost believed it too, until he saw the slight smirk on his sister’s face.

     Nothing takes longer than waiting to ambush someone about to launch an ill performed sneak attack. After what felt like an eternity, the door finally opened. Around two dozen of them in the hallway and down the stairs, judging by the shadows and the sound. What caught Jack’s attention was what they wore, farmer’s clothes. Well, there was the uniform Jack had been looking for before. It tickled his brain, which was slightly worrying. The first one stepped in and tried very hard to whisper quietly to his compatriots. They all had to see it, so much the better. Jack tried so very hard to keep his eyes closed as they shuffled in, almost letting a slight chuckle slip out a few times in spite of himself. The greatest hunt really was where the hunters were being hunted. It always started with that moment of primal triumph turned into non-comprehension and fear. It almost made up for being in Maine in the first place.

     They filed in one by one, filling the hallway behind them until it was time to spring the trap. One of the burly men grabbed Jack by the suit lapel and dragged him up slightly, raising his other hand above his head. Jack suddenly reached up and grabbed the man, pulling him close and whispering the one thing that would confuse him most into his ear, “It’s a trap, run.”

     There it was. His eyes went wide, surprise and anguish clearly written in them. If this was a trap, why had Jack warned him about it? The man struggled to cry out but Jack rammed his free hand over the man’s mouth, muffling his voice. To complete the effect, Jack kicked his legs under the man uselessly, as though he were struggling to escape. The crowd grew closer until the trap finally snapped shut in earnest. Stan kicked the door hard, sending the thug in the doorway flying back into the hallway. The very instant the door was closed, Sam got to work, her knife a mere whisper of steel cutting through the air like a razor until the blade met the resistance of a throat or some other soft spot on her victim.

     After an instant, Sam sat back on the bed, twirling her knife. The door slowly opened again as all the cult members in the room sagged to the ground. The look of shock was definitely worth the price of admission. Jack held the one last cult member still alive in his arms as his sister looked at him, waiting for instructions. Jack groaned in irritation, “Well!? Don’t stop now, I need some time to question our bold late night visitor and we have an audience. You know how I hate that.” Sam nodded and got up, stalking out the door. Well, there goes one problem.

     Jack flipped the cult member onto his back and released his hand from over his mouth, “So we got your attention, you came here to kill us but now I’m going to ask you one question and you’re going to answer it or my friend there will play whack a dummy with your head.”

     “I will never betray the outer plant gods! I will never talk! ”

     “No, that’s what’s going to happen after we’re done with you. I’m not offering amnesty, I’m offering a postponement. Who called us? It had to be one of your own.”

     “You’re too late…” the cult member cackled softly to himself, Jack only now noticing the insanity in his eyes. He kept laughing, but the sound grew quieter. Without warning, the man’s eyeballs seemed to vanish. In their place, nothing but darkness remained.

     That memory which had tickled the back of his mind came forward to block everything else. All Jack could see was his brother. Ripping open the cultist’s shirt, he found white hairs springing out from his chest. They weren’t hairs, though, they were too white. They appeared to be coming from a vegetable. Wrapping them around his fingers, Jack yanked hard. Erupting from the man’s chest was what appeared to be a large ear of corn. The kernels were black, dull and began to shrivel the instant they met the open air. Towards the bottom end, a mouth and nose gradually protruded from the kernels of corn. It slowly opened, wider than Jack would have thought possible. Before he could react, it started to scream and spew blackened kernels of corn at his face.

     Slamming it against the walls a few times shut it up. It also left black stains on the wall, which immediately started melting the wood around them. The body of the cultist deflated. As it did, the cultist managed one last sentence, “Long live the gods of the trees and rocks and fields!”

     Jack actually shuddered for an instant, “Ah, damn. Stanley. We’re in worse shape than I thought. This is another one of those weird farmer cults.”

     Stan seemed genuinely confused, “What’s the deal with them farmer cults anyways?”

     “They believe in creatures that live out in the fields who were here long before people were even growing crops. I’ve heard those creatures, gods really, were the ones that taught us to cultivate crops in the first place but that was in return for our crops.”

     “People ain’t crops, boss.”

     “Maybe livestock would be more appropriate, but they wanted our first crops in return for theirs.”

     “Is anya’ that true, boss?”

     “I used to think the answer was no. I’m starting to remember the answer is actually yes. That does mean there may be no saving this town.”

     Jack strode over to the window and looked out. They needed to capture at least one cultist alive. This goal was complicated by the fatal error that had been sending his sister out to deal with them first. Peering out the window, the scope of the disaster became apparent to Jack. Sam had already left the building and the rest of the goons they had sent were sprawled out dead on the floor. If he didn’t catch up to her soon, she would kill every single person in town regardless of how connected to the cult they were. Sam was thorough, if nothing else.

     While Jack watched, the streets pushed upward and rippled outward like waves, pushing the streets around it back towards the buildings. His sister stood in the middle of it all, when the street around her erupted. An ear of corn burst from the ground and wrapped its husks around her until she was completely covered. Memories threatened to break Jack’s mind. Memories which had been sealed away for so long, and remained yet hidden just out of sight. Soon, she was wrapped from head to toe and the monstrosity rose from below the ground to stalk off towards the center of town. It stood taller than the buildings on Main Street, none of which were above three stories.  All around it, throngs of asparagus tentacles writhed and twitched. At the top of the corn sat a crown of red tomatoes with grotesque faces, their soundless screams sounding out over the town. Apparently, the cultists could hear it, because they stepped out to follow it. Jack snapped out of it. That elder plant god was running away with his sister.

     Despite the lights still being out, the street was visible. The cultists milled around on the street corners, waiting to ambush any unwary travelers and sacrifice them for crops or power or better cell phone reception in the mountains or whatever the hell their current leaders wanted. Turning to the hallway, Jack followed the trail his sister took. Long strands of blood decorated the walls, clearly his sister’s handiwork. “And this is why I never let her do the dirty work. Sam! You need 1to leave at least one more alive so I can question them! No point if I can’t question them!” Jack grumbled and dashed out into the hallway, followed behind by a determined Stan.

     By the time he arrived at the ground floor, the streets had turned into a churning, boiling mob of people. Other than hurting the outsiders, maybe sacrificing a few to those gods they had, Jack was entirely uncertain of what they wanted. Still, if he wanted to get through this crowd he needed a weapon and that left his bag up in the room. Jack raced back upstairs to grab it. The mop was out of the question as was the broom. The problem with cults like this is that they take away a person’s freedom. No, Jack amended his statement mentally, it took away the desire for freedom. It planted fear and awe and the desire to submit to complete lunatics who wanted power. The dustpan it was, then. Jack yanked the long handled dustpan out of his bag and gave it a swing. The handle at the end and the shaft were heavy in his hands, made of steel that wouldn’t bend or break. The dustbin at the end only swung slightly when he moved it. When he couldn’t kill, he used this heavy duty tool for knocking out. Not that he could kill anyone, given what he had just seen. He, Stan and Samantha were likely the only living people in the town. The cult was made up of plant puppets being controlled by evil produce gods.

     Stan lumbered out to join his employer, his massive mallet slung over his shoulder. A stray cultist ran down the street, unseeing and unthinking beyond the siren call of his ancient produce god. Stan laid him out with one swift tap from his mallet.

     “Well, we got one of them anyways. Stan, tie him up and I’m going to head to the town hall and do a little hunting. This has gone well and truly beyond the point of cleaning.”

     Shouldn’t you switch up for another one a’ them weapons a’ yours?”

     Jack shook his head and stalked off in the direction of downtown cultville, “If we kill them, we can’t get any answers to the questions I want to beat them…I mean ask them. If they’re possessed by those plant things, they’re very likely connected to the plant god. If we’re going to find my sister, we need information.”

     The walk to the town hall took too long for Jack’s liking. Outside the town hall, Jack froze at what he found. Corn husks as large as a man were littered outside the front steps. With no sign of his sister or the god, Jack feared the worst. Grasping his dustbin, Jack marched on towards the town hall. It seemed the most likely place to get some information. Jack was afraid, but the worst thing he could do was panic. He was going to get her back, no matter what it cost them.