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.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Taxes

     The Goodbody family prized individuality above almost everything else. A younger Jack had been encouraged to find that job which made him feel truly alive, and go out to make a living at it. His father hadn’t considered that Jack might run away at the tender young age of seventeen and make a living as a cleaner. His company, which he ran with his rugged companion Stanley Whitkins, was called Paranormal Cleaners. It focused entirely on cleaning those places where the line between banal and bloodcurdling met. He ran into those places with gusto, because to Jack, cleaning was the most basic fight against evil and uncleanliness. He might not be able to remove the hunter from his blood, but he could repurpose it to something that better suited his tastes and desires. That left him with a dilemma come tax time, which had not reached its utmost zenith. Just a little longer until they were finished with their taxes. Then Jack could earn them an audit from a disbelieving government as he had the year before.

     Since he could afford to hire an accountant to help with his taxes, he did so. Turbotax hardly covered the type of business expenses he incurred over the course of an average year. Benjamin Burke was the man who worked with him every year. He wore a suit which appeared to have been ironed into deadly edges. His glasses shone whenever they crossed a stray beam of light. He had grey hair, but it was the sort of grey hair which said that he had experience and vigor. Like Jack, he was incredibly thorough and precise at his work. One would think that would make them the best of friends, but that was decidedly not the case.

     “So you’re telling me the van was surrounded by these vampire cows, and then what happened?”

    “Stanley laid them out with his croquet mallet, and then we staked them with some rosewood. I was wondering if we could deduct his mallet, because it broke on one of their fangs.”

    Benjamin felt his hair growing thinner every year. If Jack didn’t pay so well, he would have quit working with him a long time ago. “Fellas, please. They’ll never take money off your taxes for, and I quote, “Durable croquet mallet made for crushing the skulls of your enemy.”

     “But I need them mallets for crushin’ the skulls of…”

     “Yeah, but Stan they’re never gonna buy it. How much cleaning fluid could you buy for the price of one of those special mallets you break with such frequency?”

     Stan looked up at the ceiling and started holding up fingers. This went on for a long time before he looked down and stated with absolute seriousness, “A lot.”

     “Fifty. It’s fifty. Further on down, you had another goblin hunt. Please, Jack. Tell me you didn’t use your own booze for it this time?”

     “I wish we had, the poor man had a king’s ransom in high end liquor.”

     Benjamin clapped his hands, “Thank God for small favors. I’ve got your mileage for the year already, no thanks to you. Do you have any questions on your end?”

     “If I burned down a motel because it was filthy beyond all reason, the owner is liable and not me, right?”

     “If he had insurance, he should get something for it, but you can’t just go around burning down clients buildings like that.”

     “I’m not sure he was from Earth, so I’m pretty sure he didn’t have insurance.”

     “That would also explain why he never pressed charges. Now we need to talk about your dry cleaning bill, which is substantial. One more thing, fellas. We’re going to have go over your numbers one more time. Just once, before I die, I would like to get you out of an audit.”

     Jack groaned and braced himself. Tax time went on forever every year. They were going to get audited anyways, they always did.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 39

   Most cults function in a manner that one would expect if you crossbred high school drama with a totalitarian state. The latest gossip traveled at light speed from one side of such highly insular communities to the other. Gossip about out of town strangers asking inconvenient questions traveled even faster. That’s why, when the hotel manager told Jack they were expected for dinner, he decided to eat somewhere else. They arrived early enough in the day that there was no reason not to hit the pavement and start asking questions. The first burning question Jack held in his mind was who exactly had called him. The caller had been cut off before he had finished his request and Jack would never get paid unless he found out what the job was and who had hired him.

     On the way into town, Jack had spied a small diner replete with a diner counter that had resident truckers. Truckers that stopped into small towns like this often ended up growing roots, usually on stools in diners. That’s how they become permanent parts of the establishment. He insisted they left their belongings in the room without locking the door because the people who were most likely to try and rifle through their things owned the hotel, and thus had all the keys anyway. Jack hoped they did search his belongings. It would certainly speed his process up to no end. The diner itself was unlike any Jack had ever seen before. It certainly had the usual focus on burgers and fries, but the menu also had far more vegetable dishes than he would have expected.

     The waitress took their order, brought their food out and smiled gently at all their comments about having been hired to do some cleaning and the phone call that got interrupted. Jack even went so far as to say that he was investigating the case and that got a brief less than subtle look back to the fry chef, whose worried reaction Jack didn’t even need to see to know that the plan was working.

     What did concern Jack was the lack of any kind of identifiable marker. Most cults had something which gave their members away, usually some tacky robes or polyester track suits. On one especially pathetic occasion, the mandated garb had been Snuggies with the cult leaders leering face emblazoned on the front. Another group actually wore giant mouse ears, though that might have been because Jack brought that cult to ground in Disney World. Given Jack’s growing suspicion that the entirety of the town belonged to the cult, he was legitimately surprised to find no such common clothing item. Since they could cut random phone calls at will, this was a seriously proper cult. Maybe track suits were old hat, but he still expected something. Maybe a ribbon or a badge, just something to let other cultists know you played for the home team. Since the townsfolk seemed to be wearing perfectly normal clothes, it must be a physical condition, like a film over the eyes, or gills or some such nonsense.

     As he ate, watching the other customers eat as well, he finally noticed it; an old man walked out the door, passing them on his way. He wore a pair of jeans and a white dress shirt. One of the buttons towards his chest had come undone, leaving a tuft of white threads poking out. A quick glance confirmed they weren’t hair. Jack had a distant memory of them, somewhere buried in the back of his mind. When he tried to think of it, the specifics evaded him. It would come to him soon enough when he got to examine one of the cultists up close and personal. As he continued to watch, knowing what to look for now, many other patrons showed evidence of the same strange white threads on their chest. While it was possible they belonged to some cultic clothing worn underneath the normal clothes, something about those white threads felt unnatural and strange to Jack.

     After they ate, Jack paid and led Stan outside and took in the cool night breeze. The summer heat of the day had turned into a cool balmy night and a gentle breeze blew down Main Street keeping things fresh. Jack almost allowed himself to relax until two separate events occurred, almost at the same time, which completely destroyed his concentration. The first was the realization that he was being watched from every building on the street, even the ones that were too far away to make out his features. The people walking by, smiled through Jack and wished him a pleasant evening even as they plotted where his remains would be planted.

     The second event genuinely shocked him, making Jack feel as though he were going mad for a moment. He thought he could hear Metallica playing in the air, but that hardly seemed like the kind of music that would be played over the speakers in a small town like this. In spite of his continued efforts to convince himself that the music wasn’t real, it kept getting louder until he eventually realized that there was only one source that would show up around now. Soon, Jack could hear the engine and the windows on the storefronts started to shake. Stan heard it too and started looking around to try and find the source. The cultists in the streets renewed their mean high school cultist whispers, speaking ill of whoever dared to approach their town blaring rock at volumes even Jack would consider “extremely excessive”.

     Jack rubbed the bridge of nose shook his head. His sister would be coming into town and much like other drifters, she would look for that place where out of town roots settle down. This would be where she would stop. It took around ten minutes from when they had first heard the music, but she did eventually stop her bike right in front of the diner. She bounded over to Jack and gave him a big hug. Jack returned her hug before gently pushing her back and brushing some stray hairs out of her eyes. Then he adjusted her jacket slightly. Then he tugged her shirt straight and she grabbed his hands and told him to knock it off.

     “What brings you to town sister? Would it happen to be some mysterious phone call that got cut off around halfway through?”

     “Yeah, with some weird line about green eyes at the end that I totally didn’t get.” Sam scanned the street and caught the stares she was being given. Being the wild child often meant getting stares like that in small towns like this, but even Sam was aware enough to know when something was off.

     “In other words, we both got the same phone call from the same person about a cult in Ramshead. It mysteriously got cut off before he could tell us anything. This couldn’t possibly be a trap.”

     Sam smirked and turned her gaze up and down the streets, “You’re on to something, little brother. I wonder if any other Goodbody family members will show up?”

     “You never know, Julian is back in the state with his current soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. He might have gotten a call too, and you know how he adores cute bed and breakfast places.”

     “Oh no, another one? What was it this time?”

     “He got to watch Julian kill a giant snake. That’s sort of a mood killer.”

     “Ah, gotcha. So I’m safe leaving my bike here, right Jack?”

     Jack turned to look at her Harley. It was parked in a fire lane and stuck out slightly into the street, “Might as well, they’re going to find some excuse to impound it anyway so let’s give them a legal one.” The streets had started to quiet down for the night, but ominously Jack could still hear whispers from inside houses and front yards. The shut-down of the town was clearly more for the cult’s benefit than it was for their visitors.

     Jack tugged on his sister’s arm and started leading her back to his hotel, with Stan trailing along behind, “So my thoughts are, we go ahead and clean up the town and when we’re done they either pay us to leave or we find out who called us and we get paid for cleaning up the town. It’s a no lose situation.”

     Sam cocked an eyebrow at the simplistic explanation, “Or the person who called both of us was luring us into a trap that the whole town is either somehow a part of or in on and nobody had any intention of paying us. It’s not a coincidence that we both were called to the same town by the same mystery client.”

     “In that case, we just take the money and pay ourselves when we’re done. Also, setting a trap means free dibs on their stuff, you know the rules Sam.”

     “Alright, you win. So basically, we follow the rules and throw some rocks at this culty hornet’s nest and see what happens?”

     “Way ahead of you, threw a few when we came into town and your arrival essentially functions as one too. That means we really only have one left, the big one. I didn’t expect you to be here but it will be far easier with you.”

     “Phony missing person’s report?”

     “Phony missing person’s report.”

     The missing person’s report usually set creepy cults to red alert defcon one, Cthulhu has landed mode. There isn’t a single cult in the world that wants federal investigators coming into town and ruining their whole perfect town vibe. The investigators would go into the hotel and read their magazines and not even pay for them and arrest the cultists for crimes they committed in the name of some evil deity because they “just don’t understand”.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 38

     Give a man a month in the woods and it will last a lifetime in his heart. The office felt suffocating and cramped, after being out in the woods for days on end. Shortly after arriving back Stan had flopped on the couch and lit a cigar, which soon filled the room with the wonderful smell of home and safety. Jack drifted off in his chair, feeling satisfied with a job well done and ecstatic that his cousin was back in the state. After a week of rest, Jack felt rested enough to return to work. The summer slowly climbed to its height and only just now Jack realized that soon the Fall jobs would be coming in.

     Jack’s train of thought was derailed by the most shocking source, their office phone. The phone had been stubbornly ignoring both of them for days, as though it had been insulted by their absence. Jack had to race to catch the phone before it ran out of rings, “Jack and Stan cleaning services, the skeletons in your closet are our specialty. How can we be of service?”

     “Oh thank God, I’ve been trying to call you for weeks now. The village elders….they’re stopping us from calling out of town. We need someone to uh…clean the town square. We’re in Maine, a small town called Ramshead and…”

     The phone suddenly burst into static and Jack could only catch bits and pieces of the words that followed. Killed all those who resisted, cult, they took the children and so on. Two more words caught his ears though. Green eyes. And that was what settled it. Jack pulled out his pad of paper and scribbled out supplies, handing the paper to Stan before returning to his thoughts. It was a long shot, to be sure, but those green eyes had haunted his fascination since he had found a dying Charles Beaufort. The only clue that sad man gave him about the fiend who had killed him and poached Jack’s work was that he had green eyes. Any chance he had to track down their owner, or owners, he would take gladly with no more questions asked. In the worst case scenario, most cults are rich and would pay handsomely to get him to leave. Either way, Jack came out on top.

     An unsettling thought occurred to Jack, that he was doing more cleaning of people than he was of things and that this was more his family’s line of work than it was his. Still, he could hardly turn down a job with so many bonuses too it. Maybe, if he cleaned out the town really well, they would actually let him clean some of the public buildings. Contrary to popular opinion, even though they looked the cleanest they were very often incredibly dirty. Jack assumed this was because of all the dirty things that normally inhabit them, dirty money, dirty cops, dirty mayors, dirty judges and all that dirt really adds up. Dirty politicians, however, who also may be cult members, happened to be borderline uncleanable.

    Packing took no time at all, since most of their tools were still in the car and only a few things needed to be added. Soon enough, they were on the road again. The road east led into farmlands and rolling hills. Then the mountains began, Vermont was full of mountains. From there, they cut through New Hampshire and up to Maine and their newest job. The road that led into Ramshead turned into a dirt road and then a dirt path. Jack assumed they were lost, until they found the “Welcome to Ramshead” sign perched on the side of the road. It appeared to be larger than the sign which had welcomed them into Maine. The sign for the town ominously had a running population tally of new and deceased residents, turning the town into what was likely a census takers nightmare. The tally ran onto a crude wooden board someone had nailed beneath the official sign.

     “Seems like them people don’t know if they’re comin’ or goin’”

     “Doubtless they’re going to the local graveyard, Stanley. I think the real question is when they run out of space, do they add another board or do they just make a new sign?”

     Stan chewed on his cigar for a moment, lost in thought, before responding, “Which one of them is cheaper?”

    “Good point. It looks like it got worse once someone realized their math was off. If I were a census taker, I would be livid. Missing people indeed.” Jack pointed at the left hand column of the running population tally. It would have been more frightening if the less than astute sign maker hadn’t forgotten to carry the one, leading to a whole row of addition and subtraction needing to be done over in a different hand.

     The town of Ramshead was larger than the sign would have led him to believe. The main street down through town was wonderfully appointed, with uniform white houses and gardens that looked so much the same Jack wondered if they all had one very obsessive compulsive gardener.  The grocery store looked like it belonged in a different time, before neon lights and weekend sales on deli products. The people in the town seemed normal too, and that was what set Jack on edge. The phone call had almost certainly gotten cut off from their end, not his, and that meant someone with sophisticated enough equipment to block a phone call. That being said, their police office looked like it had a capacity of one cell for the mandatory town drunk and the library likely didn’t even have a computer in it. All the buildings in the main financial area were made out of bricks and the stores were so local Jack doubted people outside the area even knew of their existence. All in all, the town was just wrong.

     Cults thrive on routine and dehumanization. What Jack learned early on was that the best way to deal with cults was incredibly formulaic as well. Step one, find out who belonged in the cult and who was just standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jack looked around as they drove down the street. Everyone watched the van with wary eyes behind overly genuine smiles. Well, that was easy. It’s everyone.

     Step two, find a hotel and get a room. Cults this size almost always had the local hotels on lockdown, and that made getting a room akin to throwing a rock at a hornet’s nest.     The local hotel turned out to be a three story building that wrapped around the street corner. It was white, like all the wooden buildings in the town, and every window had a flower box hanging from it planted with lilies. Stan parked the van and Jack hopped out, walking around and heading up the stairs into the inn. The front porch had rocking chairs on it that brought Jack unfortunate memories of a doctor wearing ruby slippers and a witch’s hat chasing asylum patients around which Jack quickly banished from his mind. In this town, he already knew that the inmates weren’t just running the asylum, they likely founded the damned thing.

     The front doors opened out from the center and the lobby looked like something directly out a magazine which spotlighted New England cult towns. Oh, there it was in a rack by the front desk. Jack examined the cover as it got closer. Published by the Friends of Ramshead Society, the magazine was called Maine Town Beautiful. Ok, this was getting a little creepy even by Jack’s very liberal standards on what qualified as creepy.

     The woman working behind the counter radiated friendliness. She likely even believed in her friendliness too. She wore a simple white dress and on the left breast was a red rose pendant. As soon as she noticed Jack she greeted him in the manner he greeted an old friend, Welcome, stranger! We don’t get many visitors around here. What can I do for you? Dinner, or are you looking for a room?”

     “Both, if you can manage.”

     “Of course we can, I’ll have a table reserved for you tonight and we’ll give you the best room we have available. Plenty of open space. Dinner starts at seven and the cook likes it when guests are prompt.” She slid Jack the guest book. In the radiant light, her blonde hair sparkled and the wrinkles when she smiled made her seem so very charming. Her smile was wider than Jack was sure his mouth was capable of stretching, not a crime in and of itself, but disconcerting nonetheless.

     “Thank you, I’m sure the room will be lovely.” Jack signed his own named and Stan’s and instantly regretted it when she slid the book back across with the names. A frown flitted across her face for an instant but Jack was entirely unsure if it was his imagination, it had been such a quick change of expression. It wasn’t like he needed the expression on her face to tell him what he already knew.

     “So what brings you to our humble little town?”

     Jack almost broke down laughing. There was literally nothing humble about this town, the hotel least of all, “We’re here for work. We got hired by someone in this town to do some cleaning, but I’m not even sure who it is. Our phone call got cut off as we were still talking. I’m going to have to poke around town to find out who it was. Got any ideas?”

     “Not at all, I wish I could help you.” The most disturbing part was her smile never stopped being genuine. It remained friendly and animated the whole time, revealing nothing of what Jack assumed was going on in that head of hers. Well, at any rate Jack had thrown the first couple of rocks. All that was left to do was unload a few more and wait for the hornet defense squad to rain down on the invaders.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 37

     Almost every family possesses a few skeletons in the closet, usually of the variety that get aired out any time long distance relatives arrive for the holidays and the nasty rumors circulate. It became such a regular event at the Goodbody house that a former head of the family had been forced to regularize it. Once every year or so, the whole family would gather to air it’s communal dirty laundry. The insanity of such pomp and circumstance so that the head of the Goodbody family could listen to everyone snipe at each other over dinner was just one of the minor reasons Jack ran away from home rather than spend the rest of his life stuck in a dusty mansion in the mountains which smelled of moth balls and rubbing alcohol. This cabin rite of passage, which many other family members had already undergone, must have been one of the many fun family activities he missed out on by leaving home with Stan and setting up shop down the mountain.

     This place, which the Goodbody family had owned long ago, clearly served a vital purpose in the family. If Jack ever started asking his father questions, he would certainly ask about this borderline forgotten cabin. It hardly contained enough floor space to justify the name. In truth, it felt more like a hunting lodge, which settled nicely into his mind once the thought occurred to him.

     The stairs began at the wooden door leading down into the basement and took an abrupt right, winding along the wall into the darkness. The stone walls appeared older than the rest of the cabin, leading Jack to believe they had been transported here from England at some point in the past. Halfway down the first flight of steps, a shadow crossed loomed across Jack’s path, causing him to hop backwards, fists at the ready. Turning his gaze upwards, he chuckled when he saw the cause of his concern. It was a gigantic manticore, mounted on a wooden plaque with its mouth hanging open in a grotesque parody of life. Scanning the steps ahead in the dim light streaming from the door, every set of steps Jack could see included a wall mounted trophy from some former glorious hunt. He counted five trophies, the steps went down longer then he thought.

     As he wondered how far the basement went and realized the importance of bringing a lamp, a flashlight or something that would help light his way, the door shut behind him. Jack refused to move until he could at least dimly see where he was going. Placing his hands on the stone wall, he let his feet find the path. Taking each step as slowly as he needed to, Jack walked down those stairs into an endless inky darkness which seemed alive enough to want to reach out and grab him. As he walked, whispers gradually began to fill his ears. At first, they were so quiet that Jack could hardly tell if they were the result of his mind playing tricks on him, or if they were really there. Within two flights of stairs, two things became increasingly clear. Firstly, Jack most certainly was not imagining the dull roar of voices which surrounded him. Secondly, he couldn’t make out what anyone was saying, because all the voices were talking at once.

     “One at a time,” Jack yelled out at the cacophony, “I can’t hear what any of you idiots are saying! Just one voice at a time!”

     There was a long silence before one indignant voice finally managed to sputter out, “How rude!”

    “His sister was the same way, what a disgrace to the family name.”

    With that, the chatter began again, but now Jack felt distinctly grateful he was unable to hear what they were saying. As he walked, small lights began to appear in the air, shimmering dots which danced around and followed Jack. The lower he got, the more of them there were. It took him a long time, a shamefully long time to recognize what they were. That many fireflies indoors, this far down was impossible. Those lights were what remained of souls. They were the lights of people who had once walked the earth. They guided him down the stairs, surrounded by a mist that slowly floated up from far below. After an endless amount of steps, a light shone at the bottom, a small light, but it helped Jack see where he was going. The bottom of the never ending basement turned out to be far more anti-climactic than expected, given the build-up.

     It was just a simple room, with a stone slab against the far wall facing the stairs. On either side stood two torches made from heavy looking iron. They stood taller than Jack, and at the top of each sat a massive unlit black candle. The mist wrapped around the torches, swirling around in spirals that rose up and joined the myriad of floating lights and passed beyond his vision. On the slab itself, a lone candle flickered bravely against the darkness. Above the slab, carved deeply into the wall, were the words, “Reap what you sow hunter. Light the way and face your “self”. Jack knew a test when he saw one. Very likely, if he went to the trouble of attempting to leave the basement without bothering to take his test, something worse would come along. At the very least, the door was sure to remain locked shut in his face until he had done his time.

    He stood in front of the stone slab, rubbing the bridge of his nose and thinking, but eventually Jack admitted to himself that no other option existed. He simply had to light the torches and play their game, if he wanted to get out of the basement. Grabbing the candle, he used it to delicately light each torch. Once lit, they both roared to life, illuminating the room around him and blinding Jack for an instant. When he opened his eyes, the staircase which had wrapped around the room was nowhere to be seen. All that remained was a small set of stairs leading up to the door which Jack had walked through to get down into whatever it was he had walked into. The thick mist had vanished as had the lights and the voices, leaving Jack alone in an empty room. At least, Jack thought he was alone at first. In the center of the room sat a stone, which looked as though it would fit comfortably in his hand.

     As Jack watched, the stone grew, like an egg which literally took on the form of the creature about to burst from its shell. Arms grew and stretched out to razor sharp claws at the end of massive fingers. Arms burst out and found their footing, massive toes dug into the basement floor. Fur flared out along the shape, colored a vibrant silver with dark crimson patches. Jack could hardly believe his eyes, it was a werewolf. With a sudden start, Jack realized it wasn’t just any werewolf, it was a werewolf which would haunt his family forever. Jack had witnessed the impossible rebirth of the would-be king, Aldric Redtooth.

     Not that anything in that basement had made sense thus far, but a werewolf in these mountains was physically impossible. To be sure there had once been werewolves living in New York, but that had ended around the time his father was a child. While his father had never given a straight answer as to why this happened, Jack was under the impression it was the product of sudden and extreme violence. The werewolves had attacked the Goodbody family in large numbers, with predictable results. Nowadays, it was a rare thing to find a werewolf in New York, because all they’re dens were still empty husks, a visible reminder that all actions have consequences. The werewolf standing before him certainly had no reason to exist here. In 1917, he had torn a bloody path through England in a desperate bid to dominate the country with an entire army of werewolves. His red colored teeth, the product of a complicated and painful tattooing process, had given him the moniker history would remember him by, Aldric Redtooth.

    “Where…am I?” Aldric’s deep voice wavered as he spoke, pressing a hand to the ground to maintain his balance.

    “I think a better question would be how are you even standing there? You should be dead.” Jack realized at that moment that his conversational skills left something to be desired.

    “Where…am I?” The same query, and it was certainly a fair question.

    “You’re in New York. It’s been almost a hundred years since your ill-fated attempt to take over England.”

     Aldric howled, a sound which echoed around the basement. It was full of pain, regret, confusion and most of all anger, “I died!”

    It was less a question than a statement, but Jack nodded in agreement all the same. Aldric’s eyes fixed on him. They were clouded, confused, but even then Jack could see recognition.

    “You’re a Goodbody. I was killed by a Goodbody.”

    Before Jack could respond, Aldric leapt past him to the window and somehow pried it open, an option Jack hadn’t even considered. While Jack was trying to absorb this new information Aldric got a head start. Without thinking, Jack raced up the stairs and was surprised to find that it opened easily at his touch. Standing at the door, right where he had left them, was Stan and his grandfather.

    “Stanley, grab your things and follow me! We’ve got an emergency!” Without another word, he dashed out the door and snatched his special broom from the van before racing off into the woods. Stan wouldn’t question him, he would follow along behind. Aldric, a werewolf renowned for his sense of smell, would find his way to the Goodbody house and find it mostly undefended. Jack had to stop him before he reached it, or even left this mountain-top.

     As Jack raced out the door, it closed behind him with a definitive slam. Racing to the back of the van, Jack found the one weapon perfectly suited for this monster, his sharpened broom. It was a weapon his father had given him, each bristle was sharpened steel fiber, capable of shredding anything it cut. In his haste to escape the basement, crushing his massive frame through the window had caused some bleeding. What confused Jack was the path that he took. It meandered around, into trees and straight over tall bushes, leaving strips of fur on the branches. This was all so sudden. Jack had no time to think of anything, except the consequences of letting his prey go. By the time he caught up with him, Aldric was already gasping and moving as fast as he could

    In his single minded focus on taking out his foe, Jack had no time to react to the speed with which Aldric struck him. That one blow from his fist sent his broom flying across the clearing and laid Jack out on his back.

     His hulking form stood between Jack and all of his equipment.  Fine, the hunters of old didn’t require fancy weapons. Removing his suit coat and tossing it aside, he pulled his tie off from around his neck and wrapped it around his right hand. The material was intended to resist tearing and impact blows, so it would lessen the damage to his knuckles. Waving a hand to Aldric to signify that he was ready, it occurred to Jack that he had been waiting.

     Aldric rushed him, with his claws bared. Those enormous hands of his came racing down from each side. Jack stepped inside his blows and landed a punch to his sternum. To his surprise, Aldric had seen that move coming. With an agility that somehow managed to catch Jack off-guard, Aldric pulled back on one foot and used his free leg to rake at Jack across his chest. As he skipped back, he found himself enveloped in a circle of muscular fur. He was trapped. The claws slashed at his vest and shirt, tearing them.

     Before Aldric could move back, Jack aimed a blow at each of Aldric’s arms, and then grabbed his leg while it was raised in the air. Pushing him forward, he almost managed to get him on the ground. Planting his foot in the dirt, Aldric whipped his raised foot up high and tossed Jack into the distance, slamming him to the ground next to his broom. That had been Jack’s goal the whole time. Rising to his feet Aldric rushed at him, those red teeth filling his vision. Jack had no time to think of anything, except the consequences of letting his prey go. Aldric hardly moved. His eyes were still clouded over, even before Jack struck. One sweep of the sharpened steel bristles and it was over. Some monster from the past. Perhaps his ancestors were just weak?

     He stood there for a long time before he became aware that Stan and Gideon had caught up with him, the front door having finally opened. Gideon laid a heavy hand on Jack’s shoulder, “This isn’t what hunting is, Jack. That’s why I’m the one who came to you. I’m your test.”

     Jack sank to his knees, “Wasn’t he my test?”

     Gideon sat down next to Jack, “Look at him, Jack. I mean really look at him.”

     Jack examined his body closer. The claws were as sharp as ever, but the ribs were poking out from his sides. Aldric hadn’t quite passed yet, but his breath was growing shallower by the moment. He was bleeding from where he had pushed himself through glass and the grisly wounds afflicted by the steel broom. Hadn’t he done the right thing? He had just wanted to protect his family.

    “He was scared and barely aware of where he was, “Gideon spoke softly, letting the scene sink into Jack’s mind, “but he died in anger, so he awoke in anger. If you had paid more attention, you would have noticed. We are a family of hunters, Jack, but we’re also guides, guardians and the shield of the mythic people that protects them from normal humans and from themselves.”

    Jack slowly rose to his feet and looked at his hands, “And I killed him without thinking.”

   “Your father would have done the same thing, without question. He wouldn’t even be having this conversation with me. Don’t think that our family is just about killing, Jack. It’s about so much more than that.”

    As they watched Aldric breath his last, his form shrank into a stone. Jack’s mind went back to the pile of stones in the yard. Picking it up, he pressed a finger to it and found it quite soft to the touch. On one side of the rock, he inscribed his name, and on the other he wrote the word, “forgiveness”. If a Goodbody’s job is to guide, they have to be willing to forgive.

    Gideon nodded in satisfaction and laughed softly, “That’s my grandson. Now go fix the rest of that cabin up and tell Julian hello for me.” With that, he vanished and Jack found himself standing alone with Stan in the woods, holding his stone in his hand.

     The rest of the repairs went slower without Gideon’s additional help, but they didn’t suffer anymore setbacks until it was finally time for Julian to arrive at his new vacation home. Jack was quite proud of his work. On the last day, he gathered up all the stones and placed them in the back of the van, as Gideon had requested. Anything else which had made the cabin unique appeared to have vanished with Aldric and his grandfather.

     Their first warning that Julian had arrived came in the form of soft classical music drifting through the trees. Jack sat on the front porch, leaned back and stared at the sky through the trees. It took his cousin’s car a good long while to work its way up to the cottage. Jack tapped his foot impatiently the whole time.

     When Julian finally did arrive, he bounded out from the driver’s seat as soon as he had parked and ran over to hug Jack. Jack hugged him back tightly before he pulled away, “Was it a good trip out, Julian?”

     “Oh, it was wonderful, or at least it would have been if someone wasn’t a party pooper.” The mysterious Francesco walked by Jack with the bags in tow. The inspection had begun. “He’s been a real grumpypants since I stopped to do a job in Connecticut, I think I may lose this one too.”

    Jack looked over his shoulder to try and follow Francesco’s movements, “Oh, that would be a shame. He’s a real charmer.”

     “He was, before he saw me kill a giant snake.”

     “That’ll do it.”

     Julian took in the cabin and whooped a bit with delight before getting himself back under control, “So, spill. What did you need to do and how much do I owe you? I just had a show, so I can pay you now if you want.”

     Jack rubbed the bridge of his nose, a job like this was not exactly what Jack wanted to think about the first time he had seen his cousin in a year or so, “The floors needed replacing, we added a second story, I underwent a rite of passage you cleverly decided to omit from your description of this place and we reworked the yard. All in all, we’ve been out here for around a month working like dogs every day.” Julian handed him a piece of paper and Jack wrote down a number.

     “Really? That’s all? Are you sure you didn’t have any life changing experiences I should know about?” Julian reached into his bag and pulled out a checkbook.

     “I don’t think I want to talk about it until I don’t feel like hitting you. I’m giving you a special family rate on the work since I’m just glad this means that you’ll be out closer to us in the summer.”

     Julian strode over to his car and started making out a check, using the hood of his car to rest the checkbook, “Well, I had to come out anyways since the big party is going to be at the end of the summer. Your father asked my father if I could do some art pieces for the thing, glory of the family and all of that. We are the only three direct families left before that house gets left to some nobody who wouldn’t even have a clue what to do with it.”

     “And whose fault is that, you wilting daisy?”

     Julian chuckled and ripped the check out, handing it to Jack who tucked it into his clean vest pocket, “Low shot, for someone who also has no children.”

     Jack leaned against the car, “So did you say yes?”

     “I’m not getting paid, but of course I said yes. I figured it would give me points with my father and that’s always a bonus. Also, we get to see Aldea and you know she wants to see you.”

     Jack adjusted his glasses and suddenly grew very interested in the model of car that Julian drove.

     “Stay for dinner, don’t drive home in the dark. You two can leave tomorrow, but for tonight you’re my guests.”

     “Fair warning, we’re going to be roughing it tonight if we stay here. The furniture was part of the problem, so I pretty much had to burn it all.”

     “Oh good God, what was wrong with the place?” Julian started in to the cabin, gently tugging Jack with him, linking arms with him.”

     Jack pulled closer to his cousin, “I’m not totally sure since I finished my trial here before you arrived. Whatever caused it was starting to rot all the wood, but it’s gone now..” The rest of the evening was a complete and much needed joy for Jack. Even Francesco warmed up as the night went on and in the morning, Jack and Stan headed back to their office for some much needed rest.