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.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 36

    The business Jack started with his friend and partner, Stanley Whitkins, was called Paranormal Cleaners. That name represented everything Jack felt he stood for, the fight of cleanliness against evil. Even though his business had the word “cleaner” in the name, his clients often foisted jobs off on him which had nothing to do with cleaning. Pest control, electrician, inmate control, gremlin control and now, once again, carpentry. Even Jack had never worked a job which required him to work with his now long dead grandfather. That work happened to sucker him into this longstanding Goodbody family tradition of coming to this cabin to gain some insight from the dead. It appeared to be a dead tradition, or at least he had never been told about it. Somehow, both Julian and Sam had found their way out here, something he would have to question Julian about when he arrived.

     Jack hardly meant that as a complaint. Having grown up around his father, Jack often pictured his grandfather as the same type of dour, merciless and effortlessly efficient man his father tried to make him into. Gideon Goodbody spoke loud, laughed louder and walked with softer footsteps than any man Jack had ever met. When he spoke, it was often a torrent of information, with no real rhyme or reason to it. While they replaced the rotten floorboards, Jack found himself conversing with his grandfather as though he had known him his whole life.

    “So the mail man was refusing to come up to our house and deliver our packages to us. I went down to see the post master and I asked him what the holdup was. It’s in their motto, Jack, neither rain, or sleet, nor wild animal attack.”

    Jack held a board down while Gideon nailed it into place, “So what did he say?”

    “He told me that the last two postmen they sent up had been stopped by a plant, so they were going to ask us to come down the mountain and get our own mail.”

    “Just a plant? That sounds rude.”

    Gideon laughed, “Well, I may have understated the plant. It was six feet tall and had a taste for human flesh, so I could hardly blame him for having reservations.”

    Jack stood up and looked over the living room. It had been a week since they had begun work on the cabin, and already the interior looked a million times better. Gideon complained a lot at first, but it turned out he did the hardest labor Jack had ever seen, outside of Stanley. What Jack learned to love about him the most was that he was a fount of knowledge that he sorely lacked. His father had been of the opinion that learning was best done on your own, the opinion of true genius to be sure. It’s hard to gauge your own abilities when your father presented such an unsurpassable wall. Growing up with his sister, studying to hunt and kill without being given a reason why, that was the life Jack knew growing up. As they studied, Jack often had questions about the various creatures or targets he would be expected to take down when he got older, but it never felt like a good time to ask his father.

     “So what did you do, grandfather?”

     “Gideon, Jack. It’s alright to call me Gideon, you’re a man now. I went out with some workers and transplanted it to the backyard. Your father used to like to play with it, but I think he might have been too rough with it. Either that, or it wasn’t all that suited to cold weather, because when the first snows came, it died not long after.”

    Taking a quick break to examine the floor and the boards they had installed, Jack noticed a pattern. The rot in the floor was worst around the portion of the cabin above the basement Jack had tried to sneak a peek into when they first arrived. Standing up, he scanned the walls for obvious signs of water damage or other inclement weather creating problems for the wood. The boards on the walls had aged poorly in some places, but they were still keeping the weather out. Something smelled funny about this cabin, and it wasn’t the terrible furniture, though the living room couch did need to be purified with fire for its unholy faded upholstery.

     Work continued well into the night. Jack decided to call it when they were having a hard time seeing where they were going beyond the light they were working with. Jack called Stan to the front door and waited until he was done moving the last supplies into order to speak, “I’ll start taking some food out to make dinner. I have one chore for you before you come in. We want this yard to be square and this is roughly shaped like an amoeba. Given the state of the building, we can use some more wood to shore up the foundations and replace some of the rotted out wood anyways, and it wouldn’t hurt to add another story but that can wait until we’re done sorting the first floor.”

     “Can do, boss.” Stan lumbered off to tear down more of the forest and Jack started putting dinner together. The one piece of furniture that functioned as it should was the refrigerator, and Jack had put it to good use since they had arrived.

       The sun slowly sank behind the trees as Stan came in, having torn down enough trees to make the yard roughly square shaped. Jack put the finishing touches on a large pot of stew and Stan made a large fire out in the yard for them to sit around while they ate. Pouring out two bowls, he handed one to Stan and one to Gideon with a spoon each before pouring himself a bowl. They ate in silence for a long time before Stan finally spoke up.

     “How’s the inside comin’, boss?”

     “All in all, the place was well made, which makes sense given that it belonged to our family. We’ve replaced most of the floorboards, though I suspect the walls will need some attention before we do anything else. We’re going to have to look at the basement, because the wood seems to be rotting around certain portions of it. I’m putting that off until the last day, because I think that’s what Gideon would want.”

     Gideon froze with his spoon halfway to his mouth, sparing an awkward glance at Jack before laughing nervously, “Was it that obvious?”

    Jack sipped his stew idly, “Pretty much. I’ve been cleaning long enough to know when rot sets into wood because of natural causes and when it’s unnatural. If I go into that basement, it’s going to be for the purpose of cleaning it, not to go on some bizarre spirit journey. I’m not a member of the Goodbody family anymore, this isn’t my line of work Gideon.”

     Gideon sat and listened to Jack while he eat quietly, but when he finished, Gideon put his bowl down and grew serious, “You can’t just break a tradition that’s been going on for decades, Jack. Even my son must have raised you better than that.”

    Jack watched the fire dance for a long time before he responded, “I took a job to clean this place out and fix it up for Julian. That’s what I plan to do.”

    “At least take something with you, from me, before you go. And take all the stones with you, they’re full of memories and hard earned lessons. They belong in a Goodbody home rather than out here in the middle of nowhere.”

     When Jack didn’t respond, Gideon went silent again, his expression growing dark and sad as he watched the fire spark in front of them. The night passed without incident, though Jack refused to let either himself or Stan sleep inside the cabin that night.

     The rest of the cabin flowed smoothly, and with Gideon’s help they managed to make wonderful time. The walls grew stronger, the floors were fully repaired and the new front steps were solid enough to not be plotting bloody murder every time someone stepped on them. The original steps were no longer capable of that, after Stan had stepped straight through the top step one day, and destroyed the others in a fit of rage. Eventually, even the second floor took on shape and Jack used it to add a proper master bedroom and bath. Since he was hardly a plumber, he figured the pipes might need some work but that could be worked out later as well. The bedrooms on the first floor became three guest rooms and the hallway had some light added to it by adding a lamp.

     Jack knew the source of the rot lay in the basement, which Jack had still refused to enter because he hated it when his job lined up with someone else’s goals. Eventually, they reached the limit of what they could do outside of the basement, and Jack had to descend into the darkness. Every step he took echoed around him, as though the basement extended for miles. The power must have been shorted to the basement, but no amount of fiddling with the power could get it to return. In lieu of that, Jack was forced to bring a candle, which he held away from his face. The light barely penetrated the darkness which surrounded him, pressing against him like a living thing. When Jack asked Gideon what he would find, he truly didn’t seem to know. As Jack sniffed the air, he could tell that whatever it was, it had teeth and fur. He could still smell it in the dark. Jack’s long awaited trial had begun. Whether he wanted to be a part of the family or not, the choice was now out of his hands.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 35

     Mysteries are one way streets which never allow you to return the way you came. You can’t unlearn a secret, as Jack found out when he explored the basement of his house in his youth. A mysterious cabin deep in the mountains that once belonged to the Goodbody family, however, had become a mystery Jack could hardly turn down. That the Goodbody family, renowned in some circles for their stinginess, would actually let go of property was mystery enough to intrigue Jack.

     The route to the cabin led through some pretty rough roads. Their journey led them out of town on the main road. They passed left onto the road that took them to Jack’s house which made his skin crawl until they drove past it. The Catskills weren’t the largest mountain chain but they were good for solitude, if that’s what you were looking for. The road led on past enormous, gnarled trees that had seen times before man had ever put a single cabin on the mountains and into the darker places that had scarcely been seen in years.

     It took them a few hours to get to the cabin and from the instant Jack saw the clearing surrounding the cabin, he knew his work was cut out for him. The trees around the cabin were all turned in towards the cabin, their spare branches turned down as though they were reaching for the building. The cabin itself would be proud if someone called it dilapidated. The roof had caved in on the left side of the cabin and the front of the building was a complete shambles. The windows would be very pretty if they were more than holes in the wall that someone had wedged thick pieces of glass into. The door held shut, surprising Jack, but the screen door slammed wildly against the wall, moving in even the slightest wind.

      Jack hopped out of the van and took a look around what passed for the front yard. The grass in front of the cabin was either dead or dying. In the front of the cabin, there was something resembling a front porch, which was barely larger than the front door. It had three steps that led up to a short landing. The cabin itself only had one story, though on closer inspection Jack could tell that it had a basement. While examining the cabin’s walls, he found a small ground window that looked down into the basement and tried to wipe it clean. The dirt had merged with the window, creating a piece of stained glass. Jack rubbed the bridge of his nose and kicked a pane in. he shuddered when it didn’t make a breaking nose. The smell of death and decay poured out from the opening immediately.

     Before entering the dilapidated building, Jack scanned the yard, searching for anything of note which could tell him more about why they had ever let go of this property. In the far corner of the yard, stood a stone shrine. It consisted of a pillar topped by a large stone orb with two wings sprouting from it. In front of the pillar lay a pile of small stones. Crossing the yard, Jack picked one up. One word had been written on the front, “Family” and on the back was his father’s name, “Varnes Goodbody. Sifting through the stones, it quickly dawned on Jack that each member of his family had a stone with their name and one word. Sam’s stone read, “Purpose” and Julian’s read, “beauty”.

     “Where do you want them supplies, boss?” Stan had started taking the wood from the back of the van and putting it on his shoulder.

     “In stacks and piles in front of the cabin and cover them with a tarp. I just have a bad feeling about this place.” Turning back to the work at hand, Jack rose to his feet with a grunt. He hated secrets and secrets having to do with his family most of all.

     Jack walked up the stairs, barely surprised when the front porch opened up a hole when he stepped on it in a weakened place. They would need to get more supplies from the woods before this trip was over. The door was engraved with the family motto above two crossed spears, still visible despite the overall decay of the building.

     The door into the cabin proper was surprisingly sturdy, given the state of the rest of the cabin, and to Jack’s trained eye it presented an obvious warning sign. Nothing said “stay out of this obviously cursed building” like a door that refused to open into an otherwise dilapidated structure. Doors in these circumstances hold up well because of good building materials or the forces of darkness. This case was clearly the latter.

  The inside of the cabin was a marvel and curiosity. The rug in the main room was an oriental rug that was entirely out of place on the floor of a glorified shack that looked ready to fall down at any moment. On the wall, an enormous elk bust surveyed the room, surrounded by a small fleet of smaller animals that all stared blankly out at the room. The furniture, which mainly consisted of a faded plaid couch and chair set with a coffee table in the middle, was covered with a fine coat of dust. Jack walked over to the coffee table and leaned down to blow on it, watching the dust flow away from the table like a river of dirt floating through the air. There was a fireplace on the left side of the room with a brick mantle which appeared so brittle Jack knew it would crack into tiny pieces if he lit a match anywhere near it.

     As Jack examined the cabin’s interior, a voice called out from what should have been an empty room, “I’ve been here for so long, waiting for you Jack. Now that you’ve finally come, you ignore me? Is this how my son raised his children?”

     Jack knew the cabin was empty. It had been empty for years.  Certainly, there was nobody here who knew who he was. When he turned back to the couch, it was occupied by the largest man he had ever set eyes on, barring perhaps Stan. His long sandy blonde hair was tucked back into a ponytail, and his beard covered his massive chest in unruly tangles. Even in the low light, his blue eyes twinkled with merriment and laugh lines crawled away from the corners of his eyes. He wore a dark three piece suit which reminded Jack instantly of his father.

    “Who are you and how did you get in here?”

    The figure almost choked with anger, “It’s me, Gideon! I’m your grandfather, you ingrate! I gave you your favorite present on your third birthday!”

    Jack paused, “Didn’t you also die on my third birthday? How could I possibly remember you?”

     “That…that’s no excuse! Why has it taken so long for your father to send you here? Sit down and have a chat with your grandfather.”

     “Why?”

     Jack’s grandfather sat in shock for a long time before he responded, “Because every member of the family has come here for hundreds of years, surely your father told you about this place!”

     Jack inspected the floor space in front of his supposed grandfather, realizing there was no chair to be found. Shrugging, he sat down on the floor. When your long dead grandfather appears in a strange cabin in the woods and asks you sit down, you don’t argue.

     “Given the expression on your face, it sounds like Varnes never even told you about this place.”

    “I have no idea if he would have or not. I ran away from the house when I was seventeen years old, and I’ve never looked back.”

    Leaning back in his chair, his grandfather let out the deep sigh of a troubled parent, “Why did you do something so stupid, Jack?”

    “I ran away after a hunting trip with father and my younger brother, Joseph. Only father and myself came back. I don’t know what happened, but I know it was father’s fault.

     Jack grew up in a family which never focused heavily on physical affection, so Gideon’s actions took him entirely off guard. Rising to his feet, Gideon wrapped Jack up in his arms, “It’s never easy to lose a family member. We grow up surrounded by death. We cause death in our work, but somehow we’re never ready for death when it follows us home.” Gideon felt warm, bring Jack memories that he couldn’t place because he was too young to really remember them.

     Now it’s my turn to ask a question. What is this place and how are you here? You died before I could even have any memories of you.  Father never talks about you, never even mentions your name. He would get so angry when Samantha and I would ask about you that we stopped pretty quickly.”

     “Generations of Goodbody’s have come here to meet with and learn from past generations. They come here to learn, to become a better version of themselves from past generations. I don’t know if the family had something like this before we came over from England. I wish I could explain more about this place.”

     Jack mulled the idea over in his head, “So why were you the one who showed up? Could it have been someone else’s ghost?”

     Gideon nodded, “When I came here as a child, I got my favorite aunt. Varnes wouldn’t tell me who he got, but every Goodbody family member is supposed to come here to get some advice and guidance on who they’re supposed to be.”

     Rising to his feet, Jack slapped the dust from his pants and looked around, “Well, won’t that be a shock to Julian when he shows up. He certainly didn’t mention this place or its purpose, that’s for sure.”

     Now it was Gideon’s turn to be curious, “And who is that?”

     Jack realized that Julian had been born after Gideon had passed away, “That’s Uncle Reginald’s son. He lives in California now.”

     Gideon’s face fell again, “Good lord, did nobody stay at the house? What happened to the family?”

     Walking over to one of the windows, Jack watched as Stan stacked wood outside, “We’re still around, just not all at the same place. There aren’t as many hunts to go on as there used to be, so we’re not really needed anymore.”

     “Jack,” Gideon’s voice was sharp when he spoke this time, “is that all our family is to you?”

     Looking over his shoulder, Jack shrugged as though the question didn’t even interest him, “It’s all I was taught. No hunts means no hunters and no hunters means why does our family even exist?”

     “When I was head of this family, hunts were a very small part of what we did. It’s the part we were known for, but that’s really a shame. It’s not the part I liked.”

    Tapping his foot on the floor, Jack tested it to see how it supported his weight, “What did you like?”

     “We just often happened to be the first family on the scene. When there was a problem, we came and we talked it out. Violence should be the last resort. When you go in looking for a fight, you always put your life and the lives of your opponents at risk and for what? Reputation? Honor? Someone always goes home in a box, when you start spouting words like that. Glory is a bitter dish.”

     “Huh,” Jack peered curiously at his grandfather, “I always wondered where that phrase came from.”

     Gideon laughed loudly, sounding more at ease, “It was something my father said and his father before him. I wonder if anyone even remembers where it came from now? It means something different for each person who uses it.”

     “Anyway, my cousin Julian asked me to fix the place up. He bought it as a summer home so he could stay near the house without actually staying in it.”

     “But why would you not want to stay in the Goodbody house? It’s all laughter and children running and telling stories about old times.”

    Jack laughed a particularly bitter laugh, “When I think really hard about the Goodbody house, I can still remember those days. These days, it smells like a cheap antiques store and it’s about as empty as one.”

    “But…this cabin doesn’t have enough room for Julian and his family to stay, even with extensive additions!”

    “Oh, I think there’s enough room for Julian and his partner. Ding a ling a ling.”

    Gideon paused at that news, “Well, I guess that explains it. I’m glad you’re helping out your cousin, Jack.”

    Turning to the unreal sight that was his enormous bear of a grandfather standing in front of him, Jack waved his hands as his patience gave out, “I don’t have enough time to stand and talk. If you want to give me the rundown on our family history or something, you’re going to need to work.”

    Gideon’s eyes went wide in shock at the entirely unexpected comment, then he confused Jack in turn. He laughed. He laughed so hard he doubled over and struggled to breath. He laughed far longer than Jack would have thought possible before he finally managed to speak, “That’s my grandson! Just tell me what you need me to do, and I’ll get to work.”

     Taking a quick mental inventory of the work the cabin needed, Jack gave a quick order, “Go outside and tell Stanley we need more building materials. This whole place is rotted from the inside out, it’s going to need a lot of wood replaced.”

    Gideon saluted and Jack couldn’t entirely tell if he was being mocked or not. He walked out the door at a brisk pace before he stopped and looked back in through the door, “How will I know which one is Stanley?”

    “He’s the only one here, other than you and me.”

    Gideon laughed again, “Is he now? I’m sure I can find him though. He’ll be the only one I don’t recognize.”

    “Yeah, myself, Stanley, you and the animals on the mountain

    Jack crossed the room and sat down on the couch his grandfather had so recently vacated, “Why do these jobs always get so damned complicated?” As he sat on the couch, he could hear the trees sway outside and despite the complications, he felt at peace. This was still work he understood. Rebuild the cabin and spend some time with Julian. He might even spend the rest of the summer out east, which would nice. Rising to his feet once more, Jack cracked his knuckles. Time to get to work. This cabin wouldn’t renovate itself, which was good, because that would have put Jack out of a job.