Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners part I

Chapter 1

    Cleaning is the necessary fight against the evils of chaos and decay that threaten the world. Just because your hotel has an elevator that disgorges a swimming pools worth of blood, or you happen to own a summer camp that also is a frequent hotspot of machete wielding psychopaths with hockey masks, does not mean that they don’t need to be cleaned. In fact, more so than the average hotel, the ones that boast hell spawn as regular tenants ultimately need more cleaning than most. Most cleaning companies blacklisted that sort of place after the very first mishap or mangled worker. That was why, to Jack Goodbody, it was a crying shame that people were forced to deal with subpar cleaners who demanded exorbitant fees to perform the most basic cleaning services. For him, cleaning those places that most people only visited in their nightmares was more than a job, it was a higher calling. The family motto, “Veraciter Vivimus,” or “Truly Alive”, allowed him to do no less than find a job that needed doing and to make it his own.

     Jack Goodbody was what most people would consider obsessive compulsive. His sandy colored hair was always perfectly ordered. The suits he wore were of the finest cuts and created from a material that was almost impossible to stain; a necessity in his line of work. His black wing tip shoes reflected the world around him in the orderly fashion that Jack perceived in it. In short, Jack’s job of bringing order from chaos through the simple act of cleansing wasn’t just something that ordered his habits. It was a way of life that encompassed his entire worldview. There were others in his family better suited to fighting the demons and monsters of the world, but he brought order out of chaos by starting his own business as a paranormal cleaner.

     Summer was fast approaching the Tri-state area and the oppressive heat wave that signaled the opening of the cleaning season was present in force. Jack’s office was situated in a small town called Freotbury just south of the Catskill Mountains. It was already well into the afternoon on a lazy Monday in May, but Jack couldn’t be bothered to be moved and allowed himself to be hypnotized by the ceiling fan that whirred lazily through the air as it created fascinating patterns from the cigar smoke that permeated the room. The room reeked of stagnation.

     Finally lowering his slack jawed gaze, Jack fixed his eyes for moment on his stalwart, but predictable companion, Stan. Jack felt quite sure that Stanley Whitkins wasn’t entirely human. Standing at around seven feet tall, his feet dangled from the edge of the overly large sofa Jack had bought him. His placid face belied the extreme violence the man was accustomed to. Even his features were overly large, Stan’s ears, nose and all gave Stan the appearance of a thick minded thug and anyone who thought it would have been half right. A large cigar hung idly from the corner of his mouth, spewing clouds of smoke into the room with every breath he took. He wore the same dark blue coveralls he always did when on the job, a stained white shirt visible underneath it. Jack once offered to get him a better uniform for cleaning, but to Stan it would only become a necessary expense when the one he was wearing needed to have a date with an incinerator. According to Stan, he came from an Italian family that had always been below the poverty line. Rather than being ashamed of his upbringing, Stan often wore his tough childhood like a badge that provided no small amount of pride to him, both in himself and his family.

    Time dragged on to the point where the doldrums forced Jack to confront his natural enemy, the office phone. It sat on his desk, quietly mocking him without a sound. Jack initiated a staring contest with the corded phone, narrowed his eyes and imagined smashing the dial-toned traitor against the wall or feeding it to dogs. The phone remained quiet, as though it was daring either Jack or Stan to question it’s unnatural silence in the corner. Jack huffed, and finally managed to make himself sit up and take stock of the office. Stan had no desk, only his bag of “cleaning supplies” in the corner for those special hard cases. The butt of a shotgun peeked over the top of the bag along with various other implements such as a baseball bat and a crowbar. A solitary black desk sat in the corner next to a metal cabinet filled with Jack’s tools of the trade. The apartment functioned as their home as well, with a massive closet taking up the side of the office opposite side from the door, along with a basic bathroom and shower for attending to hygiene.

     As though on cue, the phone started to ring and with great effort Jack got up and crossed the room picking up the phone and placing it to his ear, he gestured to Stan to grab a pad of paper and a pen.

     “Hello, Jack and Stan Cleaning services, the skeletons in your closet are our specialty with no questions asked.”

     “Jack, thank God! I’ve been trying to call you for three hours!” Jack pulled the mouthpiece away from his mouth and gestured to Stan for the pad of paper and a pen, mouthing the words, “Manager of the Colonial Hotel.” Jack could immediately picture the roly-poly manager on the other side. At the best of times he resembled an overly misshapen potato wearing a smart business suit. Given his current choleric turn he would be a roly-poly potato in a sharp suit doing a stellar impersonation of a tomato.

     “We were wondering what kept you this year. Usually you’ve required our services a lot sooner.” Stan rose from the couch with a heavy creaking sound and located a pad of paper and pen and placed it in front of Jack.

      “It’s been a disaster! We’ve lost five guests and the stairwell has gone totally dark.”

      “I assume that you checked the bulbs.”

      “I sent the maintenance man to check the bulbs and he came back out covered in scratches and speaking French and now he refuses to go back in. We can’t start the busy season with The Colonial in such a state! Jack, I’ll you whatever you want, just make the old place go back to sleep will you?”

      Jack made him wait while he scribbled out a few notes, “Just the usual fee will do, I can’t have you running off to all my other clients and complaining about the exorbitant fees. We’ll have to come out today though.”

      The nervousness on the other side of the phone created a small miasma around the earpiece smelling slightly of burnt cheese, “And also, the kitchen’s been acting up and the power went out and we’ve the spooks on the third floor are…”

     “The kitchen as well then.” Jack scribbled a few more notes and handed it off to Stan, who promptly lumbered off to the far wall to gather supplies.

     Jack grimaced as the sputtering on the other side of the phone faded into silence, Alright, you can come today. But just you and your help, none of that crazy family of yours. The property damage last time was enough to put us out of business for the winter season.”

     “I didn’t exactly invite them along. They have a habit of just showing up on their own, but agreed.”

     The manager sounded relieved, “Then I’ll expect you as soon as you can get here.”

     Jack placed the phone back down on the receiver and stretched his arms above his head. “We’ve got a live one, Stanley. Time to pack up and head out.”

     Stan gestured to a black bag sitting in the corner with three wooden handles peeking out over the top, “Are we gonna need them special tools like last time, boss?”

     Jack regarded the tools steadily for a moment before turning to Stan and shaking his head. “We won’t need them for the Colonial. This will be like visiting an old friend. An old friend who smells like dried blood and wants to kill us, but we still won’t need them.” Stan nodded and slung his own bag over his shoulder, picking up a box of supplies and headed out the door to place them in the van. Jack followed at a leisurely pace, checking his suit for lint and adjusting his glasses on the way out. The first cleaning job of the season required both of them looking at their best and at least Jack wore clothes with no holes in them. Stan finished packing the van and shambled over to the driver’s seat, sliding into the van and causing it to shift slightly to his side. Jack yanked open the passenger door and hopped in as well. It was time to get to work.

Chapter 2

     The drive to the Colonial Hotel acted as the calm before the storm. The mountains still carried with them the fresh beauty of spring and the crisp air that blew down from the mountains was enough to remind Jack that he was truly alive. Leaving the city meant leaving both the ordered streets, the regular fire hydrants and all the other markers of civilization, but going out into the mountains stirred something deep in Jack’s soul. As the van sped along the road through the foothills, the valley fell out before them and Jack let himself be whisked away by the experience. The bursts of fresh air carried with them the hint of cigar smoke that constantly surrounded Stan. The peaceful scenery and the prospect of the work had Jack’s pulse racing, and his mind wandered to the cleaning of the massive hotel. The winding road to the Colonial twisted and turned, revealing brief glimpses of the imposing building ahead of them before it slowly dipped below the tree line again.

     The road finally gave way to the driveway that led up to the parking lot of the main building. Jack felt a stirring in his heart, a restlessness, a longing to be back in the middle of the action that set his feet itching to be out the door. Though the manager billed the hotel as an estate, all the property amounted to was a massive building and a hedge maze. The main building was made in the Tudor fashion, with black beams of wood that intersected with large sections of white wall that shone in the sun. Each window of the four-story building had two shutters made of dark wood with a goose in flight cut into them. The drive circled around the front of the building and back to the main highway after it passed the building, with a gravel road leading off into the trees to a parking lot. At each side of the building, gravel paths of white stone, which shimmered in the afternoon heat, led around the side. The hedge maze spanned off into the distance. In keeping with the style of the building the hedge maze held more of an English quality than most. The walls of shrubs were quite neat, but the groundskeepers had gone through and woven wild flowers into the them all wall making the walls appeared as one continuous vertical bed of flowers.

     Sitting in front of the enormous white building with his head in his hands was the manager, appearing for all intents and purposes like a lobster wearing a fancy suit and a fake moustache. Stan pulled up to the front and shifted to open the door when the manager caught sight of them,  “No!” his panicked voice echoed across to the parking lot causing a few guests heading to their cars to turn toward the noise. He waved congenially before darting to the van and whispering in the way parents do to naughty children that pierces all sound and draws the attention of everyone nearby, “Nobody knows anything is wrong yet! If you start bringing in your cleaning bags, people will get nervous and start demanding…” the manager hesitated and gulped,” refunds.”

     Jack sat back in his seat heavily and adjusted his glasses, “And we can’t have that now, can we? We’ll head around back. We really should be starting in the kitchen anyways after the incident last year.”

     The manager beamed and adjusted his ill-fitting black suit, “So good of you to understand. I’ll be in the office if you need me.”

     “Onwards Stanley, much like the trash and the hobos, cleaners must enter from the rear.” Jack closed his eyes and clenched and unclenched his fists the whole way back. Things were so much simpler when he cleaned hovels with deceased owners because buildings usually had filth that one could easily identify.

     Stan pulled the van around to the back entrance and shifted out of the car, jolting Jack out of his seat slightly as he hit the ground. Jack took a deep breath and hopped out of the van, stopping to take off his suit coat and roll up his sleeves. The cleaning supplies were more vital here than in other places. Most other places had something potentially fatal about them, but few places were as passive aggressive as the Colonial Inn. That was, in a nut shell, why Jack left the special cleaning supplies at home. Any damage that could be done with a crowbar held by Stan was enough to deter bad behavior for a little while anyway.

    The doorway that led into the kitchen normally had two doors blocking entrance. One of them was a heavy white wooden door that would have taken several normal people or one Stan to lift and the other was a lighter screen door for when the weather turned hot. The larger door had been blown off its hinges and into the parking lot. “And so, it begins,” Jack muttered to himself and walked to the doorway. Cupping his hands over his eyes, Jack investigated the kitchen through the entrance. The screen door hung loosely from the side of the frame. It made a slight squeaky noise as it swung back and forth. Stan opened the back of the van and hefted his cleaning bag over his shoulder with a loud clanking sound.

    Gingerly pushing at the screen door, Jack entered. The kitchen at The Colonial was hardly state of the art, but it looked like someone had gone positively medieval in there. That is to say, someone had started preparing a feast for a consortium of giants and ogres and had gotten as far as the grinding of bones for bread bit and then remembered they had forgotten to grab some spices and left the whole thing behind. Suspicious looking bones poked out over the top of bubbling pots that were a blatant safety hazard. The floors were slick with blood where they weren’t just covered in chunky bits. Jack rubbed the bridge of his nose and gestured over his shoulder with his free hand. Stan slide a long metal bar into it and Jack gave it a few experimental swings.

     The main difficulty with the Colonial Inn lay in figuring out what was real and what was a horrifying figment of your imagination. Usually the Inn tried to scare you, but Jack didn’t find a blood-soaked kitchen with human ingredients scary so he could only assume that this vision was for Stan. At least he hoped that it scared Stan. Shaking that thought from his head, Jack raised the bar above his head and brought it down hard on the floor, leaving a slight divit in the ground.

     “Either you let this little parlor trick go right now or I will smash every single table in here and then I’ll find your furnace and really go to work.” The Inn took a moment to think while the image of the kitchen flickered and shimmered. The choice was an easy one, the actual kitchen was populated with frightened two week’s notice’s was certainly dirty and had lost all power for some reason, but was not in fact covered with blood.

     “Looks like we’re dealin’ with a problem child this year, boss. Want me to find them spooks on the third floor?” Stan reached for his bag ominously.

      The spooks on the third floor had long been the bane of their existence. If the rest of the hotel was hardly easy to deal with, the handful of actual spooks on the third floor often acted as ringleaders. Jack often preferred to leave them to their own devices most years, reasoning that if they learned they would be left alone then they would be less likely to act up. This clearly was not one of those years.

     “We’d better leave a few bruises this year. You go upstairs and pay them a little visit and I’m going to check out what’s going on with the power.” Jack raised a hand to cut off his companion’s protests, “I know, I know. That means going into the basement, but I think I’m ready for it this year. We’ll meet in the middle and clean the trouble areas starting with the staircase and then call it a day. The rest of the cleaning doesn’t require us. We just need to make sure that someone else can take care of it when the time comes.”

     Stan turned to walk out of the room, seeming like a small undulating mountain with a slow gait. Jack turned to the door on the far side of the kitchen and rubbed his hands together. Time to get down and dirty with the first problem child of the season. The first step would be to attempt to restore power to the hotel by making some alterations to the electrical wiring and going down to the fuse box to repair the broken connections. Jack suspected that the power wouldn’t fully come back on until some adjustments had been made to some spooks faces, but for now he would just do his part and trust Stan to do his own masterful work upstairs.

Chapter 3

     The path to the basement normally led down the central stairwell, but since the central stairwell was apparently eating people, that left the stairwell normally used by the staff. This was equally dangerous in its own way. Not because of the shadow monsters, but because the stairs were quite steep and it would be very easy to fall down them. Down the stairs, Jack could hear the slight hum of a generator, which got louder as he crossed the kitchen to head down. The basement contained a furnace, that looked like it was powered by human remains, and a wall that was covered by a complicated switchboard and generator. It also contained a secret wall that opened into a land of carnivorous leprechauns. Jack wasn’t entirely sure if it was supposed to be part of the Inn, and if so, he wasn’t entirely sure how to go about cleaning it, but he had also never been able to find the door again after that first time so he usually left well enough alone.

     The trip to the basement never ceased to disorient Jack. The main floor and the guest rooms tried so very hard to give the impression of an upstairs downstairs sort of arrangement much like those British television shows about snobby people having snobby people problems. Most of those houses didn’t resemble a complex spaceship in the basement. If spooks lived someplace in the house, the basement would be where they slept at night. Treading carefully down the staff stairway, Jack felt his pocket buzz. They didn’t normally use their phones on the job, but on occasion Stan needed to ask a few questions as he went about his own business.

     Tugging his phone out as carefully as he could, he held it between his shoulder and his ear, “Yes, Stanley?”

     “The third floor don’t have one’a them lounge arrangements, does it?”

      Jack paused and closed his eyes, thinking back to the last time he had been up to the third floor, “They do have a big ballroom up there for events but it’s never been set up. What exactly is up there right now?”

     “It’s set up for one’a them club singers they have at really swanky places.” Stan stood at the opening of what should have resembled a storeroom. The lights set the mood for the stage at the far end of the room. A huge red velvet canvas covered the back of the stage, with a few smaller ones on the wings where the next acts could wait their turn. On one side of the room was a bar complete with bartender and row upon row of liquor. Stan and the bartender had been staring vacantly at each other since Stan had called Jack on the phone, neither one quite sure what to make of the other just yet.

     “Well see if you can’t do a little attitude adjustment and get the thing back to normal. We can’t have any more guests vanishing into thin air. That’s going to get harder and harder to explain to the guests.”

      Stan grunted in annoyance on the other end of phone, “Can do boss.” Reaching to his bag, he rummaged around, seeking the right tool to make the appropriate changes.

     Jack stopped at the bottom of the stairs, “Could you run out and grab the bag when you’re done? We’re going to run into some bodies in the stairwell. Well, either the bodies or the thing that ate them and either way that means a huge mess.”

     “Sure thing boss, just gonna wrap up the lounge first.” Stan said as he tapped the mahogany  bar twice, and the bartenders face lit up, ecstatic to have something to do. He pulled out a glass and a bottle of bourbon, gently pouring two fingers and starting to put the bottle away before hesitating as Stan tapped the bar again impatiently, gesturing to his glass.

     “Stanley.” Jack let slip an exasperated sigh as he turned back towards the stairs leading to the kitchen, “You know I don’t approve of drinking on the job. Also, remember what I said about accepting drinks from cosmic horrors that feed on misery and hatred in an effort to keep you trapped in an endless soul crushing mire of agony?”

     “Don’t.” Stan sighed resignedly and relit his cigar, which had gone out, and reluctantly left the glass untouched on the bar. The bartender’s expression briefly turned murderous before instantly morphing to contrite as Stan turned back to look at the glass longingly. The bartender had never stopped pouring, and now the bourbon was flowing over the edge of the glass and forming a small river on the bar, which trickled its way down to the carpet. Stan watched each drop hit the floor longingly, knowing full well that he would be blamed if he left that much spilled all over the bar top and floor. Still, Stan reasoned as he pulled a crowbar out from his cleaning bag, it was more the bartender’s job to clean up things he spilled. Even if they came out of the bartender.

     Jack grimaced and turned off the phone. No need to listen to the mauling. Taking a quick look around, he took a mental count of what he needed to do. The furnace could be left alone. The real problem lay on the wall covered with wires and blinking lights. Jack took his glasses off and slid them into his vest pocket. Time to get to work. The fuse-box flickered in the middle of the wall with a series of wires spanning out in all directions. Order from chaos. Jack’s hands became a blur, finding the wires that had been damaged and wiping the grime from the dirty ones. In no way would this room ever be considered clean. Basements that contained the power source and a furnace usually were incapable of such things, but it would be functional and Jack would have to be happy with that.

     While he worked, the shadows behind him convulsed and slowly shivered into the corner of the room closest to Jack. The flickering light of the furnace left many shadows around the corners of the room In the corner closest to him the shadows pulled themselves up and into a roughly physical form. They reached up higher and higher, straining for Jack, suddenly whipping into action, aiming a blow at the back of his neck. Jack swayed to the side at the last second and grabbed the shadow with his free hand.

     “If I’m not mistaken, the fuse box has been really gnawed at by gremlins. I would feel sorry for them, but I know you’ve been the one gnawing on the gremlins.” The shadow vanished from Jack’s grasp. Another shadow formed behind Jack and attempted a stab at the back of his left knee. Once again, Jack only moved at the last second, raising his foot and stamping down on the shadow hard.

      “We do this every year. Every year I come here and clean you up and every year you act like this is some sort of travesty. You know, if you stopped swallowing the bellboys whole we might actually be able to skip a year or so now and then, just a thought.” A flick of the switch from Jack brought some of the power back on, including one dim, flickering bulb at the top of the high ceiling. The amount of light it gave was enough to cause the shadows to dance frantically.

     The steps were still the most dangerous thing about the basement. Not for the first time, as Jack tromped back up to the kitchen, he toyed with the idea of adding a railing to the staircase before reminding himself that he was a cleaner and not a carpenter. This despite the fact that he had just worked as an electrician. The sight that met Jack at the top of the stairs gave him reason to pause, something that precious few things in this world could do. While trying to restart the ovens, the chefs had apparently concluded that there must have been a gas leak. In their efforts to find the problem they had compensated by turning up the stovetops as high as they would go. What parts of the kitchen didn’t smell like gas were on fire and the chefs had formed into impromptu fire-fighting brigades to handle the situation. Smoke bellowed out the back door in an alarming fashion.

     Jack pulled the glasses out of his vest pocket and ran his fingers through his hair, “It’s never just one thing, is it?” Luck often followed Jack like a stray kitten and today was no exception. On the far side of the kitchen, somebody had left a large picnic blanket. Jack snagged a fire extinguisher from one of the panicked cooks and took care of the blazes that water simply would not do for. It never ceased to amaze Jack how in those moments when one’s wits are needed the most, those are the moments when they are also most likely to flee.

     Acting quickly, Jack dropped the blanket in a sink and turned the faucets as far as they would go. It would seem not even the Colonial Inn had a death wish as water came gushing out from the faucet and soaked the blanket. Gently recruiting a few cooks, he tossed the blanket onto the remaining fires and soon the crisis was over.

     In his pocket the phone buzzed again. Jack dropped his part of the blanket and answered it, “Yes, Stan? I assume you have the top floor sorted out by now.”

     “Them spooks need medical attention or some sort’a help, but yeah boss. All clear up here. How’s them things on your end?”

     “The kitchen caught on fire, but I managed to get the power back on for the most part and now that your end is done…” Jack trailed off as the hum of the generator in the distance faded, “there it goes. We should be all clear to head into the stairwell now. Do you want to take those stairs down and meet in the middle and start from the outside on the first floor with me?”

     “On the outside, we ain’t havin’ a repeat of last year with them grabby shadows in the stairwell. I’ll get the bag.”

     “Fair enough, I’ll make my way to the front entrance and take a look at the doorway.”

Chapter 4

     Every cleaning company like his needed one Bag. The tragedy was he had the only one in existence, or the only one that he knew of. The material was canvas, though most of it was various patches from over the years. A large part of them had come from before Jack had been given the bag by his father and he had told Jack he possessed no recollection of how long he had owned the bag either. Wherever it came from, the bag was a cleaner’s best friend. No matter how many things you put into it, the bag never seemed to get any fuller or even possess any mass at all. Jack could only assume that the things he put in there went somewhere, though most of the time Jack didn’t really care where they ended up. As long as it didn’t impede his job, it was no longer his problem.

     The carnivorous stairwell lay just off the right side of the foyer, next to the hallway that led to the kitchen. It was situated to be easily accessible to the guests. Most new visitors preferred to use the elevator, but that had its own problems, so long time guests often used the stairwell instead. The door itself looked like any other door at the Colonial Inn. A bit pretentious, perhaps, but nothing to indicate the deadly nature of the entrance. For that, there was only the occasional scream. The stairwell itself was poorly lit and slightly claustrophobia inducing at the best of times and led from the ground floor up to the fourth floor. When Stan had just finished beating the spooks into submission. Arriving to the lobby before Stan, Jack tapped his foot impatiently and eyed the door.

     Stan lumbered in from the direction of the front door with the Bag drooping limply from one hand. This was going to be either very easy or very hard. They crossed the foyer together and stood on either side of the door. Jack held up a hand with three fingers, counting down to one. On one he made a fist and Stan ripped the door open, almost pulling it off its hinges. Despite the restoration of all the lights, the stairwell remained an inky void of darkness.

     Jack grunted in annoyance. “We’re doing this the hard way, then.” He reached into the darkness and groped around till he found a body part, in this case an arm. Pulling as hard as he could, he managed to pull out a young-looking waitress with blonde hair. She was as pale as death. Jack pulled a small mirror out from his vest pocket and checked her breathing. No such luck. The only thing left to do was make the problem vanish. Everything was going smoothly. That is, until Jack started to slide her into the bag and then she woke up about halfway through.

     “Oh dear,” Jack pulled his pocket watch out and grimaced, “We’re going to be at this for a while, aren’t we?”

     Stan contemplated the bag for a brief moment before turning to Jack, “Are we just gonna dump them bodies in the bag?”

     Jack nodded, “If they read the contract, they knew what they were getting into. On site death means the body has to vanish. This is why you should always read contracts before you sign them.”

     “Why do them idiots keep goin’ in there when none of them comes back?”

     Jack gave him a long-suffering glance before reaching in again, “I think it’s kind of a climbing the mountain because it’s there sort of deal. My sister tried to explain it to me once, but I think she was drunk.”

     Stan held the bag ready just in case, “Ain’t that kinda like jumpin’ offa’ mountain cause it’s there?”

      Jack pulled out the body of a much-disheveled looking sous chef who had become his own last short order. He vanished in quick order into the bag.

     “Probably, but I told you I don’t get it. This is not the staircase I would die on, I’ll tell you that much.” It took them an hour to clear the remnants of the staff from the staircase. Eventually Stan lost his patience and attempted to punch the darkness spilling out of the stairwell, which caused the whole inn to shiver and the darkness to vanish, leaving nothing but a simple stairwell.

     “I see you’ve fixed the problem,” proclaimed a voice from behind them. Jack nearly jumped out of his skin, somehow in their efforts to retrieve and save what staff they could neither one of them had noticed the sweaty tomato in the cheap suit watching them.

     “I wouldn’t say we solved the problem. We tried solving the problem a few years ago, when my family came over and that didn’t turn out so well. I did, however, make this Inn appear as though multiple grisly murders didn’t take place here every year.”

     The manager rubbed his hands together with delight, “That’s good enough for me!”

     Jack coughed politely, “We have some more cleaning to do but the bulk of its done. The rest of it can be done by normal staff and…”

     “Then I’m going to have to ask you to leave. When the clients see you around they get very nervous, most nervous indeed.” The manager started off at a trot for his office, only getting stopped short by Stan’s massive hand descending from the heights above him and holding him in place.

     “Ain’t you gonna pay us?”

     “Oh yes…uh, payment.” A check was produced which Jack quickly snatched away.

      Jack slipped the check into his vest pocket and started rolling down his sleeves. “Let’s go, Stanley, before we become part of the property or our employer thinks better of the current arrangement.” Stan needed no encouragement and followed his boss towards the back at a slow and steady pace.

     “Oh! I do have one last thing I wanted you to look at. There’s a wardrobe on the second floor that…has some strange issues. It needs to be cleaned right away.” Jack looked back at the door longingly before sighing and letting the manager march them up to the second floor. With the manager leading the way, they managed to make good time and only got lost once or twice. The room itself was quite normal looking, but the manager simply refused to go in at all. Jack waited until Stan had caught up before unlocking the door and pushing it open. Stan reached into his bag of tricks and took out a croquet mallet.

     The manager’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head and his skin went a shade redder, “Wh…why do you need a croquet mallet to clean a closet?” Taking a tentative step into the room, Jack licked his finger and stuck it into the air to feel for drafts.

     Jack looked over his shoulder at his stalwart companion. “I was just going to ask the same question. This is what your paychecks go towards, Stan?”

     Stan took a few practice swings with the mallet, nodding in satisfaction at the weight, “Everybody needs one o’ thems hobbies to keep occupied with.”

     Jack shrugged and nodded, stepping close enough to touch the door of the wardrobe with his fingers. “I suppose you do have a point. But really, a croquet mallet?”

     Jack adjusted his tie and Stan hefted his mallet over his head, taking a deep breath. Slowly, Jack pulled open the door only to be greeted by a forest with a light snow coming down. Walking through the woods with an umbrella was a half man-goat creature. Once he noticed Jack and Stan he froze in place, looking very much like a deer caught in the headlights. Slowly, hesitantly it made its way over, raising a hand in greeting before Jack slammed the wardrobe door in its face. “Yeah, no. We’re not doing that song and dance again.”

     Stan nodded emphatically as they both turned towards the door, “Thems people have more snow than we could remove in a year. It’s like there’s a whole country in there.” The trip down to the van was without incident and for once, the manager didn’t complain about all the cleaning not being done by two specialist cleaners. The sun had dipped completely behind the mountains by now and a beautiful, calming darkness had fallen over the landscape. The hotel shone like a beacon of hope in the darkness, drawing its employees back to another summer of work. The mountain winds blew down from beyond the rises of the distant peaks, sending shivers down Jack’s spine as Stan drove past the line of cars heading in towards the hotel staff parking lot. The trip back was going to be sweet, and the whole summer lay ahead of them. Jack had rarely felt so alive.

Chapter 5

      Entropy and decay. Like dust and mildew, many people find these topics depressing and overwhelming. Jack took a certain amount of comfort in the knowledge that no matter how many times a place could be cleaned, it would need to be cleaned again. The magic of the fresh mountain air had faded with their descent back to the office and the grind of paying heed to the most malevolent figure that Jack had ever known, the office phone. They hadn’t arrived back at the office until late. Jack’s home lay in the same chain of mountains and getting back without visiting his family meant going far, far out of their way. Despite a night of no sleep, Jack still felt a bounce in his step as he puttered around the office, putting on a pot of coffee and making sure everything was in order. The familiar scent of Stan’s cigar and the comforting whir of the overhead fan relaxed him. It was the seemingly perfect beginning to the perfect summer.

     That is until he noticed it. It first caught his eye when he passed a full-length mirror. A small red stain on his pristine suit, just above the left elbow. That cheeky hotel had the gall to stain his clothes? The idea that the hotel had essentially thrown up on him made Jack feel a bit queasy. He sagged against the wall, unable to look away from the offending red spot. It consumed his whole world, so he smashed the mirror.

     Stan shambled over, his normally passive face twisted into a concerned expression when he saw the stain, “You ok, boss? Thems hotels really need a beatin’. I’ll go take care of it.” Stan took a step towards the door, a mountain going to war against a hotel.

     Reaching out, Jack snagged his sleeve before he could get further. “That’s not how I do things, Stan. Next summer we’re giving the whole place a cleaning from top to bottom. That hotel thinks it had the last laugh.” Jack seethed, picturing the whole hotel sparkling from top to bottom. Oh, it would be glorious.

     Stan lay down in his normal positon on the couch and fished for a fresh cigar. Time crawled on. Even though the summer had just begun it was already time to clean his suit. Normally Jack’s specially made suits took longer to stain but normally the hotels Jack cleaned didn’t have such an attitude problem. All he had wanted to do was fix the power. Fire fighter, electrician and sometimes savior. A cleaner had to wear many hats on top of occasionally beating down hotels with mean streaks.

     “Did we ever find out what happened with them things we saw what wasn’t real at the hotel?”

     “Hmm? Oh, didn’t I tell you?” Jack looked at Stan who shook his head, lighting his cigar and taking a deep puff. “Sometimes places and things take on a bit of personality from their owner. In the case of the Colonial Inn it’s become very nasty and very cowardly, much like the owner.”

     As he examined the stain on his arm, Jack gradually became aware that he could hear music approaching. Whipping his head up to check that Stan could hear it too, he froze when he heard another familiar noise. It was the roar of a motorcycle blasting AC/DC approaching the outskirts of town. Only one person in the whole world would show up in this town, at this hour doing that. Jack had made entirely sure of that after a series of incidents involving Stan and a lead pipe going to visit everyone in the neighborhood and asking them very politely to be quiet.

     By the time the motorcycle got into the heart of town, buildings were starting to shake and glass was vibrating in window frames. The chopper came to a stop right outside their office, allowing some blissful silence as the motor turned off. Jack inched his way to the window before dodging to the side a few steps as a brick came flying through it, imbedding itself into the wall across the room.

     Ducking across the room, Jack grabbed the brick and yanked it out of the wall, “This keeps getting better and better. First my suit, now my wall. Anything else you want to break!?”

     Stan gave his employer a wry look, “No offense boss, but I hate thems family reunions youse people have.”

     The quiet didn’t last, as the door to their office burst open. Most men would belikely be pleasantly surprised if a woman a beautiful kicked down their front door. She wore a black leather biker jacket with the words, “Veraciter Vivimus” embroidered in large letters between her shoulders. Despite the office being much darker than the street, she kept her aviator sunglasses on, keeping up more appearance than sense. Her outfit, from her white t-shirt to her tight black jeans down to  her boots, was entirely disheveled. Even though Jack knew she had been on the road, she still looked like a wreck. Brushing her long sandy colored hair away from her eyes, she looked right at Jack. “So this is where you’ve been! I have a job for you, little brother!”

     Jack winced, waving his hand down, “Inside voice, Sam. Inside voice.” Coming over to greet her, he gave her a brief hug before tsking at the state of her clothes. Gently, he rearranged her jacket and brushed at her hair before Sam pushed him away.

     “I didn’t come here for you to fuss over me, I told you I have a job for you. Right up your alley. Father wanted me to go it alone, but I figured I would ask you to come along all the same.”

     Stan chuckled, a brief, harsh noise, before Jack adjusted his glasses and answered for both of them. “I’m not taking any more jobs from you Sam. Last time, it was giant cockroaches from space. The time before that it was…I don’t even remember what it was, but I clean. I’m a cleaner. I don’t kill. Not anymore.”

     “What if I told you it was Creepy Bug Guy?”

      The look of utter shock betrayed Jack’s interest, “Father would never let you hunt Creepy Bug Guy.” Jack turned away from Sam before suddenly turning back, “Would he?”

     “He would, and that would mean his entire creepy basement would need to be cleaned out.”

     “He has a creepy basement?”

     “How the hell should I know? Don’t all whacko serial killers have a creepy basement? I thought it was a law or something.”

     Jack looked down at his sleeve, gazing ruefully at the stain on his suit, “Well my favorite suit is already stained. I guess it wouldn’t be a problem to clean up a place where the suit is guaranteed to get dirty now.”

     Sam beamed from ear to ear and hugged Jack close, more earnestly this time, before suddenly pulling back. Jack had often wondered if it were possible for awkwardness to physically manifest itself in a room. This was one of those moments. Pulling back, Sam waved a hand vaguely towards Jack’s supply closet, “I’ll go on ahead, you get your little bag of tricks. I promised them we would clean the place when we were done.”

     Jack adjusted his glasses again and waved at the door, “Just go and we’ll meet you as soon as we have our supplies pooled and in the car. It was a late night and we’re still putting ourselves back together.”

     Snatching his left arm, playfully she examined the small stain on his suit with arched eyebrows, I can see that, little brother.”  Letting it drop, she started back to her chopper, waving a hand as she left, “I can see that, little brother.” Without another word, she was gone. Moments later, the earthquake caused by the roar of her motorcycle and the classic rock resumed and slowly began to fade as she left town.

     Jack watched her from the window, “Get ready Stanley. We’re going hunting.”

Chapter 6

     The worst part about the gig with Jack’s sister was the knowledge that they weren’t going to get paid for their work. Even though the job itself would hold some satisfaction, satisfaction doesn’t pay for gas or food. The Creepy Bug Guy, as Jack and his sister called him, was a notorious serial killer with a predilection for killing kids and doing the deed with insects. His real name was Boris Orlovski, an immigrant from Eastern Block Europe back from when it was entirely terrifying, as opposed to now where it was just mostly terrifying. His kills were often messy, which meant that when the police lost sight of the Bug Guy, Sam never did. Despite knowing where he was, father had never let either one of them go out on a hunt like this before. That she had come out and recruited him meant things had changed drastically since the old days before he had left home.

     Stan was doing most of the heavy lifting. Pausing to light a new cigar, Stan briefly tried to turn the reasoning of his employer over in his head before quickly giving up. “Are you sure you wants to clean them bugs up? It ain’t gonna be pretty.”

     “If I refused to go she would leave on her own and I would rather be there for this than miss the chance to see Creepy Bug Guy take a fall. Also, I’m not sure Sam could handle it on her own. I don’t really want to go, but I don’t think I have a choice.”

     Stan snorted smoke from his nose and tapped his cigar, “And don’t she know it too.”

     It was early enough in the day that, with their road trip started, they would make it to the cabin by the evening, just in time for some late-night cleaning. Stan hopped in the front seat of the van and started the engine, letting it idle while Jack did a mental inventory to make sure nothing was left behind. Before too long they were off, leaving the ordered streets and their office behind for the second straight day of cleaning. Unlike the first trip, no mountain breezes serenaded them with promises of new adventures afoot.

     Stan broke the silence, after what felt like an eternity of empty road had gone by, “What are we gonna do once we get there? I ain’t been on a hunt, strictly speakin, before now.”

     Jack stretched and idly scratched at the stain on his jacket, “Sam will take the lead so all we need to do is go inside and clean up the mess with the Bag. We make it all as spotless as a crazed killer’s hideout can be and then put the place up on Craigslist so this trip isn’t a complete waste of time. Maybe we can get the gas money out of this.”

     “Just gas money for one’a them vacation cabins?”

      “It’s all about location, Stanley. If the crazed former occupant didn’t turn you off then the location right next to a swamp would very likely put the nail in the coffin. We’ll be lucky if it gets picked up at all.”

     “That simple?”

     Jack stared out the window and watched the trees whip by, “My sister was hired to do her job, and we’re just tagging along to make sure she finishes it. And then we get to do ours. I’ve waited a very long time for this.”

     “Sounds like youse two was followin’ his career pretty close.” Stan kept a close eye on the road. When you drove down dirt roads in the back country, all land-marks start to look exactly the alike, eventually. It wasn’t just likely Stan would overshoot the site, it was practically guaranteed.

     The cabin in question was at the end of an all-day drive. Well, an all-day drive for normal people and maybe half a day for Sam. The cabin was made of pieces of wood clearly not intended to be used together had been crammed into some approximation of walls with a ceiling. No wall had any consistent coloring and many large chunks of the wall facing them when they arrived seemed to have been made from other walls made by other, more talented carpenters. Sam’s bike was already there and the door to the cabin had been carefully smashed into tiny pieces as was her usual mode of operations. Start punching first while asking questions without really caring about the answers or even whether the questions made any sense or not.

     Jack hopped out of the car and went around to the back of the van, watching it shift as Stan got out as well. Opening the door, he found his own bag of tools and slung it over his shoulder. The bag was as tall as he was, a thin cylinder of black leather that held his most precious tools. He rarely used them these days given who he received them from, but this was a rare occasion indeed. Without checking on Stan, he strode into the cabin and looked around. It was all one room and much like the outside of the cabin, every item of furniture looked as though it had been scavenged from the dump and patched up with other things taken from other dumps. Jack spotted chair with a couch cushion for a back and a pillow for a seat. A seat that wriggled slightly upon closer inspection. Oh right, the bug guy. There would be bugs everywhere.

     It was then that Jack got the impression of being watched by many, many tiny eyes. Stan stood in the doorway, struggling to navigate the small doorway without knocking down the whole structure.

     “Stanley?”

      “Yea, boss?”

      Jack carefully unhooked his bag, not moving too fast lest he spook the insects within the wall, “We may have made a terrible mistake.

     Stan put his cigar in his mouth and placed one massive hand on either side of the doorway. Jack barely had time to turn before Stan gave the walls a push. They fell to either side, scattering poisonous insects around onto the floor.

      “Ah, damn.” Jack whipped his broom out of his bag that prompted Stan retreat a few steps. The whole building collapsed in on Jack. With a quick motion, he whirred his broom around his head, cutting through he flimsy materials and killing most of the insects. The remaining pieces of the shed fell to the ground, diced into small ribbons. Jack’s broom had been made specially for him. The head glistened in the dim light. The bristles were made of extremely fine steel, capable of shredding anything they encountered.

    Jack held the broom away from his face, “Give me a little warning next time!” With another slash, he made short work of a few remaining insects.

     “Sorry, boss.”

     Brushing some dust off his face, Jack coughed a few times and steadied himself, “No Stan, I did charge in on my own, that wasn’t very smart. Glory is a bitter dish, after all.”

    Stan nodded solemnly and repeated his boss, “Glorysa’ bitter dish.”

     The walls coming down left the foundations bare and that made the hole in the floor with the descending staircase painfully obvious, “Well, it did have some good effects so we’ll call this one even. I’m not sure if you can fit down there, Stanley, so I’ll keep touch with you via my phone if I need you. My guess is that this place will end up somewhere near the swamp for the purposes of collecting new insects and disposing of past trophies. I’ll go on ahead, you keep in touch.” With that, Jack began the descent into Creepy Bug Guy’s lair and a hunt that was long overdue.

Chapter 7

     Jack descended into the hallway, his bag over his shoulder and his broom held ahead at the ready, when a sudden realization hit him. He was supposed to be cleaning the place that Stan just knocked over in one push. Muttering to himself, Jack grasped at the wall next to him until he found a light switch. Bare bulbs flickered on along an electrical line strung down the length of the hallway. The ground shook and the lightbulbs swayed gently from side to side.

     “I see she started the fun without me.” Jack hurried along the path until it branched out into a room that held more lived in furnishings. If it weren’t for the grisly mountings on the wall the place would have looked relatively harmless. Paranoid, perhaps, but overall mostly harmless. A round table sat in the middle of the room with only one chair next to it. It was set for a meal of some sort, but the food had long ago rotted into something resembling a paste. What was left squirmed with maggots and attracted a whole crowd of flies. Most of the flies in the room were more preoccupied with the trophies on the walls, which Jack had almost missed when he first entered the room.

     There were only two sources of light, one being a hole on the ceiling that led up to the surface and the other being a lamp in the far corner covered with a lily white lampshade that was, impossibly enough, still on. The trophies Creepy Bug Guy had collected were mounted on plaques and a plaque held a spot every three feet or so. Some of them were empty, but most of them had been fitted with little heads wearing Halloween masks. It would have been eerie enough, but Jack could make out the blank stares from the faces beneath that had long ago seen their last sunset. At some point in the past, they appeared to have been sprayed with something to keep them fresh, but nobody had sprayed them in a while and now insect nature took its course.

     The small corner dedicated to the kitchen was filled with a mess that Creepy Bug Guy had left and never cleaned up. Maybe he was dead? After all, the man had been working when Jack and his sister were children. There are days where time is a kindness and not a curse. A small bed in the far corner was the only other piece of furniture in the room. Directly to the left of the door, the whole wall from ceiling to floor was made up of insect cages. They made a humming wall of pets, thousands of long pent up insects, excited by the smell of human flesh and the series of rusty blades hanging along the ceiling that were in dire need of cleaning and a fire to melt down the metal.

     Three doorways led to other rooms and Jack decided it was best to explore both for his own safety and because the thought of staying in this room any longer made him feel slightly queasy. Not knowing which way his sister had gone, Jack closed his eyes and let the smells in the room hit him. It took him a few minutes before he located the scent he was looking for, leather and Lucky Strikes. The path to the left. The lights led him to another set of stairs and those stairs brought him up to another shed in equal disrepair.

     Jack’s sister was sitting next to the door, lighter in hand and cigarette drooping from her mouth, “So do you want the bad news first or the good news?”

     “I’m a bad news first kind of guy.”

     “Creepy Bug Guy is dead…I think.”

     Jack put his bag down and leaned it against the wall, resting his broom over his shoulder and sitting down on the other side of the door, “You think? He clearly hasn’t been home in months and there’s no way he would leave his pets and his trophies here. I admit, losing out on the chance to kill him ourselves qualifies as bad news, but if he’s gone that’s all that matters. He’s gone from this world, thank whatever God there is for small favors.”

     A roar echoed out from the woods. “Yeah, so here’s the thing. If he’s dead than he left behind a very big pet and if he isn’t dead than he turned into a real creepy bug man, as in an actual human insect. I thought I would wait for you before pursuing it.” Sam caught the blank look Jack was giving her, “Oh, don’t be such a sourpuss. It’ll be just like the old days.”

     Jack rose to his feet and gripped his long canvas bag tightly, “I left the old days behind.”

     Sam rose swiftly to join, “Says the man about to kill a giant bug monster.”

     Jack pushed through the door and moved on without looking back, “Just watch my back.”

     Sam faded to the left and Jack headed straight forward. The trees swayed slightly in the wind, making the leaves rustle and causing the hairs on the back of Jack’s neck to stand on end. After what seemed like an eternity, he reached a clearing with a cabin in the middle of it. A cabin? They must be close to the campground that was near here, likely the reason why the creepy bug guy set up here in the first place.

     At first glance, it was a cabin but on closer inspection it looked to be more of a wash house. One that, judging by the state of the walls, hadn’t been used in a long while, three summers or more. A small trickle of water had leaked out of the front door and vanished into the grass surrounding the building, which had gotten quite tall and uneven. Crossing the clearing he reached out and touched the wood of the cabin. A piece of wood fell away and hit the ground. Jack felt the shift in the air before the blow came. He ducked down and a razor sharp talon rammed into the wall, showering splinters on Jack. Jack whirled around and lashed out with his broom, raking the stomach of his attacker.

     The figure that attacked Jack had the body of a man but the arms that stuck out of the ragged sleeves ended in fly talons. The face was something between human and fly, the eyes had begun to facet but not so much that they had lost the human look that was originally there. The mouth, however, was entirely that of a fly and had long ago lost the ability to speak. The ability to speak seemed moot, since any human intelligence had obviously gone with this new transformation. The wound Jack had left across its stomach didn’t seem to slow it down at all. Thick green liquid seeped out from the deep gashes Jack could see under the tattered remains of the shirt it wore. With stunning strength, the creature brought it’s other talon down into Jack’s shoulder and pressed him to the dirt. Jack grabbed the talon and started to pull it out but the creature rapped Jack on the forehead hard enough to make him dizzy. His vision wobbled as his mind flitted to random things. That fly face is so dirty. When was the last time it was cleaned? The sky seems so far away from here. Somebody had lied to his sister about what exactly to expect on this job or she would have brought more people. Jack’s hand slipped from the fly claw as he struggled to focus. Time slowed as the first talon popped out of the wall, sending a shower of splinters to the ground. Cheap wood, we can do better.

     The talon started its descent and Jack closed his eyes tightly only to open them in shock when he heard a hollow thunking noise. Above him, planted squarely into the killers chest was a familiar croquet mallet, “I will never complain about what you do with your money ever again. “

     Stan gave the creature a kick to encourage it to move. The kick ended up sending it careening across the small field and into a tree. Jack ripped his jacket off and tossed it to the side. Clearly, a new suit was in order. Ripping his shirt sleeve off, he used it to tie off the arm at the shoulder while Stan watched over him, keeping an eye on the downed foe. The Stan’s mallet blow seemed to have dazed it, but it hadn’t cracked its skull and Jack had the impression that Stan had not held back.

     “And where did my loving sister go!?” Sam hadn’t been seen for some time. The former killer known to the siblings as Creepy Bug Guy struggled up to a sitting position, wobbly on legs that weren’t used to carrying that amount of weight in those proportions. Getting up to its feet seemed to take a lot of concentration, perhaps the blow Stan had given it had rattled it after all. Once the creature had its feet again, it charged in a rage, aiming its talons for both Jack and Stan.

     Then Sam finally showed herself. It all happened in an instant. There was a blur of motion and the flash of a blade before the killer fell to his knees and hit the ground face first right in front of Jack. “I’ve seen you looking worse.” Sam twirled a blade in her fingers idly, “The old you wasn’t this sloppy.”

      Jack got up as quickly as he could manage, “The old me was better informed! We were supposed to be hunting a man older than father with no special abilities, not Flyzilla over here. What the hell did he even do to himself to get like that?”

     Sam shrugged apologetically as if she knew nothing about it. Her jacket crinkled slightly with her movements. “Creepy Bug Guy ran across some old tech, apparently. My job was to track him down and make sure he stays down. I thought I would bring you along for back up and fun.”

     “For fun?” The wind suddenly died down, leaving a deathly calm in the air. “You knew this,” Jack pointed behind him at the ruined latrine, “and this,” Jack held up his ruined shirt sleeve, “would happen and you didn’t think that maybe it would be a good idea to tell me what was going on?”

     “Calm down, little brother. It’s just a shirt. Besides, I’ve got the big book of sealing. We put him in there and nobody else gets hurt.” Sam tugged out a small leather-bound book with some effort from the pocket of her jeans.

     “No. You got me involved in this shitty job, so we’re doing it my way. Besides, Mr. serial killer here won’t sit still long enough for you to seal him anyways.” Jack reached into his bag and dropped the broom from his free hand.  The metallic bristles hit the ground with a loud clanking sound. From the bag, he pulled what appeared to be a simple mop. Jack turned to Stan, “Did you bring The Bag with you?”

     Stan started backing away slowly before bumping into the wall, “Yeah,”

     “Bring it here. We’ll keep Creepy Bug Guy entertained until you get back. I’ll give you around three minutes before I start docking your pay.” Jack tightened his makeshift tourniquet around his shoulder before stretching his arm a bit. Dropping the mop, he held up his empty hands. That mop was a last resort, Jack wouldn’t use it until he needed to.

     Stan was never a runner at the worst of times, but he shambled off as fast as his large legs could carry him.

     Sam patted her brothers back hard, causing him to wince a bit, “I thought you said you were retired. You’re a cleaner right?”

     Jack checked both of his arms and cracked his knuckles, “I’m making an exception for him. And after we’re done, you’re helping me clean up and fix what’s left of the underground tunnel.” The expression on his sister’s face was payment enough for the pain in Jack’s shoulder.

Chapter 8

     At a younger age, Jack would have been proud to stand with his family. The family motto that had been handed down from generation to generation of Goodbody’s, all the way back to their founding father, would not allow it. The motto “Truly Alive” had come in one of those fortuitous moments that history bestows to those she favors, said with little thought for the consequences or those that followed that path. To be truly alive a Goodbody had to follow their heart, no matter where it led. It also meant that a Goodbody could not allow anything that stopped him from being truly alive to exist in his life and that included family. Jack wiped the sweat away from his brow, warily keeping his eye on their opponent the whole time, “This is why I don’t normally let you draw me into these things. You and our whole blasted family, trying to clean a world that creates monsters like this.”

     Sam circled to her left, drawing the attention of their target who clearly viewed her as the more imminent threat. “Preach to me about how I’m such a bad girl after we kill the mean man.”

    Their opponent wheeled and slowly started for Sam, walking with measured determined steps. Gritting his teeth, Jack trailed behind them, allowing the familiar sensations to sweep over him. That measured tread of their opponent, its talons held out carelessly before him. This was a predator unused to having his prey bare their teeth at him. That was why he would fail, because for the first time he was the prey. Moving with a speed that caught both of them off guard, the killer lunged at Sam, barely missing her as she skipped to the side. Closing the distance in a flash, Jack brought his foot up sharply into the side of the towering figure’s knee, using all his strength. Again, the speed of the talon turning its arc to seek Jack’s head caught them both off guard. Jack swayed lightly to the side, letting the blade pass near his face.

     As he swayed, the edge of the talon caught his glasses, clipping them and sending them flying into the mud. The talon rose high again, coming crashing down towards him. Jack stepped further to the side, putting some distance between him and his attacker even as the talon swerved further out of its intended arc. Sam had shot forward in that split second and sliced the same side of their attacker’s knee before hopping back out of range again. The problem with unstoppable killing machines like this one was that they seemed to feel no pain. At first thought, that seems absolutely terrifying but this apparent invulnerability came with an inherent weakness. The damage to that knee would slow him down regardless of whether he noticed it or not, and slowing him down was all Jack and his sister needed to do.

     For the first time since the fight began, their assailant began to slow. His face slowly turned from one side to the other as Jack and his sister managed to stay on opposite sides of him. Jack finally had the time to pay attention to the appearance of the thing that had tried to gore him with a machete only minutes before. The clothes he was wearing were worn to the point of being threadbare. The transformation was only halfway through, but it was clear that it had been going on for a long time. Random spines shot out through what was left of the shirt. Clearly, something had happened to this killer that had sent him into deep hiding. It seems he had never been able to figure out a cure, or maybe he had never even looked for one. A sudden wind burst through the opening to the field, sending dead leaves blowing past all three of them. It seemed that their interloper had seen enough of this campsite and craved the familiarity of old hunting grounds. Without turning towards either sibling, he set out for the edge of the clearing not slowing down or changing his route in the slightest.

     “Ah, shit! He’s buggering out, little brother. We have to stop him or I don’t get paid.” Sam sprinted to the edge of the clearing, digging in her feet and raising her own slim dagger up defiantly. The bug creature slowed to a stop and seemed to cock his head in confusion. Jack found his place behind their opponent again, reminding himself silently of the other reason he had quit this line of work. No paycheck was worth this amount of overtime.

     When Jack and his sister had fought against things like this before, it had always led to a quick fight. Unlike more human opponents, their monstrous friend wasn’t interested in bargaining. He no longer had human desires that could be used to sway him off and he had no specific goals that be used to bribe or distract him. It all came down to those opening moments of the fight when their opponent was still able to move freely. Those moments were the ones which decided whether their opponent would escape to fight another day or die.

     The bug creature made a snap decision in its newfound desperation. Why choose fight or flight when you can do both at the same time? Surging forward into a rumbling dash, the creature headed for the woods and to the safety of distance from these hunters which didn’t run from him. Sam ran to meet him, leaping into the air and throwing her whole weight into a desperate stab at the creature. Her blade pierced its exoskeleton, but the bug creatures momentum carried Sam along with it and tossed her to the ground. The creature continued forward a few more paces before tumbling to the ground, rolling over a few times before grinding to a halt.

     Sam held up her knife and slowly circled the creature again. As it had passed her, from where she lay on the ground, she had managed to cut a leg and send the creature falling to the ground. The creature rose again as well, still struggling towards the edge of the clearing, flailing its sharp talons around to stop anything from getting too close to it. The situation had gotten out of hand. The only thing left to do was end it.

     As the bug creature debated his options internally, still whirring its claws in all directions, Stan came back into the clearing on the opposite side, panting heavily. “I got the bag. You sure you wanna use them things?” The mop still stood in the ground, with its head hanging loose in the air.”

     “No, not really. I don’t want to risk him getting away, though. I’ll bear the burden.” Jack sprinted across the field and pulled the mop from the ground, giving it a quick spin to test the weight. It had been a very long time.

     Sam’s eyes grew wide with panic when she saw him wielding the mop, somehow seeing him actually hold it made things far more serious, “Wait, that’s your secret plan!? I want to get paid when this is over. Jack, I swear if you use that thing I’ll…”

     “You’ll what? You brought me into this and I will finish it.” In appearance, Jack’s mop was simple. Just a mop with a wooden handle and a mop head for cleaning. But somehow the mop head was already damp. Jack swung it gently through the air, letting a few drops fall off and touch the ground. Anything those drops of water touched, be it grass or dirt simply vanished as though it had never existed, taking the water with it. Jack blurred into motion, swinging the mop around and taking it through their assailant’s arm at the elbow. The mop struck through cleanly and the lower part of his arm hit the ground, still twitching slightly.

     Fear. Even though Jack couldn’t see any other emotion  in his eyes Jack could see the fear. It was a foreign experience to this thing standing in front of him. New and alien, it was a sensation this creature couldn’t even begin to understand, though he had seen it many times himself. Jack would not give him the time. Sweeping his mop back around, Jack brought it down through his thighs, erasing them and cutting off his escape. The killer fell forward onto the ground, raising himself up as best he could. Jack raised the mop above his head, looking down on his attempted murderer. “I wish nobody ever had to learn your name. I wish you had never been inflicted on this world and you deserve all the horrible things that happened to you. When I’m done though, nobody will remember it anyway.” Bringing the mop down, he cut straight through the middle before mopping up those bits that had escaped him the first time. Cleaning was the ultimate fight of good against evil.

     Sam waited until Jack had put the mop back into the leather bag before running over and grabbing his collar, jerking him close and not letting him go, “How can I get paid for killing a monster that nobody will even remember? This wasn’t part of our deal, little brother.”

     Jack brushed her arms aside, pointing to the ripped shirt sleeve around the wound he had received, staunching the blood a bit. “This wasn’t either. If you had been more honest with me and told me everything you knew, then we wouldn’t be in this mess. But now, in payment for my injuries and my ruined suit you are going to help Stan and myself bury the remains and finish cleaning this place.”

     “Whatever.” Sam brushed past Jack, bumping her shoulder into his injured side as she passed him. “What do you need me to do?”

     “I need wood. Lots of wood. Stan and I can take care of the rest of it ourselves.”

      Jack was about to leave the clearing when a small glint of metal caught his eyes. It lay in the grass where creepy bug guy had been wiped out of existence. Jack leaned over and plucked it up. It was a small metal cylinder that looked old. The entire outside was covered in arcane writing that Jack couldn’t even begin to read. In the center of the cylinder there was a raised surface with one word on it. Flemel. Jack tucked it into his vest pocket and turned back to the tunnel entrance.

      It would be two more days, working day and night, before the rest of the lair was cleaned out and the bodies were laid to rest in Jack’s endless Bag. The wood that Sam gathered went into either fixing up the various sheds around the sizable property or shoring up the tunnels and replacing boards that had been used for unsavory things. At first, Sam objected to all the work and wanted to simply board up the whole place so nobody could get in, but,as Jack pointed out, it never hurt to have a place to lay low that almost nobody knew about. In those few short days, everyone who had ever met that walking terror or knew one of his victims would have forgotten he ever existed. Even Sam was having a hard time remembering what exactly she had been so mad about mere days before. Though the days seemed to pass slowly before either Jack or Sam were ready to admit it, it was time for them to part ways again.

     Before he had been turned into a giant creepy bug monster, Boris Orlovski had made his home in what could charitably be called a swamp. Jack considered it to be more of a blight on the land comprised of slime and a water park for nasty insects, but it was very close to a summer camp that had another special guest each year. A serial killer that, according to the stories, had once been a camper at that very location. It was a clichéd tale but Jack couldn’t find Sam anywhere and so that meant she was at the one place where the kid would likely surface before they left. That’s where he found her, sitting on a dock and skipping stones over a lake surface that shimmered a rainbow of stagnation and industrial run off in the morning light.

     “There’s no real challenge to skipping rocks if you’re basically skipping them on waste run off from chemical plants that is about as solid as concrete, Sam.” Jack called out as he walked along the dock carefully. A dock that had been sitting in this water could give in at any moment.

     “Shut up.” Sam slumped forward and grabbed another stone from a small pile she had next to her, tossing it up in the air idly.

     Jack sat down next to her and absently tugged at his tie. The wind blew through the tree tops and ran over the lake, blowing small ripples through what water could be seen. “I’m sorry I took your money from you. There’s no way they’ll pay you for killing something that never existed.”

     Sam laughed once, “You killed it anyways, Mr. Cleaner. I never do the heavy lifting. Not if…” she trailed off and leaned into Jack, “Why don’t you come home? Things have been really weird since you left. I’m not even sure what Father does anymore.”

     Jack stared down at his reflection in the lake. It was slightly oily and looked more like a mirror than clear water. “I left for my own reasons. You tried to stop me then too, as I recall.” Jack grabbed a stone from the pile and skipped it as hard as he could. It went across the whole lake and landed on the forest floor across from them.

     “I did. You shouldn’t have left. The jobs keep getting harder and harder.” Sam skipped the stone that she had in her hand, landing it right next to Jack’s.

     “There will always be another, bigger job to Father.” Jack snagged another rock. “I think you should leave too. Before it really gets out of hand. Even as a cleaner I can see it. There’s more and more of this darkness every year, and whatever happened to Boris I don’t think even he deserved that. How many changes have there been like Creepy Bug Guy? That’s unheard of, even in your line of work.”

     Sam nodded and sat back up straight. “It used to be your line of work too, little brother.” She shot him a quick glance. “But for now, let me just enjoy some quiet time with you, Jack.”

     Jack nodded contemplatively as he skipped another rock. The sun beamed down on their shoulders, warming them through the occasional bursts of wind that came down across the lake. They kept skipping stones when suddenly there was a loud splashing noise. The poor kid who normally haunted this camp surfaced just into time to get caught in the forehead with a rock the size of a small, flat baseball. He went down as quickly as the rock that hit him.

    Sam stood up quickly, wiping off her boots. “My work here is done. See you next summer, little brother?”

    Jack slowly stood up, “Not unless I’m really unfortunate with my work schedule.”

     “I hope it is,” Sam stopped at the head of the trail and looked over her shoulder at Jack, “You always freak out when I get one of your suits ruined.” With that declaration made, Sam dashed off for her bike, leaving Jack standing on the docks.

     The statement sank in. “Will I never be rid of that sister of mine?” Looking up, he dashed after her, yelling at the top of his lungs, “You’re paying for my repair and dry cleaning! And if it can’t be fixed up, you’re buying me another!”

Chapter 9

     The trip to kill Creepy Bug Guy left Jack exhausted and traumatized at the loss of his suit. As the rest of the week dragged on after their return from the job, Jack found himself increasingly contemplating the nature of his work. There are two kinds of fighters in this world. There are those who fight for peace, a respite from conflict, and those for whom that very respite is a call to arms. Jack shifted slightly from his spot on the couch, mentally cursing his mortal enemy, the office phone. Ring, you damned phone. “Ring or I will disconnect you.” The early summer heat wave that had hit the small town was apparently not leaving anytime soon and Jack could barely work up the energy to stay awake, watching the smoke from his partner’s seemingly ever-present cigar curl up near the ceiling fan, adding to the fog already starting to form around the ceiling.

      Jack pulled idly at his new suit, a deep navy blue with gold pin stripes. His previous good cleaning suit had been so ripped to pieces that when they took it a tailor, she started laughing before he could even finish requesting repairs. He and Stan had given it a Viking funeral, burning it in the parking lot before settling into the doldrums. When he closed his eyes, Jack could still see the flames licking up the contours of the grey vest. He sighed. An unusually slow start to the summer cleaning season meant plenty of time on the couch.

     Suddenly, a soft ringing noise filtered in through Jack’s thoughts. It took Jack a full minute to realize it wasn’t simply in his head and by the time he managed to force himself up, the phone had stopped ringing. “Wonderful. Our first client in days and I didn’t make it to the phone on time.”

    Stan turned over on the couch, his mountainous shoulder like a rolling hill, as he stopped short of the cigar burning the couch, “Thems people’ll call back. Who else cleans them places but us?”

     Jack nodded absently, eyeing the phone as if daring it to ring again while he was standing there. Surprisingly, the phone obliged. Jack picked up the phone as quickly as he could manage, “Hello, Jack and Stan Cleaning services, the skeletons in your closet are our specialty with no questions asked.”

     “Oh, so you do exist.” The voice on the other side of the phone sounded slightly bemused, as though he had seriously thought someone was putting him on when he was told about the place.

     “Yes.” Jack had already mentally resigned himself to not getting any business out of this conversation. Most people who needed his services had known about them for years. A large part of Jack’s regular clientele were both seasonal and regular.

    “Good, I have a Doctor’s office, private practice you see, around five streets away from your office.” The doctor paused to loudly shuffle through some papers before continuing, “Anyways, there was a problem with a recent client in my examining room. He sort of leaked fluids all over the place and I need it cleaned up so my patients don’t get scared.”

     Jack grabbed a pad of paper from his desk and searched through a drawer for a pen, “And what kind of liquids are we talking about here? Blood, urine…other?”

     “If you can imagine it coming out of a human body, it’s on my walls and floor right now. Also, some chunky yellow stuff that I’m not even sure about.”

      “We can take care of it right away, I’ll just need your name and address.” Jack scribbled away frantically as he talked, writing down a list of cleaning supplies needed for the problem. As he wrote, Jack heard the creaking and groaning sound of the couch struggling to handle the weight of Stan getting onto his feet. Jack held the pad of paper up for his partner to see while he listened to his new client’s response.

     The doctor on the other side of the line paused, as though he hadn’t expected this announcement. There was a very long silence and long metallic scraping noise before the doctor responded. “Dr. Lightning. Yes, that will do nicely. Dr. Lighting and my office is at 34 Chestnut Street.”

     Jack had to resist the urge to laugh, “Dr. Lighting,” as he said this, thunder crackled in the background, “At 34 Chestnut Street. We can be over today, if you like. We have no other jobs right now so we can make this a rush order.”

     The doctor on the other end of the line sounded quite pleased, “That would be wonderful, my practice has been on hiatus for a few days, but I must admit this is more than I can handle. Can you be here around two in the afternoon?”

     Jack looked up at the clock. 12:30pm. “We can be there by two, yes.” The line suddenly went dead, leaving him listening to nothing. Jack carefully set the phone down on the receiver and stretched, letting himself finally enjoy the feeling of the new suit. “We have work, Stan. Some Doctor who apparently doesn’t understand the concept of subtle pseudonyms and calls himself “Dr. Lightning.” As he said that, thunder sounded in the distance, louder and closer this time.”

     “That ain’t gonnna happen every time you say Dr. Lighting…” Stan trailed off as the thunder echoed his name.

     “Apparently. Our client said he had a patient that…leaked as he put it. We’ll need to get the carpet cleaning stuff and also the usual implements for a bodily explosion.” Jack scribbled a few more notes on his pad before ripping off the another piece of paper, “He’s a local boy, so we don’t have to hurry.”

     Stan rolled his cigar to the other side of his mouth and took a sizeable puff, “I’ll grab them supplies and get the van ready. You ok?” Stan had been there at the funeral for his employer’s favorite suit. Odd quirk though it may have been, a new suit meant Jack would be off his game.

     Jack ran his fingers over his new suit, “I’ll be fine, this suit is growing on me. I might even make it my new favorite suit after today.” Stan shambled over to grab some supplies and head down the stairs as Jack put away his own “Special Cases” cleaning bag. The bag clinked gently when he set it in the lone closet in the corner that was dedicated to just his cleaning supplies. “No need to steal anyone else’s memories or existence.” Stepping over to the window, he looked down at their pristine white van being moved to the front of the building. Local business couldn’t hurt. Most of the time their jobs had them driving fairly long distances, and this would make things far easier.

     Once Stan had loaded up all the supplies he stepped into the van, getting a chuckle out of Jack as he watched the entire van lift off the ground to the left side, almost lifting the wheels off the ground. The horn honked twice. Time to get a move on, this place won’t clean itself.

Chapter 10

     The ride to 34 Chestnut Street was a short one, but the breeze through the windows provided some much needed respite from the heat. The street itself looked like it came straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The sound of a lawnmower at the end of the block gave the whole area a feeling of home that Jack couldn’t shake no matter how hard he tried. The house itself had two stories It was a short squat little white house that seemed to radiate wholesomeness. The flowerbeds out front were arranged with the painstaking care one uses when they wish to give off the impression that no care was given at all. Jack surveyed the house approvingly. Not a speck of paint was peeling, the grass was mowed and even the window decorations were at the perfect angle and placement. “So this is the house of our Dr. Lightni…our client.” Thunder started to crackle in the distance before sputtering to and indignant stop and then roaring defiantly anyways.

     “That lightning gonna do that every time?” As Stan spoke, the thunders echoed again.

     As Jack and Stan stood in the driveway, the front door of the property opened and the good doctor himself stepped out to greet them. He was wearing a simple tweed jacket and grey slacks. A black stethoscope was snaked around his neck and he held a legal pad in his left hand. “You arrived right on time, Mr. Goodbody. I’m glad because there may be quite a bit more of a mess than you realize.” The doctor had a sort of sing song voice that made one feel at ease as soon as they heard it. It was the perfect voice for a doctor, who needed to build rapport and trust with his patients, especially when one of them recently “leaked” as the doctor put it, in his office.

     “I aim to be punctual.” Jack grabbed some of the supplies from the back of the van and made his way to the door, extending a hand for the doctor to shake.

     The doctor looked down at his hand as though he was unfamiliar with this concept of shaking hands upon meeting then took his hand in a firm grasp, “Well, if you will come this way I will show you to the problem room.” The house itself, much like the outside, was tidy to the point of perfection. Not a speck of dirt graced any flat surface in the whole of the downstairs living room. The practice was an entirely different matter. The examining table was coated in a thick black substance that had solidified and dripped down onto the floor in many places. The doctor had used the word leak, but the walls and ceiling were covered with all sorts of various colors, looking as though his recent patient had burst from the inside and then nobody had come into the room for a period of weeks.

     “This is a good deal more than I had expected. This will be an all day job.”

     The doctor looked impressed, “I had figured you would need at least a day or two to get this done. Shall we discuss fees now or later?”

     “Later,” Jack quickly set his tools down and got to work, testing how hard the various stains were and how thick, “I won’t know how to charge you until I’ve seen the extent of the damage to the office.”

     “That sounds fair, “The doctor stepped to the side to let Stan in past him, “I’ll be in my study getting some work done if you have any questions.”

     Jack grunted a non-reply, already absorbed in his work, and pressed his finger to the side of one wall. Some of the caked on material came away with his finger in a gooey mess but some of it flaked away to the ground. Pulling out a handkerchief, he wiped his finger off and examined the wall again. Some of the stains hadn’t even moved, remaining caked on. The doctor excused himself and left them to their work.

     Stan took out a rag and dumped some cleaning fluid on it, “Why don’t you use the mop on them stains?” Pressing the rag into the wall, he began the long and arduous process of wiping off the first layer of grime.

     “Because these were people once. If I used the mop it would erase them from everyone’s memories, and this is all that’s left of them.” Jack went over the examination table and looked it over carefully, following the stains down to the carpeted floor.

     Stan chuckled, making a low rumbling sound, “So you do have some’a them good natured ideas.”

     Jack shook his head quickly, taking off his jacket and searching for a remotely clean place to hang it, “Also, if I use the mop, we get paid for around five minutes of work and that’s a waste of our time.”

    Moving along the wall, Stan used a cloth and cleaning fluid, working off the first and newest layer of grime as best he could, “You figure Dr. Lightning killed all them people?” The thunder sounded off in the distance, but was entirely ignored.

     Jack shrugged noncommittally, “It doesn’t matter to me if he did. All that matters to me is that he pays me when this is all over. I’ll be right back, Stan. I’m going to grab some water from a sink so we can make this move along a little faster.

     Jack excused himself and, with a bucket, headed for the general direction in which he thought the kitchen might lie. On the way, he passed the study. A whole wall of books faced the door, mostly old and tattered looking texts with obscure titles, half of which weren’t in English. The doctor was sitting at his desk, pouring over some notes of his. He seemed so wrapped up in his work that he didn’t even notice Jack pass by with the bucket, either going to the kitchen or coming back from it. By the time Jack got back, Stan had moved a little ways down the wall, but this was surely going to be a very long day. Unfortunately for Jack and Stan they had no idea how long this day would be. In the world of paranormal cleaners, more than being almost killed, the most harrowing experience is having a client who feels the need to second guess every choice you make from your cleaning implements all the way down to the way you clean. Back in his office, the doctor lifted his head and sniffed. That is not a cleaner he used in this house. Words would be had over this.

Chapter 11

     In another world on another day Jack and Dr. Lightning might have become good friends. They shared a love of order and cleanliness that bordered on a diagnosis of some sort. In this world, today, it was what made their clash inevitable. The smell of lemon scented cleaner came creeping down the hall, mixed with the faint scent of Miss Smith, his last patient that had exploded in that room. Sighing in annoyance and putting his notes down, Dr. Lightning got up and pushed his chair back.

     Down the hall, Jack was starting in on the second layer of caked on people. The first layer on the walls had been the easy part, only requiring an hour or so of work before it was done, sealed in buckets, and out the door to the back of the van. The second layer was proving more difficult. Jack was interrupted from his reverie when he heard a knocking at the door. Dr. Lighting stood in the doorway, somehow ominous despite his harmless looking attire, “Might I ask you a question, Mr. Goodbody?”

     Jack stood up and dropped the cloth he was using into the current bucket, “Certainly Dr. Lightning…” Jack trailed off as thunder sounded loudly and near enough to make all three of them jump. The house shivered slightly when Stan hit the ground again.

     “Has that been happening every time you said my name?” Dr. Lighting trailed off, looking around the office. Such progress and in such a short amount of time. He had been a fool not to hire them sooner.

     “Pretty much without fail. I was wondering if perhaps you could tell us your real name so we could…”

     “Anyways, I note with some displeasure that you are using lemon scented cleaners in my consulting room.”

     Jack cocked his head, raising a brow slightly at the question, “Well yes. The scent does mimic the sort of smell you get in a hospital, and once the blood is gone I’m sure it will help to boost patient confidence in your abilities, Dr. Lighting.” The thunder roared again, but neither the Doctor nor Jack reacted in the slightest this time.

     “I find your care for my patients…touching.” The doctor hesitated, looking at the walls again as though searching for the most diplomatic phrase he could, “But the smell of your cleaning supplies clashes with the smell of my own cleaning supplies and I find the battle most inconvenient for my research.”

     Jack’s left eyebrow twitched, “I can come back once the cleaning is done and get rid of the scent by using whatever brand you use to give it a once over.”

     Doctor Lightning nodded, looking around again at the progress, “And what have you been doing with the remains? I mean the stains…stains on the wall.”

     “I’ve been putting them in buckets and taking them out to the van. We’ll bury them at the usual place before I can consider this job wrapped up.”

     Doctor Lightning adjusted his glasses, huffing gently, “I must insist that you take them to the backyard and let me handle them myself. I still need to test them for results.” With that, before Jack could respond one way or another, Dr. Lightning left the room as suddenly as he had come.

     Jack clenched his left hand tight enough to break the scrubbing brush in his hand, “Who the hell does that bastard think he is?” Stan backed away from him slowly, getting back to work on the walls, suddenly very grateful that they hadn’t brought the mop along with them after all.

     The rest of the afternoon was slow work with only a few more interruptions from the doctor to complain about various inconveniences that the war of scents was causing in the house. Dr. Lighting complained about how his tea tasted of lemon and toilet bowl cleaners. Off brand cleaners. He was getting a headache that felt like lemons were copulating in his brain and this made research quite impossible. Every complaint grew more and more forceful until Jack could barely keep his temper in check.

     The sun had started to sink behind the row of houses across the street and the street lamps slowly flickered on in a row down the road. The walls sparkled as though they had never been introduced to the liquid remains of what must have been a sizable chunk of Dr. Lightning’s client base. Jack had been around long enough to know that, much like the Phoenix, Dr. Lightning’s list of clients would come back stronger than ever. This is what a shortage of qualified doctors does to people.

     With the cleaning done and the resulting filth in dozens of buckets, Jack went to find Dr. Lightning and discuss the final details of his cleaning request, as petty and unneeded as they were. Complaining about the cleaning scent was akin to hiring a painter and giving them no directions and then asking them to paint your house again, using an entirely different coat of paint which the painters would have to pay for out of pocket. That sounded like something Dr. Lightning would do too.

     Jack fumed all the way down the hallway to the doctor’s office only to find it empty. His desk lamp was on, but the room’s overhead lights were off. Jack flipped the switch and made his way over to the desk. Had the doctor simply left them here to finish up? There was no evidence of a struggle and no other way to leave the house. At least, none that Jack could see. The rhythmic thumping down the hall told Jack that Stan was coming closer. Eventually, he inched his massive frame through the door, having to duck a little bit.

     “Them buckets is out front. Where’s Dr. Lightning?” Thunder crackled in the background, albeit softly as though it was just as confused by the sudden disappearance of Dr. Lightning as they were.

     “I don’t know, but I’m not accustomed to letting people skip out on bills. He owes us around seven or eight hours of work and he’s going to pay us.” Jack scanned the wall of books on one side of the room. With a horrible name like Dr. Lightning, Jack assumed he also had some sort of secret underground lair. People who come up with horrible pseudonyms often have secret underground lairs, they’re just weird like that. Out of the corner of his eye, Jack caught a glimpse of a newspaper on the desk. It was quite old, at least a decade or so.

     The headline detailed the results of a horrific killing spree around a camp at a place called Silver Lake. That name pulled Jack out of his reverie and he went in for a closer inspection. Underneath the paper was a sheaf of files marked, “Silver Lake Project.” Later, Jack picked up both the paper and the files tossing them over to Stan who caught them with one hand. “Take those to the car, I’m going to find our employer and make him cough up a check.

     Stan nodded placidly and headed out to the van to hide away the files. Jack turned to the wall of books. With a name like Dr. Lightning, the book he would have to pull in order to get the door to open would be blisteringly obvious too. After mere seconds of scanning the shelves, Jack focused on the one that stuck out to him. Paradise Lost. As he had expected, a whole section of the wall pulled back to reveal a passage heading down under the house. What Jack could not expect was what he would find there.

    The greatest myth of suburbia is a thing called normality. When you peruse the endless list of horror titles written in the last decade or so the reader always reacts with apparent shock to the depravity that can exist in your average neighborhood, hiding behind clean white picket fences and manicured lawns as though such a thing as normality existed anymore. Jack, for one, was certainly grateful that it did not or he would be out of a job. Take this hallway down to an underground lair which likely featured a lab where Doctor Ligh…the client likely sinned against God and nature by performing horrible experiments. It smelled heavily of pine cleaner and the walls had a fresh coat of paint that had been applied in the last couple of weeks. It was well lit and ventilated, with clear directions to the various chambers of horrors printed in neat lettering on signs one might expect to find in a local hospital.

     “If only all mad doctors and scientists were so thoughtful.” Jack mused aloud as he read the listing of rooms on the wall. The hallway formed a fork, heading in two different directions. One lead to the office and the other one lead to the lab. Jack thought back to the office and the state he had found it in, struggling to get inside the doctor’s head. They were quite similar in many ways, but pine scented cleaner? Why don’t we just hang a car air freshener in the room and call it a day?

     Shuddering, Jack gave up attempting to understand the doctor and decided to start with the lab. Even if the doctor wasn’t there to greet him, likely there would be something worth stealing. Also, Jack still found himself concerned with the newspaper and the file. A client using a pseudonym was nothing new to Jack, even if this one was slightly more inept than usual. The newspaper was slightly more unsettling. Silver Lake, the place where Jack had spent the last couple of days cleaning, had more than its fair share of killers to go around. Between Creepy Bug Guy and the drowned brat, the nearby campground ended up in the newspaper more often than most politicians and had quite the death toll which added up over the years. As Jack’s father would say, when two or more coincidences come together then clearly you are not asking the right questions.

     The lab showed signs of being hurriedly cleaned out. All the files lay in a jumbled pile in the middle of the room, burning and leaving a cloud of smoke gathering around the ceiling. More disturbing were the cages on the far side of the room, all of which had recently been occupied but no evidence of their occupants remained. The doors swung back and forth loosely, oiled hinges working as well as Jack expected all the doctor’s equipment did. Nothing left. Not a scrap of evidence, not any mad experiments gone horribly wrong. It was all terribly boring, and the pine scent had begun to weasel its way into Jack’s head, making it ache slightly. On the way out, Jack stopped and looked down the other corridor towards the office. The door was still locked solidly and there was no smoke coming up from under the door.

     There were a lot of questions that required answering, but this was not his job anymore. That wasn’t to say that he didn’t want to track down the doctor. He owed him pay for a day’s work after all. The file labeled “Silver Lake Project” worried him, however, and it had been a long time since he had gone home. Maybe it was time to pay his father a visit. Bring the file, collect a finder’s fee. Doing more than that would be taking a step back into his old life, and taking what he had found to his father was already skirting too close for comfort to Jack’s family.

     By the time Jack got back to the office on the main floor Stan was there waiting for him. With a mop over his shoulder, Stan sat on the desk which bowed slightly under his weight. He had pulled out and lit a fresh cigar. The cigar smoke had already permeated most of the room and no amount of cleaning was ever going to get every trace of it out. Under most circumstances, Jack would have been annoyed but given their current client he let it slide. Certainly he preferred the familiar smell of Stan’s cheap cigars to the smell of that abominable pine scent. If forests were evil, they would be evil pine forests.

     Stan stood up and took another long puff of his cigar, “So the doctor left the building?” He almost sounded hopeful as he said it.

     “So it would seem.” Jack gathered the papers left on the desk and turned for the door. “You got those buckets in the van? We’re going to need to take them someplace special.”

     Stan paled a bit at this, reaching the conclusion unusually fast, “I don’t wanna go to your home. Thems family members you got is crazy.”

     Jack strode out into the hallway, taking his time and flipping open the folder. The opening twenty pages or so were newspaper clippings of a series of murders. The next twenty pages were reports on the capture by Doctor Lightning of one such murderous monster and attempts to replicate the creature. The documents only got more horrifying from that point on. “I know, and I agree. My family is entirely crazy. But this,” Jack closed the file and waved it in the air, “this is a whole new brand of insanity and my father needs to know about this.”

     Before he left, Jack made sure to shut the hidden passageway and lock the house up, taking all the keys with him. He didn’t have the time or desire to check out the office now, but he would come back later, hopefully before the doctor decided the coast was clear and came scuttling out of wherever he had hidden himself away. Getting back into van, Jack checked to make sure they had room for all the buckets of former people they had collected.

     “We’re charging him overtime for this. So far as I’m concerned, we’re still on the clock right now.” Stan grunted in agreement as he ducked into the van and started her up.

     “Home?” Stan sounded hopeful as he backed out of the driveway, the evening sun glinting off the windows of the quiet white house.

     “Home.” Jack confirmed as he looked out the window, “It’s time to go home and tell father what’s been going on.” Stan gulped visibly, but drove on, headed for the oldest remaining house that belonged to the Goodbody family. It could hardly be called a family estate, since that had actually burned down years before in a tragic accident. This one did have the advantage of being much closer. It also had the disadvantage of being much more personal. Jack opened the folder and looked through the files again, wanting the drive to take as long as possible, but fully knowing that no drive could ever be long enough between him and home.

Chapter 12

    Time, the enemy of all mankind, mocked Jack all the way back to his childhood home. So much time had passed that Jack didn’t even recognize the roads around his house. Time was also all too rapidly fading away before he would have to get out and face the one man that could send shivers down his spine, his father. The road leading to the old Goodbody mansion led out of town and twisted its way around a nearby mountain before passing beyond black, twisted gates and into a private drive that vanished beneath the shadow of massive trees. When Jack had left his home, the road had been much better maintained, but now weeds had begun to spring up from under the pavement and the bushes that lined the way had grown threateningly unkempt.

     Jack leafed through the pages of the folder as their van cruised along the winding roads. The trees had grown thick on either side, cutting off the wind and creating an eerie silence, broken only by the sound of the van and occasional grunts from Stan. After an interminable passage of winding road, the drive forked suddenly to the left and immediately into an enormous black wrought iron fence. Stan slowed down until the gates swung open of their own accord, shrieking out a welcome as they somehow forced themselves to move. On either side of the gates, stone walls disappeared into the woods, which had long ago conquered and made the Goodbody property their own again. Atop the walls immediately next to the gates, two weathered angels stared down the road, their weathered faces set in eternal vigilance.

     “Hey boss, how comes you never cleans your own house? It’s a mess and ain’t it scarier than all reason?”

     Jack shrugged noncommittally, closing the folder and returning his attention to the road ahead of them, “Somehow scarier beyond all reason is far more terrifying when it’s your own house. People laugh when they hear stories about crocodiles found lounging under other people’s beds, but their own bed is a little too close for comfort. Also…” Jack trailed off as they reached his house. At five stories, it loomed above the tree line. The house itself was large enough for the entire Goodbody clan, along with servants and staff. When the founder of their family coined the phrase, “Veraciter Vivimus” he couldn’t possibly have known how profitable following your passions could be.

     Stan parked the van in front of the main entrance to the house. Jack’s old home still had a grand front to it. Two statues of Roman soldiers stood on either side of the main entrance, each holding the other’s arm above the door to create a lintel. Their free hands grasped their swords menacingly. What parts of the house that were painted remained a brilliant white, but the paint itself was peeling in many places and the flakes of paint hadn’t been cleaned up from what was left of the lawn. The windows that covered the front of the house were all decorated in their own unique style, an outward expression of the willful nature their occupants so often possessed. Even though many family members, such as Jack, maintained their own places these windows remained a wildly disparate collection of personal ideals on the tapestry that was the Goodbody home. Half the windows were boarded up, however, and many of the remaining windows were also in poor repair.

     Jack paced his way up to the front door and stopped, taking a deep breath. He had sworn he would never go back, he had taken all his things with him and here he was walking back into this life he had left behind. He put his hand on the door, testing the weight and feel of both it and his own convictions. As Jack pushed tentatively at the door, Stan lumbered up behind him and simply shoved both the doors open. Ducking his way inside, Stan looked around the house he had hoped he would never have to visit again, waiting for Jack to follow.

     Jack had often wondered if smells could do battle. The smell flowing out from the house was one of stagnation and mothballs. Jack stepped gingerly into the house, waiting for the rest of it to hit him. The entrance to the home was hung from wall to wall with trophies of hunts past. The taxidermied body of a were-wolf stood at the base of the stairs, its mouth frozen in a snarling grimace, cursed and haunted paintings. It stood on a thick wooden base that had two small holes in it about a foot apart, as though the base had born a plaque at some point. The hall hadn’t changed since Jack had last visited his home. Stan pulled out a cigar and lit it, taking a long puff before putting his matches away. The smell of his cigar put Jack a bit more at ease before Stan’s grunt of surprise brought him out of his reverie. His cigar had been cut off around an inch from the lit end. That end of the cigar was now resting on a pie server that was embedded in the wall. And here began the trouble.

     “Mister Stanly Whitkins, how many times must I tell you there is no smoking here?” A voice so shrill could only belong to one woman. Madeline, the head maid of the house, had been here since before he was born. Jack had long given up attempting to figure out how old she was, she had appeared roughly the same his entire life. Her maid’s uniform was crisp to the point of being sharp. Her red hair, pressed down neatly, made it appear as though the sunrise were just peeking out from over the top of her head.

     Despite Madeline’s short stature and Stan’s height, he instantly caved, “Sorry, maam. Force’a habit.”

     Madeline ignored him and curtsied to Jack, “Young master Jack, I expect you’ll be here to see your father. He’s upstairs in the study, says he can’t stand the noise down here.”

     Jack looked up the stairs and clutched his folder tightly, “I wonder why that is. I’ll head up to see him. Feed Stan and I’ll be back to collect him shortly.”

     Stan smiled widely as Madeline began to sputter out protests. Feeding Stan was an expensive proposition at the best of times. Jack had already left those petty squabbles behind and started up the stairs. The house seemed quieter than he remembered it being. The Goodbody family used to be a community. The house was more of a place where all the family could meet, than a home in the proper sense. Jack’s footsteps echoed up and down the stairs as he counted down the flights until judgement. One flight, two flights, three flights. The door of the study loomed at the end of the hallway. Around the doorway, a grandfather clock had been roughly carved into the wall. The edges around the etching were smooth, showing the age of the design. The door stood in the middle of the clock and carved into the surface of the door was an ornate hour glass. The sands had mostly run to the bottom of the hour glass. Behind that door sat the old study and his father, both relics of a bygone age that would never come again. Jack took a deep breath and pushed the door open.

Chapter 13

     The Goodbody estate was, like many buildings in this world, many things to many different people. For some, it was a house that represented war and oppression. For others, it was a symbol of hope from a darker time. For Jack, it was a home and a past that was best left forgotten, or at the very least unacknowledged. The old study lay at the heart of all those things, no matter what truth or myth one applied to it. Despite the summer heat, there was a fire roaring in the fire place on the far wall. The curtains were pulled closed and the only other light in the room came from a candle sitting next to an enormous chair. The smooth black leather reflected the light from the fire, metal studs ornamentingthe front of the chair dazzled Jack’s eyes in the darkness and gave the chair a martial appearance.

     The chair, however, met Jack emptied of its usual burden. Jack’s father was nowhere to be seen. He found himself wandering the room and scanning the rows of old dusty books. One in particular caught his eye, seemingly out of place in the dry tomes his father preferred. Jack pulled it out easily, it was a slim volume that had more pictures than sense, but Jack had read it often as a child. “The Five Families of Glory.” A baby’s first primer on those families who lorded it over the world Jack had been born into as though they were royalty and their authority passed down through their very blood. The book’s cover was simple, a circle with the mottos of the five families on the edges.

    Carefully cracking open the book, wincing at the crinkling sound the yellowing pages made, Jack read aloud the lines about the first family, “The Nair family hates to fight. They love peace and hate war. Their motto is, “The first and last.” They are very proud.” Jack flipped the page and chuckled, the Goodbody page had been ripped out of the book. Jack had a good idea as to where it resided now.

      “Still reading children’s books, son?” The voice from the doorway sent a shiver down Jack’s spine. Staying right where he stood, Jack didn’t spare his father a glance until the rhythmic shuffling of his steps had ceased and the chair creaked slightly under his weight. Finally, Jack put the book back and centered the papers in the folder he still had tucked under his arm before walking around to the front of the chair and bowing to his father.

     Varnes sat in the center of the chair, dwarfed by the massive sides and back of the seat, giving Jack the impression he was seeking an audience with a king. He wore a dark grey blanket, wrapped over his head like a cowl, which obscured his features in a darkness that radiated out from him and which the light from the fire and the candle almost seemed to avoid. Yet, when his hands pushed out from under the blanket and gripped the sides of the chair, Jack could easily hear the sides of the chair crack under Varnes’ unnatural strength. This was his father, the venerable Varnes Goodbody, head of the house and a former hunter himself. Former, Jack grunted in annoyance to himself. If time had forgotten his house, surely his father couldn’t say he was so fortunate.

     “The prodigal son returns.” Varnes had a way of whispering, wheezing out every word so that it sounded quiet and yet it filled the room.

     “Yes, Father…” Jack trailed off and shifted awkwardly, looking down at the folder in his hand. Without saying another word, Varnes reached out his left hand and beckoned his son closer. As Jack held the folder to his father, Varnes snatched it out of his hand with a speed that surprised Jack. Time dragged on as Varnes flipped through the folder before carefully placing it on the table next to his chair.

    After another long pause, the hood shifted with Varnes’ gaze back to his son, “What do you make of this?”

     Jack unconsciously straightened and looked straight ahead as he gave his report, “It sounds like this doctor has taken an intense interest in me and my doings. He’s found some use for dead cells, that much I can say for certain. His lab was empty, but the cages inside it had been recently occupied so either he was holding on to creatures or…” Jack trailed off and thought of Creepy Bug Guy, “Or he’s trying to create a new breed of monster?”

     “Artificial monsters? Do you expect me to believe that someone could create such a thing?”

     Jack shivered at the sound of his father’s raspy voice, “I wouldn’t have believed it either, if it weren’t for the folder. I don’t think whoever hired this doctor gave him enough time to manufacture a complete being, but modifying existing ones? That sounds well within his reach.”

     Varnes wheezed and coughed for a bit, holding a hand to his mouth, “And what do you know about this doctor?”

     “Nothing, really. At least as of now. I figured you would want to know, given how much you pine for the glory days.”

     Varnes chuckled, Jack almost looked over his shoulder at the door, “The glory days, as you call them are dead. And that’s the way they should stay. But…” Varnes trailed off and gestured around them, “surely you must admit, this house experienced happier times when it was needed. When we were needed.”

     Jack felt a dozen answers spring to his lips. The world was better not needing them. The world was safer without them. The family was happier without this house and this job. They all died in his throat, as they always did. “You may very well get your wish, father.” Varnes laughed, a rasping noise that made the room feel stifling before he trailed off into coughing. Once Varnes had gotten more or less under control, he waved to the door and turned back to the folder.

     Jack made it to the door before Varnes said one more thing that stopped him cold in his tracks, “Son. Welcome home. You are always welcome home.” Jack laid his hand on the door knob and turned to nod before quickly excusing himself. The sound of the door closing echoed up and down the stairs and halls. Looking down the stairs, Jack caught the smell of roasted meat and the warm scent of a brick oven. Turning to the left of the stairs, Jack wandered down the hall, dust rising slightly with every step. Doors lined the wall, marked out by the lintels to show who occupied them. Much like the windows out front, many of the doors were locked shut and likely would never be opened again, their rooms remaining behind as monuments to their former Goodbody occupants.

     At the end of the hall stood a white door, now greyed slightly with dust. The lintel was entirely unadorned, its former occupant more concerned with functionality than ornamentation. It had been a long time since Jack had come home and who knew how long it would be before he came back? Fishing an old key out of his pocket, Jack opened the door to his old rooms and stepped in. It hadn’t been touched since he had been there. The stacks of papers on his desk still awaited his perusal, his equipment box sat in the far corner, his tools in a sad state of disrepair. How long had it been? Jack couldn’t say. Only one thing in the room mattered. A picture on his desk, covered in the same coating of dust that had occupied all of his rooms. In the picture was his sister, a few other relatives whose names he couldn’t recall and a young child who had placed himself between Jack and his sister. He had the same sandy blonde hair that most of the family shared. Pulling the picture out of the frame, Jack hurriedly stuffed the memento into his pocket before retreating to the hallway and locking the door.

     On his way out, Jack collected Stan from an extremely frayed and overworked Madeline and soon they were on the road. Stan only spoke up once they had finally left the mountain home of the Goodbody family behind. “What did he say?”

     Jack idly fingered the picture in his pocket, “More than I expected, less than I would have liked. At least he knows what’s going on now, though I suspect that he knew about it before. It’s up to him what they do now. This isn’t my job anymore.”

     Stan nodded emphatically and sped up a little more, “Home, boss?”

     Jack stared out the window vacantly, looking into the darkness and seeing the past, “Home, Stanley. We have work to do.”

Chapter 14

     A journey home after a long absence often leaves a foul taste in one’s mouth. The perennial question in the weeks following is what exactly leaves that sort of taste in your mouth. For Jack it was always the smell. It clung to him like a contagion, a visible aura of wretched memories that smelled vaguely of an antique store that nobody had visited in years. With the phone seemingly on a temporary strike, remaining stubbornly silent in the days following their return from Jack’s childhood home, Jack had decided this time should be used to clean up the office. The primary motivation was to be rid of the smell that seemed to permeate the air, emanating from everything he had been wearing that day. It seemed like the right time to fumigate every single item in the entire office to get rid of any lingering memories. The act of cleaning itself made being back in the office feel more real and brought Jack, what he had come to realize as, a false sense of closure to that part of his life.

     The hum of the office vacuum cleaner provided a soothing background blending with the sounds of life outside the office window. The streets below would start to fill up with tourists heading to destinations in the mountains, places to get away from the grime of the city. Jack had removed his new good jacket and examined the deep blue of it’s left sleeve. Disturbing the fabric, he caught a whiff of the old place, Jack pulled back and wrinkled his nose, “This smell will never come out, it’s like the house travels with me everywhere I go.”

    Stan turned the vacuum cleaner off and surveyed the office. To his nose the Goodbody house was already nothing more than a faint memory, but for Jack this would be going on for weeks. “How does that family a’ yours smell so bad? It’s not like thems maids don’t do no work?”

    Jack took his glasses off and massaged his nose, “Well the maids have no idea what to do cleaning a place like that. You can’t just dust and mop. You have to go deep and get rid of the root of your problem.”

     Stan snorted deeply, trying hard not to chuckle, “Like that father a’ yours?”

     Jack nodded absently, “Yes, Stanley, like my father.” Jack turned and glared at the phone. Now, of all times, Jack required work to put his world right. Now, of all times, the phone obliged and rang with a seeming newfound urgency Jack had yet to notice this summer. Racing over and picking up the phone, Jack practically ripped the receiver off the hook and crammed it into his shoulder while frantically searching for a paper and pen. “Hello, Jack and Stan cleaning services, the skeletons in your closet are our specialty with no questions asked.”

     “I don’t want a black and tan.”

     Jack reached up for his nose and massaged the frustration out, “No, sir we’re cleaners.”

     The voice on the other end of the phone sighed happily, “Oh good! My name is Mortimer Friendy and I need my house to be cleaned.”

     Jack reached for his pad of paper and a pen, “And what seems to be the problem with your house? Spooks, demons…”

     “Good lord, no! I just got old one day and suddenly I couldn’t keep up with all the mess in this house.”

     It took Jack a whole minute to register what his new client said, “Sir, I’m not sure you understand what we do here.”

     “You clean?”

     “Well yes, but…”

      “Then you should be willing to clean my house, the place is a disaster”

     Jack hesitated again before shrugging, “Sure, we could use a little light work right now. What’s the address?”

     “Well, I live in a small town on the outskirts of San Francisco…” Jack wrote the address down and mentally reminded himself once more to never take jobs that required him to cross the entire country just to reach it. “We’ll be there as soon as we can be, thank you for your business.”

     Stan shifted from his position on the couch to stand up and stretched, his fingertips scraping the high ceiling, “We headed out boss?”

     “Of course, Stanley, to sunny California and on the way we can get a few jobs done that I wanted to do, but never had the time to justify doing. Like that one insane asylum.”

     “You mean the one with them crazy dentists?”

     “What? Stanley! They were most certainly not dentists and no.”

     Stan looked perplexed, “The one where they electrocuted them criminals?”

      “You know what? You’ll see when we get there.” Jack grabbed his bag and whipped it over his shoulder. “Should be a quick trip overall, prep the van and we’ll head out.”

     Stan nodded and started to load up huge piles of cleaning supplies. Box by box they made their way down to the van and disappeared to the back. Within the hour, they were on the road and Jack fished around the side of his door for the map that led them to the promised land of cleaning with a few side trips marked out. The first one was a little known motel in the Midwest that had been on Jack’s list for a very long time.

Chapter 15

     Jack and Stan had been on the road for several days and already the novelty had worn off. The only thing more trying than wandering around the back roads in the middle of the night, hopelessly lost and desperate for help, was being hopelessly lost in the back woods despite knowing exactly where it is you want to go. The Pine Scent hotel was a little, out of the way, one story motel that should have been condemned around the Reagan era. It lay nestled in a town that time had forgotten, but aging had not. The owner had a habit of making his guests mysteriously vanish in the middle of the night. While no relative had yet formally pointed fingers, its sinister reputation had ensured the place remained filthy and mostly untouched by cleaning implements for what seemed like an eternity.

     The owner of the Pine Scent always stuck out in Jack’s mind as having no idea how basic human interactions worked. Certainly, the Pine Scent had given Jack a whole new view on what exactly constituted dirty. He found himself musing over the state of the rooms as he stared idly at the map. “Maybe we should just sabotage our own van, that worked last time.”

     Stan shook his head, keeping his hands tight on the wheel, a lit cigar fuming away out the window as he drove, “Then we had to wait around while them neighbors tried to break down our door once we was done. Them motel rooms’ll hold.”

     Jack shrugged and went back to looking at the map. It wasn’t often that Stan disagreed, and he usually had good reasons for doing so. Eventually they did find the place, causing Jack to shudder instantly. The outside of the hotel would have been cozy, if it wasn’t completely covered in grime. The rooms only promised more fun, as Jack found himself consciously reminded of why he got into this business in the first place. Jack hopped out of the car and found his way to the front office. The door was glass and inside the office was sparse, but orderly for the most part. The man sitting behind the desk could be called human in form and nothing else. He wore a white button down shirt and he sat behind the front desk staring straight ahead, completely unmoving. His skin was so pale it could practically be called clear. On his thin face was a moustache that gradually grew wider from left to right starting at a pencil thin length and ending in  a shaggy mess that would be more at home on a lumberjack’s face.

    “Mr. Goodbody, it has been some time since your last visit.” Speech was clearly not this man’s native form of communication, nor in fact was movement since when he reached his hand up to shake Jack’s he overshot it by several inches, slowly retracting it to meet Jack’s outstretched hand, “I assume you are here to clean the old place.”

     “I’m here to make sure it passes inspection this year. Cleaning this place is beyond any mortal man.” Outside the van doors opened and Stan began pulling out various cleaning implements.

     “I will give you the keys.” The keys suddenly appeared in his hands as if they had been teleported into them, “Please stay out of the secret passages.” The owner was interested in human interactions and watching humans interact with each other. He liked it so much he often kept them around for months at a time and Jack had refused to ask any more questions when his employer had gotten that far, though given the state the rooms were often in, he suspected that curiosity was often fatal for patrons.

     Taking the keys, Jack stepped back outside and inhaled the fresh air. “This will be a quick job. Really, we should just set the whole place on fire and hope for the best.”

     “Boss.” The look on Stan’s face let him know that it was not funny.

      “What? It’s not like Smith would even notice the difference until the whole place was gone anyways.” He turned back to peek into the office. Smith was still staring straight ahead. His arm hadn’t moved down to his side again since he had given Jack the keys. “Just kidding!” Smith never reacted to anything Jack said when he was no longer in the office.

     The first room would always be room 101 on the far side since it was the one that nobody used and the one that was, in theory, the least trouble to clean. The problem with Room 101 was not so much the room itself, dusty but manageable, and more the contents of the room itself. On the far side of the room, in the middle of the wall, was an incredibly dusty bed that looked like it contained a small desert of dust settled from ages of disuse. The carpet was coated with the stuff and even the sink outside the tiny bathroom were all covered with a film of dirt. Jack ignored them and immediately went to the closet.

     “This never ceases to amaze me,” Jack muttered to himself as he opened the closet, “how do they get so wrinkled in here when he never changes his suit?” Opening the closet doors, there were two rows of what could only be described as human costumes inside. Human costume was undoubtedly the wrong term, since Jack knew they were made from real human skin. There were smaller ones and larger ones and even an oversized one that must have taken some time to put together. The closet looked fuller than Jack remembered it being the last time they cleaned the motel.

     Stan ducked under the door and lumbered in with his arms outstretched ahead of him, staring straight ahead the whole time.

     “Don’t get weird on me, Stanley. Just take these outside and let them air out while we clean.” Stan nodded and puffed away at his cigar while Jack loaded the people suits onto his arms.

     Once Jack had transferred all the human suits to Stan’s arms, he grimaced a little before he started for the door, “Them things has creases everywhere boss. They ain’t never gonna be clean.”

     Jack examined the inside of the closet floor, checking for any bits that might have come undone, “It’s a strange hobby, I’ll grant you. Just make sure you don’t leave them on the floor like last time.” Once the closet was emptied, Jack turned to the task at hand. Order from chaos. Cloth by cloth and strip by strip, the dust vanished and was replaced with clean surfaces. Not sparkling clean, heavens no, but clean enough for now. Polish a helmet with a decapited head in it all you want, it will still smell because it has a head in it.

     Eventually, the room was clearly as clean as it was going to get and the time had come to move on the next rooms. Here, the trouble was clearly going to begin. Jack knew he had to expect dreadful things. It had been two years since they had last cleaned out the Pine Scent. He knew it and yet it still caught him off guard. Room 102 possessed a heady aroma of vomit, blood and a few other scents Jack didn’t care to even try and pick out.

     The sheets had a white border but the rest of them were colored a dark rusty red which flaked off when moved. Jack picked up the sheets and shuddered when a literal shower of bed bugs seemed to trickle out of it. Putting the sheet down, he immediately averted his eyes from the hideous wallpaper and started for the worst part, the bathroom. When he stepped on the carpet near the bathroom a whole fleet of cockroaches assembled before making for every corner or crack they could find. Jack found himself staring vacantly at the mirror.

     Stan ducked into the room and blew a smoke ring before allowing himself to look around. “Pine scent, kinda reminds me a’ that Dr. Lighting…” Stan trailed off as thunder rolled in ominously from a distance.

     Jack twitched at the memory. “We’re burning the whole place down.”

     Stan let his cigar fall out of his mouth in shock. The carpet caught instantly and flames spread to the corners of the room. Jack ushered Stan out quickly and moved on to Room 103, kicking the door open and going back to the van to look for anything flammable he could get his hands on, “My job is to clean and this place is just so filthy that burning it down is the most humane thing I can do at this point. I’m surprised the whole county isn’t quarantined.”

     It turned out that the search for more things to light on fire was entirely pointless because by the time Jack had turned back to the hotel with some rubbing alcohol, Room 103 was billowing smoke and Room 101 was entirely obscured by flames.

     “Oh,” Jack’s jaw dropped a little, “well that takes care of that then. Stan, move the van so we don’t lose our means of transport. I’m going to light Room 104 up.”

     To Jack’s surprise, this act finally got the attention of the being calling himself Smith. He actually left his office for the first time since Stan had met him. He walked awkwardly along, keeping his legs as straight as possible and looking straight at Jack, “You have set my establishment on fire. Why have you done this?” The monotone voice never changed, without a hint of anger or rage.

     “It needed to be cleaned and this seemed the best way to go about doing it.”

      “This is acceptable on your…where you come from?” Smith slowly ground to a halt, his lip twitching awkwardly making him look more than slightly perplexed.

     “When it comes to places this dirty, we sure do. I did forget to take your collection out, however, so you may want to see if you can grab them.” Smith nodded and walked into the fire without flinching or looking back once. “And that’s our cue to leave. Stanley, prep the van and I’ll collect our money. It’s not like he ever paid us before.” Stan did his best to hurriedly pack the van as Jack went to the office. Jack helped himself to the till, shuddering at the sheer amount of small change. Against his better judgment, Jack took a rough estimate and headed back to the van where Stan awaited him.

     “Alright, looks like we can cross another repeat customer off our list.”

     Stan had pulled out and lit another cigar. He shifted it in his mouth to respond to his boss, “Ya can’t keep killin’ them clients like this.” He started the car, but a frown remained on his normally placid face.

     “If he stays in the fire it’s not my fault. Besides, who names a hotel after a thing you dangle in a car? And Pine Scent? Really?”

     Stan shrugged with no comprehension nor desire to comprehend why that smell irked his boss so much, “Where to now boss?”

     Jack pulled his map back out and scratched his head, “Well, just start driving and I’ll see if I can find out where we are. We should try and get on the highway. The next job is a good couple of days drive away. “

     Stan nodded and pulled out of the parking lot, leaving the flaming soon-to-be-wreckage of the Pine Scent Hotel behind them. As they got out of range of the fire, the cool night breeze was a much-needed relief and Jack let himself look up at the stars for an instant before returning to the map. So much more to do. So much more to clean.

     As Stan pulled out onto the main road, two men suddenly stepped out in their path. One held up a hand with a badge in it. They were both dressed in black suits with black ties. Despite the pitch darkness, they wore sunglasses and black fedoras, “I need to ask you some questions…” one of the creatures began before Stan plowed into him with the van. It ran him down with hardly a bounce. A smattering of small red droplets hit the windshield, drawing the attention of both Jack and Stan, neither of which had been paying much attention to the road.

     “Stanley, did we just hit something?”

     Stan turned on the windshield wipers and shook his head, “Don’t think so, boss. Just some bugs.”

     Jack shrugged and turned his attention back to the map, “Let me know when we hit Palmer Road.”

Chapter 16

     Road trips, whether for business or for pleasure, are wonderful adventures that offer innumerable chances for excitement and opportunity. In the grand tradition of middle class America, Jack’s sister, Sam, had many times suggested that any time Jack went on a cleaning trip across the country he should bring back a small knick-knack or curio so that he could remember the trip more fondly. Jack strongly disagreed with this suggestion for two reasons. Firstly, his sister only seemed to collect matchboxes from bars, tattoos, and numbers from men she never planned on calling back. None of these items seemed to provide her with any happy memories. There was another reason why Jack refused to collect curios or souvenirs. The Pine Scent motel lighting up his mental images, as well as briefly the night sky in the rearview mirror, made him happier than any disease-ridden piece of mid-western kitsch or snuff film he could have pulled out of the wreckage. Many bed bugs and cockroaches died to bring him that memory and Jack wanted to be able to enjoy it without worrying about where to put the cigarette tray he never wanted.

     Since they had left the middle of nowhere behind them in a hurry, naturally they got lost. If one has no idea where one is going, very often you end up not getting there. This little detour from their trip to sunny California took them to Hell. Hell, Michigan, that is, and Jack decided the time had come to gas up. Jack yanked a map out from the glove compartment and got out to stretch while Stan gassed up the car. They were going to have to avoid Detroit. Jack wasn’t welcome in that city anymore after he had been called in to clean up for some union boss and things got way out of hand. Checking the routes and lost in thought, Jack was abruptly pulled away from his map reading by an insistent tug on his pant leg. Looking down to the source of the irritation he found two young girls with light brown hair staring up at him.

     “Mister, do you clean bathrooms?” The little one said, pointing to the logo on the van. The question was so specific and out of the ordinary that Jack blinked a few times in surprise before adjusting his glasses.

     “Yes, I do clean bathrooms. Why do you ask?” Jack politely folded his map and took a closer look at the two girls. At first glance they appeared to be twins, but on closer inspection one was slightly older. They were both dressed in shorts and t-shirts, but what really caught his eye was the cat that the younger one was struggling to keep in her arms. Black from tip to tail, the cat squirmed around in the girl’s arms and yowled menacingly, it’s claws waving around in front of it.

     The words the older girl spoke next really caught Jack’s attention, “Our bathroom is evil and nobody will clean it.”

     “Go on.” Jack put his map back on his seat and closed the door.

     “It’s always dirty and there’s a mean man who lives in the ceiling.”

     Jack found his mind racing, wondering what kind of specter wanted to haunt the bathroom of small children. As he was lost in thought a young woman rounded the van and took both the girls collars into her hands.

     “Found you two! Mom wondered where you got off to. Who are you bothering now?” The young woman who now clutched their shirts shared the two girls’ brown eyes and hair, though hers were a little deeper.

     “They were asking me to clean a dirty bathroom,” The young woman scrunched her nose in disgust, apparently, it was her bathroom as well, “I’m willing to take on the job. I’ve already lost so much time that a little more won’t hurt now.”

     The young woman looked skeptical, pulling two younger girls pulled closer to her , “Are you sure that you’re willing to clean the bathroom, sir? I wouldn’t be able to pay you much since I’m in college.”

     The younger of the two girls wiggled free and handed off her struggling burden to her older sister, who promptly held the deadly furry weapon out at arm’s length. The child pulled out a small change purse, “We saved up all our allowances to get the bathroom cleaned.”

     Jack let out a deep sigh and leaned his head forward, gently lifting his glasses up and massaging the bridge of his nose. Things had gotten slightly more serious. Now he couldn’t turn them down, not under terms like this. Reaching out his hand, Jack accepted the small change purse and jingled it next to his ear. Around seven dollars, all told. Mostly in nickels and dimes. This would maybe cover the cost of the supplies needed for one small bathroom. Jack pocketed the change and held his hand out to the younger sibling, “It’s a deal, as soon as we’re done gassing up we’ll head on over. You just give us a street name and we’ll be right along.”

     The young woman looked relieve to hear this new information, “We live on a street called Bathtub, it’s the one with all the cars out front.”

     Jack nodded and let them leave before rounding the corner to find Stan looming over a man laid out flat on the ground. “Can I not leave you alone for five minutes without you doing something that gets us banned from another state or put on another watchlist?”

     Stan pulled his hat down low and pulled the gas nozzle out of the van, “He was tryin’ to steal one of our tires and I don’t wanna hear no complainin’ after you burnt down a hotel.”

     Jack looked away and coughed slightly, “It was a motel, but I take your point. It looks like we have a little work to do here before we can take on our job in California. This is the last stop, I swear.” Swinging around back to the passenger seat, Jack grabbed his map and settled down, adjusting his glasses as the van shifted when Stan got into the driver’s seat. “I can’t stay mad at you for Milwaukee forever. Who knew pushing that old building over would be a felony? I don’t get how its historically important if it’s a house that eats people.”

     Stan started up the van and pulled out an unlit cigar before pulling out onto the road, “I think them cops was lyin’ to ya, boss.”

      Jack shrugged and straightened out his map, “Maybe, but they sure did seem angry. Take a left up here, Stanley. We have a bathroom to clean.” Looking over his map, Jack had to resist the urge to smile. A road trip is an adventure and all adventures are just unexpected memories waiting to happen.

Chapter 17

     The trip across Detroit reminded both Jack and Stan that there were two kinds of wars, the ones that were planned and the ones that occurred when everyone carried some sort of firearm in their car. Jack was entirely unsure of which sort he had run into. They were about five minutes from their destination and he realized it must somehow involve with the Detroit Lions because half the assailants wore blue jerseys and paper bags over their heads and half of them bore ridiculous cheese wedges. He considered asking a random straggler whether the Lions had won or lost but the machine gun the man held dissuaded him.

     The house they arrived at lay halfway down a small road that led to a park. It was sprawling, if one could call a family home sprawling, as though the architect had started building the home before he was hit with a sudden stoke of brilliance and he simply had to show the world his wonderful vision. Stan pulled up on the side of the road and hopped out of the vehicle causing the van to shake slightly back and forth.

     The house had Jack curious. It seemed perfectly fine, if in a bit of disarray. While it irked Jack to admit it, there were certain kinds of uncleanliness that implied a loved home and this house certainly had that going for it. That and a mob of cats if he judged correctly, most of which were milling around the front door awaiting entry into the house. The front door was open and the two little girls they had met earlier were staring at him from inside the screen door. Jack nodded and grabbed his bags, even children generally seemed to know that when you had to ask for a specialist the problem has gotten out of hand. One of the larger cats regarded Jack steadily before darting inside when the girls opened the door for their herd of cats.

     The house itself smelled of good cooking and was littered with memories of the past. Two sets of steps led up and down but Jack purposefully averted his eyes from the upstairs. Given his brief glimpse of the living room floor, littered with colorful and noisy cat toys, it was clear that the cats had taken over and that it was only a matter of time before they consumed the entire family for nourishment when the local wildlife was depleted. The bathroom in question lay down the stairs.

     “This is ‘sposed to be our bathroom, but we don’t like to use it cause it’s scary and dirty,” one of the girls intoned carefully. Jack instantly understood as he got closer to the bathroom. It was narrow and thin and resembled the hallway of a poor public housing unit. All it needed to complete the picture was a dirty man selling drugs laced with Tide and a serial killer clown and the visual nightmare would be complete. The ceiling was missing tiles and the empty hole they created loomed black and empty above the toilet. At the far end of the bathroom there was a window that let in just enough light to make Jack wonder when the inquisition would show up to begin the torture session. Even less light made it through to the bathroom once the window shade was closed making the whole affair feel like a sewer in New York City. On the counter was a set of two jars that gave Jack pause. One of them held a brain and in the smaller one a pair of eyes looked at him conspiratorially.

     Jack turned back to the girls’ older sister who had come down the stairs after him. She gave him an embarrassed shrug and explained, “Those are mine, I’m an artist. They make me laugh.”

     Jack let his mind wander to a certain cousin of his and he managed a response, “Seems legit. Let’s see what we’re dealing with here.” The older girl watched as Jack stood in the doorway and looked around. A bathroom with a scary man in the ceiling dirty enough to warrant my attention? Certainly, the bathroom was dirty, but Jack could find no logical reason for it. The bathroom smelled clean enough and when he leaned down to get a closer look at the ground what initially appeared to be dirt specks were actually designed on the tiles. The hole in the ceiling certainly left something to be desired in the aesthetic department but one could hardly call replacing the ceiling a job for a cleaner. Jack touched the walls and his fingers came away with small black flecks.

     “Boss, it’s one a them dirty things…” Stan appeared at the bottom of the stairs, which groaned slightly under his weight as he reached the bottom, “I found some’a them black spots in the kitchen too. You want I should grab the traps?” Jack gave him a curt nod and looked back to the bathroom.

     “Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I can clean your bathroom. The bad news is there was indeed a creepy man in your bathroom.” Jack scanned the room as he talked, looking for just the right spot. There was a clear space in front of the toilet that seemed as good as any place. Stan came tromping down the stairs with his burden, what looked like a large metal rat trap with an opening on one end that would clamp shut after its quarry entered.

     All three girls looked confused, especially the eldest sister. Jack shuddered a little and took the trap from Stan, placing it carefully on the ground. “Now I need a clean plate.” The eldest sister bounded up the steps and came back with a large clean plate. Jack placed it in the trap and then motioned everyone out of the room, closing the door behind him. Confusion reigned supreme in the expressions of all three girls.

     Finally, after a few very long moments of waiting the older of the two younger girls asked the question on all their minds, “Don’t you need some cheese or something?”

     Jack shook his head resolutely, letting his fingers hover near the doorknob, “If we were hunting for mice or something, then maybe. What we’re hunting for is…something else entirely.” Running into this particular brand of horrible was something that had to be seen to be believed. Suddenly the trap snapped, causing everyone to jump slightly. Jack took a deep breath and opened the door. Time to face the music, you little runt.

      The tension as Jack opened the door was thick enough to be cut with a knife. The trap rattled around on the ground and Jack had to resist the urge to gag as both his and Stan’s suspicions had proven correct. In the cage was a greasy little man-like creature covered from head to toe in grime. He barely fit in the cage and the plate that had once been clean was now covered in grime and tufts of grey and white fur. Most people thought that there was only one kind of gremlin, the type that likes to tinker with and cause malfunctions on machines but, in reality, there were as many types of gremlins as there were stars in the sky when one stood on the outskirts of New York City. So around five or six, depending on light pollution. Dirt gremlins, as Jack had taken to calling them, loved grime and dirt and found anything spotless to be abhorrent to their very existence. Early in his career Jack had often killed them when he found them but the years had mellowed his formerly harsh views on them and now he mostly performed catch and release services when they crossed his path.

     This one wore dirty dish rags soaked in the grime of a thousand dirty pots and pans that were currently masquerading as particularly smelly clothes. In its right hand, it held a small bucket of unidentifiable goop and grime and in it’s left what looked like a small paintbrush that dripped a black ooze. “Diiiirrrrttyyy!” It cried out in a high pitched, squeaky voice. The three girls backed away and Jack could hardly blame them. If Jack were to be entirely honest, he wondered if he would have reacted so well the under the circumstances.

     The youngest girl raised a hand and tugged on Jack’s pants, “Can we keep it?” Jack looked at the greasy little creature before returning his gaze to this truly unique girl. Under normal circumstances Jack might agree and not ask any more questions than he needed to, but out of the corner of his eye a small black cat licked its lips and eyed the gremlin greedily. It was a miracle the thing was still alive and not missing any bits. Leaving the gremlin in this house would be an invitation to dinner that the gremlin would be unable to refuse. Jack could already tell the gremlin was overdressed for the event since it was still wearing its skin.

     “I think it might be better if I took it a few miles away from your house and let it go into the wild where it can’t hurt…bother anyone.” Jack walked over to the cage and picked it up carefully, not having any desire to come into contact with the gremlin or it’s nasty homemade dirt. The gremlin waved it’s brush around wildly, trying to dirty Jack’s suit or any part of him it could reach. Jack handed it off to Stan, who immediately took the cage in one massive hand and rattled it around as he walked up the stairs. Dirty grime went flying all around, hitting Stan, the walls, the carpets and even the ceiling before Stan held the cage still and sheepishly apologized before leaving the cage outside and coming back in with more cleaning supplies.

     “Well, now that the gremlin is gone you won’t have to worry about the same kind of mess any more, just the normal sort. It’ll take a few hours to get all the grime out since that stuff Dirt Gremlins use really gets into most surfaces.” Jack rummaged through his bag and found a small pouch that contained the homemade cleaner he used when he ran across the little gremlins. A few hours of elbow grease later and most of the stains were gone, but it was past time for them to be on the road again. The bathroom had a small corner still dirty so Jack left them the pouch of cleaning powder.

     “Wait a minute,” the youngest of the girls pouted, “That thing was making all the mess and now you’re leaving us with some of it? Give us our money back!”

     Jack shook his head, reaching into his pocket and pulling out the pouch of change to jingle it slightly, “A deal is a deal and the deal was that I would clean your bathroom and find the source of the grime. I did both of these things, but it just so happens that I need to be in California, as soon as is humanly possible. So long as you don’t let any Dirt Gremlins back into the bathroom you should be totally fine.” Turning hurriedly, Jack rushed out to the van and hopped in. The cleaning supplies had already been returned and Stan merely awaited his arrival.

     “Onward, Stanley. To argue with a small girl about money is the height of foolishness. We’re not getting caught up in this mess.” Jack tapped his finger impatiently as Stan pulled out of the driveway. Looking behind him he noticed, much to his dismay, that the dirt gremlin had escaped confinement and headed back home. That is, until a small familiar black cat darted out of the house and nabbed the gremlin by the neck. Jack watched in rapt fascination as the black kitty presented the gremlin to a much larger grey and white cat who looked at it bewilderedly before sitting on it resolutely. Jack turned his face to the front and decided he would never think about this again. Some things just have a way of working themselves out.

    The open road called and no more interruptions would be brooked. Jack leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. Sunny California called and the cleaning job of a lifetime. Jack had been reading up on the housing development that his new client was a part of and it all sounded quite exciting, from a business perspective. Jack briefly considered moving to California before disregarding it. His client base on the east Coast simply meant too much for him to pack up his bags and leave. “Onwards, Stanely,” Jack yawned and closed his eyes, pulling his suit coat closer around him, “onward to the open road and our next job.”

Chapter 18

     The passage of time carries a strange way of both easing and sharpening pain. We forget those days that hurt us. This goes on until one day, you get a hollow feeling in your stomach which reminds you that the past could be pushed away, but nothing is forgotten forever. Jack contemplated this as he found himself laying up in a bed. Running his fingers along the sheets, Jack shivered in recognition. These used to be his sheets. Light streamed in through a slit in the blinds, dimly lighting a room that held all the tools of his old trade. Razor sharp knives hung from a rack on the wall next to a cork board covered with targets and tips. In the back of his mind Jack knew something was missing from his old home, but it took him a few long minutes to place it. The smell was fresh and clean, there was a sound of footsteps racing back and forth in the hall and voices echoed up from the dining room. The musty smell of failed dreams found itself banished by the vitality of the house.

     Smiling despite himself, Jack stretched out and felt the ache in muscles he hadn’t needed in years. Everything ground to a halt when the door to his room opened just a crack and a small mischievous face appeared in the slim opening beneath a mop of sandy blonde hair, “Daddy says to get up, big brother.”

     Time stopped. All the good feelings that came from hearing life in a house long bereft of home lost any meaning. Joseph Goodbody was dead. Joseph Goodbody was standing on the other side of the door as though he had never died.

     Bouncing into the room, Jack’s little brother leapt up onto the bed and stretched out in a tiny imitation of his elder brother, “You gotta get up ‘cause dad says we’re going to California to do a job.”

     “Aren’t you a little too young to be going out and working with father?” Jack found himself dumbly repeating his response from long ago.

     Joseph turned his gaze away, avoiding Jack’s gaze, “Dad says I need to be ready in case he needs me.” Jack remembered feeling the wind knocked out of him at that. Was he such a failure that his father needed to prepare his twelve-year-old brother as a replacement heir?

     Jack wrapped an arm around his little brother and pulled him closer, keeping his arm around him tightly, “Maybe father isn’t always right, kiddo. Maybe you should just sit this one out and let me go with him on my own. You can come along when you’re older, but this one is too dangerous.”

      Joseph wriggled out of Jack’s arms and bounced up and down on the bed, “It’s time ta wake up, boss. We’re here and the client is lookin’ at ya funny.” Stan’s deep booming voice came out of his little brother’s mouth, echoing around the small room. Struggling awake, Jack rubbed at his eyes and took in his surroundings. Their trip had ended during his siesta, the last few days of driving blurring together in his memory into an endless tedium of drive through windows and bathroom breaks.

     The small house sitting in front of their parked van certainly had been nice once upon a time. Jack presumed the day the current owners had finished building the thing  was sometime around when God had just finished creating the world. The bushes in front of the house were in danger of evolving into small forests, various branches having gone beyond encroaching on the path and were now asking for toll from pedestrians. The paint peeling on all sides had formed parachuting clubs, falling onto canvas laid down below. On the left side of the house was three stripes of paint where someone had started to paint and stopped suddenly for no apparent reason. On closer inspection, as Jack got out of the van, the paintbrush had been left on the blue tarp and had merged with it at some point. The paint can, still opened, had solidified into colorful concrete sprinkled with dirt.

     The old man who had hired him was waiting impatiently on the front step as only an elderly man can. He hadn’t moved and his expression was technically vacant, but his entire face had started to droop downward thanks to the relentless pressure of gravity. When he woke up in the morning, his default face was that of disapproval. “You sure took your time getting here.”

     “We had to drive out from New York.”

     Without any further acknowledgement of that statement, he turned to go back into his house, “Well, let me show you around.” The mood of old people, much like the weather, often changed in an instant and as the old adage said, if you didn’t like the weather then it was time to go home and sleep. Unfortunately for Jack, this was not an option.

     Gesturing to Stan, he walked toward the porch, pushing through bushes and stepping into the front door. What he found was a complete nightmare and a dream all at the same time. Stacks and stacks of newspapers and magazines lined the wall in the hallway. From his viewpoint, Jack could see the stuff starting to overflow from the living room. Looking down, the floor had a nice dark grey carpet. At least, Jack assumed it was grey until he moved his foot and saw a hint off-white where he the carpet had been distubed. This was an all-day job, if not an all week job. Jack adjusted his glasses. There was no guarantee they would even get paid.

    “Do you still want to keep all of these magazines and newspapers?”

     “I still have them, don’t I?”

     “Fair enough.” Order from chaos. Jack followed the elderly man around the house and listened to him ramble about what he wanted done, noting the virtual impossibility of putting two houses worth of stuff into one tiny house. As the list went on and on, from basic cleaning to fixing the lethal kitchen cabinets that looked like they would fall off and kill someone if they weren’t mended, this was quickly becoming a full on renovation. They would make it work, however, and the work began in the living room. With some persuasion they managed to get their client to camp out in the kitchen while they cleaned.

     Jack surveyed the stack of old TV guides which were both outdated and unneeded in a modern television age. Against the far wall sat an old television, yellowed with age and probably not able to even get any channels these days. It sat in the middle of a large wooden cabinet that had two enormous empty shelves on either side, their doors opened wide like massive wings. Originally, they were intended for movies, but these would do for the TV Guides. In rapid order, by date they vanished into the two shelves and the shelves were closed. On the table to the far left lay an innumerable number of knick-knacks and curios. Some of them appeared to be made from silver and worth a lot of money and some of them were toys from fast food places. There was no apparent rhyme or reason to their position, but there was plenty of space under the table.

     Jack turned to Stan, “Go and grab the organizers while I figure out some way to organize these things. It’s like the concept of order is something that only occurs after the words Law and to this guy.”

     Stan grunted and headed for the door. Turning his attention back to the detritus, Jack surveyed the buildup from a lifetime of collecting with no cleaning. Toy, toy, priceless memento, toy blood stained dagger, toy, monkey’s paw…Jack let his mind flow back through the list, examining each item in turn. This may have been a more interesting choice than Jack realized. Stan came back in with a stack of plastic containers. The containers that Jack filled became completely disorienting. On the left side were innocuous knick-knacks, like the aforementioned toys and cheap pocket watches. On the far right was the monkey’s paw and the other things that most people would never have anything to do with, like the bible written in upside down Latin.

     “Oh yeah, picked this old thing up when I went to Hell.”

     Jack perked up at that, “You went to Hell?”

     “Sure, it was swell, I love visiting Michigan and that was a lucky find there.” Jack examined the book, which appeared to be trying to inch off the table, before adding it to the appropriate bin. ‘Lucky” is not the word that Jack would use to describe finding such a book. Horrifying, perhaps fascinating in the right mindset, but surely not lucky. The television room was mainly cleaned up at this point and that left the study. Jack turned to the door on the far wall. Opening it, a flood of papers and books streamed out into the now clean television room. Jack shuddered. On the inside of the door lay an impossibly large room with records strewn everywhere.

     The old man sat down on the couch and pulled out a remote, “Gonna watch my stories while you work.” The screen remained black no matter how many times the old man clicked away at the remote. Whatever he saw tickled the old mans funny bone, however, as he started laughing uproariously at a volume Jack doubted he was capable of. Well, this was a shovel job. At least, at first it would be. Jack trekked back out to the van and grabbed the snow shovels. Most of the rest of the afternoon was spent putting books on shelves, and papers in folders, and folders into file cabinets. What caught Jack’s eye as he worked was how many of the documents pertained to the Five Families; documents dating well back into the nineteenth century that, if he had more time on his hands, he would have loved to read. Many of Jack’s clients were a mystery to him, but none so much as this man. Much as Jack expected his clients to respect his privacy, he respected theirs as well. Those questions he had would have to wait for another time, when they weren’t working for this crazy old man.

     They barely had any time left to get to the upstairs bedroom and by the time they did, the sun had begun to sink lower in the sky, kissing the horizon and bidding farewell to the workday where you can see without lights.

     Jack opened the door to the bathroom and instantly closed it, his face a pale white. Stan shot him a questioning glance, “We shall never speak of this again.” Stan nodded and started packing up equipment.

     Jack stepped gingerly back downstairs and found to his surprise that the whole kitchen smelled like brownies. The old man was standing next to a steaming tray of the most aromatic brownies Jack had ever smelled. Smith smiled at Jack, “Consider this payment for the work, Jack.” Jack tried not to frown too hard and an awkward moment came and went. “Oh, I’m just kidding. Here’s a check as well. I think you’ll find it most generous.”

    Jack took the check and examined it carefully before tucking it away into his pocket. Looking up, he noticed Smith looking him over sadly. He must have appeared confused because Smith finally spoke after a long silence, “You really don’t remember me, do you?”

    Shaking his head, Jack adjusted his glasses, “I know you have a lot of records having to do with the Five Families. I know you’re connected to them, but I’m not involved in that world anymore. I’m a cleaner now, and nothing else.”

     “That wasn’t your attitude last time you were out here in California. You were much younger, that time. You came with your brother and your father, but you left with just your father.”

    Jack paled and grabbed Smith by the collar, causing him to almost lose his grip on the tray of brownies, “What do you now about that trip to California? I can’t remember any of it! Tell me…please.”

    Smith pressed the tray of brownies into Jack’s chest until he took it from him. Walking back into the living room, Jack could hear him rummaging around before he came out with a manila envelope, “All the answers you want are in this envelope but I warn you, you aren’t going to like the answers. Only open it when you’re ready to know the truth. If you want to be free of that world, you will never open it, but know that the answer is here for you.”

     Jack took the envelope without another word and left. Smith looked down. The brownies had also vanished, along with the tray he had put them on and with no sign of their imminent return, “That boy is just like his father. They say family never changes, but the Goodbody family is just absurd.” Stan poked his head into the kitchen and tipped his hat.

     Smith waved to the door, “Oh get to driving, you great lug. It’s a miracle my house is still standing after you were in here.” Stan hurried out the door, careful not to hit the frame and fulfill Smith’s complaint on the way out. Once the rest of the tools were in the van, Jack slid in next to Stan. He was eating the brownies and trying very hard not to enjoy it.”

     Jack leaned back in his seat, slowly chewing on a brownie and eyeing the envelope with suspicious glances, as though he expected it to light on fire. They sat in the van, not moving for a long time with Jack making no motions towards opening it. Stan took his time lighting a cigar, keeping an eye on Jack the whole time.

    “Oh, just drive already!”

     Stan nodded suppressing a grin at the sulky outburst and started the van on the path home. He got lost in five minutes because Jack wasn’t giving directions.

Chapter 19

      The journey home always comes with a certain amount of relief. Jack always assumed that  was because when someone left on a long trip, there was no particular guarantee that you would come back. The small town he and Stan lived in held no attachment for him, especially with his family house so close by, and yet his heart soared when he realized that they had only one more job left before they got home to rest. The high resulting from heading home couldn’t even be blamed on the absolutely awful brownies he had been given, either. There was only one last stop before they went home to a well-deserved rest and that was a mental hospital in Iowa.

     Living in a state that had almost nothing going for it except row upon row of corn was enough to drive just about anybody mad. Thankfully for people who lived out that way, there was a solution in the form of Gentle Pastures. It had been run by the state until budget cuts made maintaining the old place an absolute nightmare. The budget problems the state ran into lay in contrast to the problems the inmates had to deal with, what with the bizarre experiments and routine disappearance of inmates. They only had to worry about actual nightmare that was Gentle Pastures.

     Gentle Pastures was at the end of a long road that lay between two corn fields that stretched for miles on either side. The van pulled up to a stop in front of the wall surrounding the facility, which was painted a sky blue. The security box next to the front gate had been fashioned into a fluffy cloud. The doctors at Gentle Pastures had insisted that gentle colors make for happier and more productive inmates, which Jack had never been able to understand. They were inmates in a nut house, what exactly were they supposed to be producing and who in their right mind would buy it anyways? Apparently, what the inmates produced was organs for transplant and happier inmates equaled healthier organs, or some such nonsense. The doctor who had explained to Jack had been laughing nervously the whole time so it may have been a bad joke on the part of the hosts.

      “Do you have an appointment?” The voice that rang out from the speaker sounded bored, as if working with criminally insane inmates was about the same as working at a drive through. Jack banished that line of thinking from his head.

     “We’re to clean them…whatever them things is that needs cleanin’,” Stan muttered through the window.

     “Well said, Stanley” Jack closed his eyes and played with the buttons on his suit sleeve.

     The gate opened all the same and let them in. The driveway itself seemed pretty standard at first until you realized that the path was made out of golden bricks. The path led directly to the front door. The entire front of the facility glistened a bright emerald green color, but when Jack looked closer he could see long lines of brilliant white between what must have been hurried brush strokes of green. The front of the building had a wide patio with elegant columns. Along the outside of the building were sets of rocking chairs containing patients in bathrobes. The idea was to allow the patients who desired it to see the sunset, but most of the patients seemed to be barely aware of where they were, much less the sunset. The steps leading up to the facility would have been more at home in front of a government building, the whole façade was built out of expensive marble including the steps. Jack had never seen anyone attempt to paint over marble before. Clearly, this was a house of madness.

     Hurrying down the front steps were a woman wearing red slippers and a blue dress under a white lab coat and a slight man dressed in a bad lion costume that drooped awkwardly around his skinny frame and left his face entirely exposed. Behind them followed a tin foil man wearing a paint can for a helmet with a hole cut-out for his face and an enormously muscular orderly wearing a strawhat and a white uniform.

     “We are not in Kansas anymore, Stanley.”

     “It’s Iowa.”

      “That wasn’t my point.”

      The doctor, Jack hoped she was an actual doctor, who held the led waved to Jack as she descended the steps, “Welcome, Jack. I thought it was about time for you to come in and clean up the mess.” With that, the doctor started tapping her shoes together, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” Awkwardly and rapidly, her tone flitted back and forth from professional to whimsical at a dizzying pace.

     The voice brought her face and name back to him. That was the problem with places Jack only visited sporadically, he hardly remembered anyone. Jack tested his theory by using her name when he responded, “There’s certainly no place like home. That’s why I moved out in the middle of the night without taking any of my stuff and I haven’t been home for more than a few hours tops since then, Dr. Hammond.”

     Dr. Julie Hammond looked positively crestfallen at the new information, though Jack had undoubtedly given it to her before, “That’s awful! How are you coping Jack?”

     “Well, a few hours is a long time, but we all have our crosses to bear.”

      “Would you like a room here? We have a wonderful padded cell with a lime green interior and…”

     “I have a room, actually. I have several so no, thank you.”

     If Dr. Hammond could have sunk under the ground, she would have. It certainly seemed like she was attempting to sag through the yellow brick driveway.

     “Well let’s get on with the cleaning, then”

     That seemed to perk her right back up and she bounced up the steps with her silent entourage, now with Jack added. The front desk was a total mess, not that anything on the desk was out of place but nobody seemed to be terribly concerned about the inmate with the fire extinguisher threatening several orderlies who appeared to be dressed as flying pugs, given their rotund forms and flat faces combined with wings. The inmate was so distracted by the orderly pugs that Jack snuck up behind the man in an instant and gave the back of his neck a firm chop. He went down like a ton of bricks, the fire extinguisher clattering to the ground. “I see you have a Wizard of Oz theme going this year.”

     “We do!” Dr. Hammond seemed a little too excited at the theme, “What do you think of it?”

     “You can hardly tell it’s a hospital staffed by complete lunatics with an exorbitant budget.”

     “Thanks!”

     Another inmate wearing a prisoner’s clothes colored a bright yellow with blue spots ran into the check-in area screaming at the top of his lungs. Jack stuck out a leg and sent the man sprawling to the floor, “Oh dear, this is going to be a very long day.”

     “Yes, yes!” Dr. Hammond chirped, “We were having a tea party and I couldn’t seem to get them all back in their cells, it’s just no good.”

     “How long ago was this party? They still seem pretty riled up.”

     “About noon.”

     “They’ve been going on like this for three hours?”

     “Noon in March. It’s been really rough on our finances.” Jack shuddered a little.

     Gentle Pastures was split up into two sections, which Dr. Hammond referred to by the level of happy she thought the patient needed. They were color coded into smaller sections by pastel colors. They started with a lime green pastel color and went all the way to a very light red colored pastel, which was apparently her way of saying these patients need so much happiness they actually might be a bit hard to deal with. When Jack cleaned here he was not, in fact, cleaning in the normal sense. What he was cleaning was the inmates, who needed to be put back into the proper cells and locked in so they couldn’t roam free anymore. Most times this took a firm hand, but in this case a firm shove would be required.

Chapter 20

   In terms of organization, there were few places in more hopeless shape than Gentle Pastures. Jack had once walked into a grocery store with dirt tracked thirty feet into the building, but while that was a mess it wasn’t a mess that was likely to be fatal. Stan ducked under the door and cracked his knuckles, standing behind Jack and mentally preparing for the job at hand.

    “You know the routine, Stanley. They all have a number on the pocket on the left side of their uniforms and the uniforms are color coded. If you have any questions you can ask an orderly. If you have any important questions, find me.”

      Stan stiff-armed a patient who came running at Jack with a plastic spoon and picked him up with ease one handed and gently slung him over his shoulder, ignoring the plastic spoon jabbing into his shoulder. “Them patients get more charmin’ every year.”

     “Someone has to class the place up.” With that, they split up. Stan headed for the pastel warning zone and Jack headed for the lighter colors. For the rest of the morning, Jack gently policed a variety of patients in a variety of stupors into their cells. It was a bit like herding slightly befuddled sheep who sometimes thought they were Napoleon. Most of them were completely non-violent and those that were violent managed to be completely non-effectual. After a long morning of shuffling patients into their appropriate pastel colored playgrounds Jack headed to the cafeteria for lunch. He found Stan hunched over a tray of food, examining both the food and the tiny plastic fork in his enormous hand. His hair and shoulders were covered with a bright yellow sticky liquid.

     “How’s your end going, Stanley?”

     “Hows’it look?”

     “Good point.” Jack hovered his finger over Stan’s tray before Stan nodded. Jack dipped his finger into the food and took a brief taste. It tasted like a turkey which had overdosed on antipsychotics before it was butchered, which was likely the case since Gentle Pastures made all their own food in house. Jack banished any thoughts of the inmates and food and moved on to the progress report on his end, “I’m mostly done with the lighter end, now we just have to worry about the jungle.”

     The jungle, as Jack and Stan referred to it, was the only place that was well and truly awful in terms of organization. It was like the junk drawer of the facility, people who were too active to be around the ones totally lost to reality, but far too crazy for the really active and aware ones. The mixed bag made for interesting herding, since they tended to move in the most erratic patterns when they were let out. On top of that, the orderlies there got bored very easily and tended to let the patients out whenever it suited them, which happened to be all the time, if prior experience was any indicator. This meant that even as Jack and Stan were putting patients back in their cells the orderlies would be letting them out again. That is, unless Jack gave them some chocolate pudding first. No need to tell them the pudding came from the patient’s kitchen until they were both sound asleep.

     “Them inmates from the bad side know how to use them spoons.”

     “They spooned you good, huh?”

     “If it weren’t me, them spoons woulda’ hurt.”

     The rest of the lunch passed in silence with both Jack and Stan looking ruefully at the heavily laced food, “Alright, those patients won’t put themselves back in their own cells, though Lord knows it would save a lot of time if they would just do that.” Getting up and stretching, Jack gestured to Stan, “I know the perfect way to end this, it’s a wonder I didn’t think of it last time.”

     Most people got easily confused by the facility, and indeed Gentle Pastures sprawled on purpose at quite a few odd angles. Between the color coding and the amount of times they had been around the place though, Jack and Stan managed to find their way to their next location relatively quickly. Jack reached into his pocket and took out a baggie he had snagged from the kitchen. It contained something labled, “Chocolate pudding and absolutely no sleeping pills, this time we swear.” There was a small kitchen for orderlies right before the office and Jack used the small space to serve up the desserts for the hungry guards.

     For a sleeping pill free pudding, the guards went down quick. Once the guards were out, Jack stepped out into the hallway and hesitated for an instant. Was it really this simple? “Marco…” Jack only had to wait an instant for a chorus of “Polo’s” rang out down the hallway. Jack sprang into action and quickly collared a few patients, scruffing them by the back of their shirts, looking for the right cells for each one. Stan had lumbered off in the other direction and had already found a few patient’s homes. They repeated this tactic over and over until only one or two patients remained.

    Despite the relative quiet in the jungle, Jack had cleaned here before and knew better than to trust the lack of noise. One year a patient had been tucked quietly in a corner, pretending to be a plant. Unfortunately for one of the orderlies, that plant had been a Venus Mantrap. The list in the orderlies office, now the nap room, confirmed he had found most of the patients. Jack was surprised to see that he recognized one of their names. It was a hunter who had worked for the Goodbody family regularly since before Jack had been born. Jack always suspected he was a few Amish short of a barn raising, but the man had seemed grounded enough to have his troubles under control. Clearly that was no longer the case, or maybe it never had been and Jack was just learning about it now.

     Smilin’ Jimmy. Jack could still remember meeting Jimmy when he was a boy. He had been a tall, lanky old man when he was a kid and time had not been kind to him since. When Smilin’ Jimmy was younger, someone had told him that people like getting bad news better when you smile. Jimmy was always smiling. It’s not that he had a dour perspective on everything, he was more of a practical glass half empty type. Some years ago, he had left on some work and never come back. Maybe he had been here. Live and learn.

    Finding him wasn’t difficult. Even amongst the crazies, a normal person wearing a false smile that never reached his eyes was disconcerting at the best of times so most people gave him a wide berth. He was sitting in a common room with a few folding tables and chairs and a couch that looked like it had come with the building and then caught on fire at some point. Jimmy was staring vacantly at a chess board. He apparently had no opponent since nobody else was in the room and it was likely he hadn’t even started a game since all the pieces were in their original positions.

     Jack sat across the table from him and made the first move, “Jimmy, what are you doing here?”

     Jimmy smiled at Jack, “Oh Jack! So good to see you, I wondered when you would show up here.” He made his first move in return.

     “I wasn’t interrupting anything was I?” Jack moved another piece.

     “Nothing that can’t be finished later.”

     They continued their game for a while, Stan sat down on the couch, which groaned under his weight, “So how long have you been here?”

     “Long enough to get sick of the pudding.” The game continued awhile longer, “I have something for your father, Jack. I need you to take it to him.”

     Jack sighed and nodded. Somehow, he figured it would come down to this. Nobody ever wanted to take bad news to his father. Jimmy slid a metallic spoon across the table. It was made of silver and the handle had a highly stylized  “D” engraved on the end of it. “And I suppose you want me to take this to him as well?”

     “I only managed to find one after years of hunting but…”

     “It’s a spoon, Jimmy. Lots of people have spoons.”

     Jimmy smiled a bit wider and Jack braced himself. Smiles from Jimmy always led to bad news. “This spoon came from the Devourer Set.” Jack’s puzzled looked confused Jimmy so he tried to explain, “You’ve learned how items like, say a spoon or a car can take on attributes of their owner’s right? That’s why you went into cleaning.” Jack nodded absently, trying to decipher the board and figure out his next move, “Well, this is part of a set of silverware used by the Denavi family, your father wanted me to gather the set so he could put it into the family vault.”

     For Jack, the world came to a complete halt, “This spoon belongs to the Denavi family?” Jimmy nodded slowly, still waiting for Jack to make a move.

    Stan shifted on the couch, the creaking and moaning sound made Jack almost jump out of his chair, “What’s the deal with them Denavi’s anyways? I never hear nothin’ about them from you.”

     Jack shuddered, “Back when our family first moved to America we moved over with a group of other families to help us set up here to hunt. One of them was the Denavi family and they quickly took on the role of assassins, getting rid of problems our family couldn’t, or didn’t want to handle. They’re totally insane, the lot of them. One minute it’s sunny and the next it’s pouring rain, you never know where you stand with those green-eyed maniacs.”

     Jimmy nodded, “Any Denavi you meet is bad news.” He smiled widely at this, his face crinkling everywhere except where laugh-lines around his eyes should have been.

     Jack threw up his hands, “They aren’t just bad news, they’re a history special on bad news.” Jack knocked his king over, there was no point in continuing a game when he had this information to take in.

    Jimmy rose from his seat and cracked his knuckles, “Time for me to head back on the road. Send your father my best.” Jack nodded absently and let him leave. Jack stayed in the room staring at the board.

     Stan rose uncertainly after around ten minutes, “Shouldn’t we stop him? He’s onea’ them patients we was cleanin’.”

     Jack waved a hand dismissively, “We couldn’t have stopped him if we wanted to. No reason to get hurt for a job like this.” The moment after Jack said that, the alarms went off sending the facility into a joyous panic. “And that’s our cue to leave.” He caught the look on Stan’s face, “Hey, how was I supposed to know Jimmy would break out while we were cleaning up? And that man is not subtle about his breakouts.” The whole facility rocked in a massive explosion, “No sir, not subtle about his breakouts.”

     Jack took the spoon and the note and stuffed them into his vest pockets, “Time to get out while the getting is still getting bad, “He edged to the door and looked out into the hallway. The riot had yet to spill into this wing, but Jack was willing to bet in the red pastel zone things were getting ugly. Gesturing to Stan, he let him go out into the hallway first. Better to use Stan as a mobile assault platform under the circumstances than to try and get out any other way.

     Sadly for their cleaning efforts, the orderlies had already opened the cells back up and ruined all their hard work. Jack facepalmed and turned to Stan, “Remind me next time never to clean here again.”

     Stan sagged a bit, sloping his massive shoulders, “If I knew which one of them hospitals we were cleanin’ I woulda’ warned you.”

     Jack nodded and peeked out from behind Stan, “Next time I will.” Suddenly, Jack yanked on Stan’s coveralls to bring him to a halt, “You know what? I don’t feel like going out the front entrance.”

     Stan cracked his knuckles and tapped the wall next to them, feeling it out for weaknesses, “Want I should make an exit?”

       “Yes. Let’s just go home.”

       Stan tapped the wall a few more times before pulling both fists back and beginning a flurry of punches that left a hole large enough for them to climb out into one of the courtyards, “Which home are we talkin’ about here boss?”

     To his surprise, when he tried to answer the question Jack was no longer sure himself which one he had referred to. The courtyard led around to the front of the building where they had left the van. The van was now surrounded with a crowd of multicolored patients being roughly manhandled by orderlies dressed as flying pugs. Jack found himself grinding to a complete halt as the spectacle unfolded before him. Dr. Hammond ran by the front entrance chasing a small gaggle of patients wearing a black pointy hat and cackling about how she was going to get her pretties back.

      “Let’s never speak of this again.”

      “Sounds good, boss.”

       Despite their desire to leave, Jack and Stan waited until the struggle had at least moved away from the van to the rocking chairs in front of the building. Some of them had already been thrown down the stairs, leaving Jack to wonder how they had been pulled up when they were bolted to the concrete. After mulling it over in his head, Jack decided he would rather not know the answer to that question he chased it from his head to join the other forgotten thought trains as Stan ploughed through the gate. Not exactly their finest hour but not quite their fault either so far as Jack was concerned. He patted his vest pocket and the journey home began.

Chapter 21

    Jack dreaded the trip home again and yet could hardly avoid it. You don’t just wander into an insane asylum to wait for someone on a random hunch. Jimmy knew he would be there someday, but the last time he had cleaned Gentle Pastures had been more than a year ago. That Jimmy was waiting for him in that pastel colored hell hole meant the situation was serious. The road up the mountain, with all its twists and turns, cast shadows over the van beckoning Jack home to an empty hearth. The early morning sun beamed down through the overhanging branches in small ladders leading up to the sky like little ladders of freedom somehow escaping the oppression of a long dead forest. The gate lay wide open when they arrived, something Jack couldn’t remember encountering since before he left the Family house. Those heavy black front gates left open and nearly brushing the forest on either side of the road could only mean one of two things. Either a special event had happened or the family had met recently. The last time a special event had happened was a funeral all family members had been required to attend.

     Stan parked the van right in front of the main doors and Jack marched in without knocking, surprising both himself and Madeline who was busy dusting the werewolf in front of the stairs when he came in, “Master Jack! I didn’t expect you back for a year at least.”

     Jack felt unsure what tone he detected in her voice, it seemed to be a mix of confusion, approval and disdain, “How’s the kitchen doing, Madeline?”

     Madeline hopped down from the ladder she had been on and curtsied with a crisp motion to Jack, “Welcome home, young master.”

     Oh yeah, he read that one alright. Resentment. “Where’s father, Madeline?”

     “In the study, young master. His health is still very fragile so he spends most of his days in there with a roaring fire.”

     Jack patted his vest pocket, where he had tucked the note and the spoon away, and made his way up the stairs before turning to Madeline and sparing her one more glance, “Feed Stan.”

     Madeline seemed to shrink a bit into the ground, apparently hoping that Stan hadn’t heard that pronouncement, “Very well, young master.”

     Stan tromped up to the door and ducked his head inside, “Them steaks ain’t gonna fix themselves, Maddie.” Stan grinned as he ducked inside, only fading slightly when Madeline plucked the cigar out of his pocket.

     “No smoking in my house, Mister Stanley.”

     Jack steeled himself for this new confrontation and headed up the stairs before stopping at the third floor. The study doors brought him to a halt as they always did. When Jack was a child, he always thought the door looked like a monster. It seemed silly to look back on it now, but when he was a child he found the hourglass looked very much like a mouth that was ready to devour him whole. Closing his eyes, he steeled himself and gently pushed the door open.

    The room hadn’t changed since Jack had last been in to visit his father. He still sat in the same chair, cloaked with the same dark grey blanket he used to hide his face from the world. His hands gripped the side of his chair tightly, “To what do I owe the pleasure of seeing my son twice in one month?”

     Jack reached into his pocket and fished out the piece of paper that had been given to him by Jimmy, “I met up with Jimmy when I was on the road cleaning. He gave me this to give to you, I never read it.”

     “I have no doubt you didn’t” Varnes snatched the letter away and held it up to the candle to read, “You have no interest in your family.”

     Jack felt an unexpected pain in his chest at that statement, “What is it?”

     “It’s a list of items I had been looking for and have had no luck with finding.”

     Jack cocked his head, “Than why did you need a list from Jimmy of all people?”

     Varnes lowered the paper and though Jack couldn’t see it, he was sure he could picture the look of scorn on his father’s face, “I had no idea what exactly I was looking for, which made these items hard to find.” Now at least I know exactly what I’m looking for.” The inky blackness under the blanket seemed to regard Jack, “What do you know of Machina, son?”

     “Not much beyond what you told me the first time. Weapons of unimaginable power or some such nonsense. Enough to make people kill each other, I take it.”

     Varnes laughed in his chair, a wheezing coughing laugh that left his body wracked with spasms for a few moments, “Not so much weapons as dream machines. Our family, along with the other four, started finding them after we came to America. I know very little about their origin beyond the name of their creator.”

     “From the sound of it, you’re chasing dreams and nightmares without any real idea what you’re searching out.”

     Varnes crumpled up the paper and held it over the candle’s flame until it lit. He held it there until the flame consumed the entire piece paper, earning no visible reaction from him and leaving no mark on his hand, “I’ve heard rumors. Your grandfather used to talk about them when I was a child before he passed. When you find the right items, they power a machine called the Deus Machina which can make any dream come true.”

    “Deus. In other words, God? These things give someone the ability to become God?”

     “That’s what my father said. As you can imagine, I wanted to keep it out of the hands of normal idiots with god complexes. I started looking for them and in the years I have spent looking, I have found nothing. Eventually, I realized that I didn’t even know what I was looking for. That’s why I sent Jimmy out to look for the information that I needed.” A hand withdrew into the shadows under the blanket and Varnes coughed loudly.

     “Well, I hope it was good news. Jimmy also gave me this, he said you were looking for the complete set.” Jack fished the spoon out of his pocket only to look down in shock as he felt the spoon leave his hand. Apparently, Varnes wasn’t so sick as he let on.

     “Is this what I think it is?”

     Jack nodded and rubbed his hand, “A part of the Devourer set that you had been looking for. Anyway, I’m going to grab something to eat and then I’m headed back to the office.” Turning to leave, he strode quickly for the door before stopping short with his hand on the doorknob, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if you need me don’t hesitate to call me.”

     Varnes waved him out with one hand, examining the spoon in his other hand with keen interest. Jack stepped out into the hallway and almost fell over as his sister Sam ran into him, hugging him tightly.

     “You came back! That’s twice in a month! So you do care!”

     Jack gently held her back and started fixing her hair before she slapped his hand away, “This isn’t going to be a regular thing. It just happened that my path crossed with family business more than a few times this month. That being said, I wouldn’t mind grabbing something to eat with you.”

     Sam nodded happily and skipped down the stairs ahead of Jack, in spite of her sarcasm and leather jacket, he could still see the little girl inside his big sister. A girl filled with enthusiasm for running through the woods and hunting rabbits to keep as pets. The main stairwell was worn down the sides and directly down the center, worn by feet of varying weight. Jack hooked his arm through his sister’s and led the way downstairs.

Chapter 22

     When most people think of home, they tell you that’s where their heart lies. Jack would wholeheartedly disagree. To him, home was where you kept the food and where you slept. Get too attached to a place and you would have only yourself to blame when it burnt down, something that had happened to the Goodbody family in the past. The main floor of the current Goodbody house possessed two kitchens. The larger one of the two was for the help to prepare larger meals and the smaller one was for family members only. Goodbody family members staying at the house tended to make food in their own apartments and so eating down in the smaller kitchen had long ago become an act of familial love for a family that prized individualism.

     The family kitchen lay directly next to the staff kitchen, but there was a family entrance from a set of stairs on the third floor. The smell of scrubbed steel drifted out from behind the door, causing Jack to wonder if the kitchen even had any food. Opening the door, he was hit with a wave of nostalgia. This was the room he used to eat breakfast in. The table they had eaten at must have been moved, but the steel counters along the walls still stood where they had been. All the walls were lined with cabinets, except the wall to Jack’s left which had a stove and an enormous refrigerator that was taller than Stan.

     Sam slid into the room next to him and whistled softly, “I can’t even smell any food. Who knows what we’re going to find? Maybe inviting you to eat down here wasn’t the best idea.”

     Jack grabbed his sister by the wrist and tugged her into the room, Despite that fact, or maybe because of it, after an hour of rooting around Jack was only able to find a bag of potatoes.

     Setting the bag on the counter, Jack waved his sister over and tossed her a potato, “Get to peeling. You invited me, so I’m not doing all the work.”

     Sam snatched the potato out of the air and whipped her knife out from her pocket. Jack leaned against the counter and watched her work, the blade a mere flash of metal running over the spud. It had been a long time since he had gotten a close look at the blade that had ended so many lives. It was the very reason his sister was renowned more as a back-alley fighter than as a monster hunter. The blade functioned as a long, slim switch blade. The sides of the hilt were a dull black, emblazoned in silver with the family motto running up and down each side. Jack tossed her another potato when she had finished the first, peeling it and cutting it into small pieces. Sam snatched it out of the air and got to work.

     After a few more potatoes peeled, Jack finally spoke up, “You said things had changed since I left, do you have any details for me or were you just being purposefully vague for no reason?”

     “Around two or three years after you left, most of the rest of the families started heading off on their own as well. They still come back for the reunion every year but after you came back from California I…”

     “I will never answer any questions about that.” Jack cut his sister off. Pulling out a pan, Jack dumped the potato pieces into it and seasoned them, testing the flavor every now and then. Once he was satisfied, he turned the oven on and stood next to his sister to watch the potatoes cook.

     Sam spent a few long minutes watching the oven before reaching her arm out hesitantly for Jack’s. She pulled back a few times before she finally rested her hand on his arm, “All I needed to know is that it wasn’t your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong and you did everything you could to save our brother…”

      They stood in silence for a long time, holding hands in front of the oven. Somehow, to Jack, the distance between them felt even greater than usual even though they stood so close together. Time slipped away until the oven rang out a tiny bell and Jack pulled the potatoes out. While they cooled, he pulled away from her to set places and pour them both a glass of water. The sound of cooked meat drifted through the doors letting Jack know that Stan was eating as well. Soon the smell of meat was overpowered by the scent of spicy potatoes and Jack served up two plates, one for him and one for his sister. They sat down and dug in, silent but for the sound of chewing for a long time.

     The entire time, he thought about what his sister had said. When he had eaten his fill, Jack pushed his glasses up and massaged the bridge of his nose, “So around the time I left, father must have started looking for the Machina and it’s been taking a long time since most of the families are out doing their own thing.”

     Sam nodded and speared herself another forkful of potatoes, “And if he were to find anything out he would then be able to call in some help from the family and they wouldn’t be able to say no, at least not unless they have a death wish.”

     Jack pushed the rest of his food to Sam who eagerly added them to her own plate, “Given our family? Even odds that they ignore him anyways, especially our cousin Julian.”

     “The artist with the faggy lisp? Yeah, he’ll say no so long as it suits him, no matter what threats we send him.”

    Jack playfully slapped Sam on the back of the head, “Knock it off, sis. He has a lot of bad qualities but his choice in companions isn’t one of them.”

     Sam rubbed the back of her head and scowled, “He drew a painting of me as a gorilla.”

     Jack stared off into space for a few moments, “I guess that would count as one of his bad qualities.” They both burst out laughing, Sam pulling Jack into a tight hug for a long time. It took them a long few moments to realize how loud the silence had become. Sam pulled away from Jack a little and whipped out her knife. The silence of an empty building that should be full of people is mournful. An empty home echoes loneliness and the echoes of faded dreams. What was also unnerving was the silence of a house that should be empty, but was full of people. From the other rooms, both of them could hear whispers and the gentle brush of clothes against walls and furniture.

     Jack put a finger to his lips and Sam nodded. They split up and headed around the kitchen walls until they each came to the door that led out into the main kitchen. Jack raised a finger to get Sam’s attention and waved his finger around in a circle. She nodded and held her knife at the ready.

    Jack stepped into the doorway and yawned as though nothing were wrong. In that instant, something lunged at Jack, detaching itself from the other shadows in the dining room and stabbing at him with a glinting blade. The dagger whirred through the air towards Jack’s neck as he danced backwards. Sam lashed out with her knife in the same instance, slashing the arm and stopping the assault short. Before the attacker could pull away, Jack moved back in and grabbed his arm pulling him into the kitchen and into Sam’s waiting blade which sliced across his neck. The attacker fell to the ground with a heavy thud, bleeding heavily on the kitchen floor.

     Jack hunched down and rolled his attacker over. He was wearing a dark, dull colored body armor that covered his entire body and a mask that covered his face. Sam’s strike had bitten straight through the armor over his neck. On the left side of his armored vest a patch glinted slightly in the kitchen lights. It only read S.P.H.K.. Jack ripped it off and held it up to Sam, who took it and turned it over in her hands.

     “Seems we’ve been attacked by some Special Forces group or something, but what could possibly be so important to get people to attack our house? That seems like a bad idea.”

     “Bad idea or not, I assume there’s more than one. They must be all over the house by now. We should be careful.” Sam took the lead and Jack snatched up the dagger from his attacker and followed behind at a short distance and watching her back.

     Sam paced warily out into the main kitchen and almost instantly two more shadows materialized to attack her. It was uncanny, like watching parts of the kitchen pull away from the wall to attack them. It should have been impossible and yet they almost managed to get into Sam’s blind spot. She turned to block the first attack, knowing full well that she was leaving her back open to the second attacker. When the second foe rushed in to stab at the back of her head, Jack caught him in his blind spot and rammed the his dagger up to the hilt into the side of his head. The first attacker crumpled to the ground in an instant. Sam used that instant of confusion to bring a quick kick to the left of her attacker’s head, sliding her blade across his neck as well.

     “We need a few more of them alive, Sam. I’d like to ask them a few questions about why they’re here, though I suspect I know the reason.” Jack left the original dagger embedded in the side of his attacker’s skull and took up his own blade to take its place.

     “What’s that?”

     “I gave father a list from Jimmy. I got it when I ran into him on the road.” Jack took the lead this time and headed for the door to the dining room.

Chapter 23

     In all the years the Goodbody family had lived in this place, the only time the main Goodbody house had been attacked was once when Jack’s grandfather still led the family. A migration of werewolves across the country had led them directly into the path of the Goodbody family, old hands at killing their kind. It hadn’t gone well for them. He could hardly believe someone else was trying it now. The smaller kitchen connected directly with the main kitchen. From the main kitchen, Sam took the lead again and they moved into the dining room. The dining room led into the downstairs foyer opposite the door and beside the stairs. From the dining room, Jack could see the shadows moving up the stairs. The smell of mothballs was briefly punctuated by the smell of stale sweat and whiskey. Their uninvited guests weren’t just fools, they were patient and drunk fools as well. That and they were headed up the stairs with confidence which made Jack feel like they knew where his father could be found.

     Racing through the dining room, Jack found himself thinking about his father upstairs alone in his room with his thoughts and his relics of a bygone age. Jack wasn’t entirely sure if it was fondness that injected a desperation into his steps. Even though he hated him, and he was sure he hated him, Jack had known no life but a life that contained his father. Madeline stood at the bottom of the steps, gently swaying back and forth. She held a cake server in her left had, which glistened red in the light along the side. One crimson droplet glistened on the edge of her cake server and hung suspended for a small eternity before it hit the ground. Her hair frayed out around the edges under her maids cap.

     “Master Jack, I’m so glad to see you and your sister unharmed.”

     Jack ground to a halt and looked up the stairs. He was shocked to realize he could now see the shadows moving, whereas before they would have been out of sight, “Madeline, how exactly did they get past you?”

     Madeline turned to look up the stairs, “I was in the kitchen when we were attacked. I just got here myself when I realize you might have been their target. It seems I was worried about nothing.” A shadowy attacker raced down the stairs and made a running leap for Madeline, blade outstretched, Madeline raised her cake server and parried the blog, raising her free hand and sending her attacker head over heels into the air, landing directly on Jack’s stolen knife. He left that knife embedded in his chest and snatched up the new blade before checking him for identifying marks. Again, the bade was the only note-worthy feature.

     Looking, Jack noticed the other shadows on the stairs, around for, had begun to descend the stairs towards Madeline, a little slower this time and more methodical. Now the real fight began. A fight against opponents that weren’t taking you seriously is no real fight at all. Jack paused considering the odds before stepping slowly to the left, Sam stalking out behind him to watch his back. Neither one of them had time to move very far before things got out of hand. Madeline stepped out onto the floor and turned to face her opponents. One of the attackers paced down the stairs, confident in his backup. The wall to the fight side of her attacker burst open and an enormous hand reached out and grabbed the man around the neck and smashed him back into the wall three or four times until he went motionless. Somehow, despite the confusion, the mysterious assailant managed to stab Stan’s arm a few times before he had been put down. Stan’s arm vanished through the hole it had made, wavering slightly before it vanished.

     Madeline sagged against the wall next to the stairwell and pulled out a handkerchief to dab at the blood slowly seeping out from a wound in her shoulder which Jack hadn’t noticed before. He dashed to her side, catching her before she could hit the ground and holding her upright.

    “Master Jack, so good to see…you’re alright. They…must have drugged the food…” Madeline trailed off and closed her eyes, sagging against Jack’s supporting arms.

     Jack handed her off to Sam and looked up the stairs, “Father’s still up there. I’m going to find out what the hell is going on here.”

     Sam nodded and gently pulled Madeline’s dress aside to reveal a small, but terribly deep, knife would. The remaining three invaders watched them intently. It seemed that their purpose was not to attack, but merely to keep them from reaching the upper floors.

     Jack slowly marched up the stairs, to watch judgement he did not know. That left three opponents on the stairs. Three road blocks between him and his father. Jack held no weapons except the knife that he had taken. Fair odds to them. The first opponent dove down the stairs. Jack swayed to the left side and rammed the blade into the side of his head. He had no time to celebrate his victory, because it quickly became apparent why he had jumped forward so eagerly. He was playing the sacrifice for his mates.

     The second attacker already had a blade aimed for Jack’s neck. His movements down the stairs were calm and sure. Jack swayed back to the right and swung the first assailant into his compatriot’s path. The blade aimed at Jack hit his former friend in the back with a hollow thud. Reaching around his makeshift shield, Jack snatched his collar and held him still and grabbed the knife from his first attacker, using it to calmly finish the second attacker as well. The third opponent, seeing his friends taken out so easily, turned and ran up the stairs with Jack following, stepping around the fallen. Two flights left, the stale air grew staler and the smell of whiskey grew stronger. At the top of the third flight of stairs, Jack looked down the hall and found his last attacker standing with another man, likely the one in charge of this suicide mission. They stood before the door that had so often been a major part of Jack’s nightmares. He turned his head when he heard Jack’s footsteps on the stairs.

Chapter 24

    An attack on the Goodbody house at this time could only be for one reason. These men had come to their house wearing armor, their features obscured by helmets. The man pulled his helmet off and tossed it to the ground. Jack was surprised to find out he was old, his hair was greying and Jack could clearly see the lines on his face. He was slight and wiry, but he moved with alarming speed now that Jack knew how old he was. No wonder he had tried to stay out of the fight, dying wouldn’t do anyone any good.

     “Glory is a bitter dish,” Jack muttered to himself as he watched the cornered soldier.

     “Do you think you could see your way clear to just pretending you lost track of me?” The old man’s knife was longer than the others, with a straight edge that gleamed even in the poorly lit hallway. He knew exactly what he was here for and he likely wouldn’t take no for an answer.

     “What exactly are you here for?”

     “This mission wasn’t our idea, but we’re here for a list that you gave to your father. Where would he have put it?”

     Jack was about to answer when something entirely unexpected happened. The door opened. The door with the hourglass that hadn’t opened more than once a week from the inside in years finally opened and in the frame stood Varnes Goodbody. Jack couldn’t move, he could barely breath. His father had been mostly confined to a chair in a sickly state, but apparently he wasn’t nearly as sick as he let on. As of late, he had left the room to go back to his bedroom and the bathroom but Jack had been told that was the limit of his father’s movement. His dark grey blanket was still draped around him, giving it the appearance of a burial shroud in the dark hallway. Over his shoulder was a long saw that extended up beyond the frame of the door. The long handle was shaped like an oar handle and the saw was serrated on both ends ending in a straight vicious straight edge that Jack couldn’t see, but knew enough to fear.

     “Ah, shit,” the words came undesired and unbidden, “The Midas blade.”

     A blade handed down from one head of the family to the next, the Midas blade was a truly wicked weapon. Much like the king for whom it was named, it would turn anything it cut into gold. Oh, it wouldn’t turn the whole thing to gold but literally only what it cut. Usually, this meant small lumps of gold tearing their way through your veins until they reached your heart and that was the end. In years past it had been used to fund the family. Somewhere in the richer houses of the world, tables shaped like a tree trunks, ornately carved with surfaces of solid gold made nice additions to a breakfast nook. Jack hopped over the bannister and onto the stairs to get out of range. He doubted his father would cut him down on purpose, but with a weapon that needed free space to move staying in the fight at this point left Jack at a distinct disadvantage.

     He could hear his father coughing and the scrape of metal running across the door. He had actually left the study. “I burned the note up as soon as I got it. There’s no more information to be had except the information that’s in my head. Would you care to pick my brain for it.?”

     Jack took a step or two down the stairs and away from his father, the soldier did not, “Well, shit. This isn’t exactly what I had in mind. Having to take on the father and the son at the same time puts me at a real disadvantage, but I can’t come back empty handed so I’ll have you tell me what that list said.”

     Varne’s whisper echoes through the hall despite his quiet voice, “Too bad, you’ve already hurt this family too much.” There was a whir and a sudden burst of air from the sudden movement of the blade which flattened Jack into the ground. A loud gurgling could be heard from the third floor and when Jack looked up his father stood at the top of the stairs gently wiping the tip of the blade with his blanket. The dark grey threads of the blanket turned gold where the saw touched it.

     “Seems like I had to save you again, child.” Jack shuddered inwardly, that word should be forbidden.

     “I didn’t want to get caught up in that attack, you aren’t as young as you used to be and I had questions about your accuracy with that giant saw that turns everything it touches to gold. I used to be your golden child before you took off your rose tinted glasses, but not even I want that to be true literally.”

     Varnes shifted, seeming to move very fast, but only taking a half step back. His saw whipped around impossibly fast and gently nicked Jack’s tie a few times leaving streaks of gold, “Not so old as all that.”

     Jack took his tie off and let it fall to the ground, “It no longer matches any suit I own, you can keep it father.”

     Varnes tossed a book down the stairwell, which Jack caught in one hand, “Ever prideful and arrogant, resolving to trust only your own skills and talents and to only follow your own interests. You’re just like the rest of this pathetic family. Sometimes I wonder how we kept going as long as we did. Everyone had their own dreams but everyone also pulled together to make sure this family was strong.”

     “That sounds more like the father I know.”

     “The gathering of the families is very soon, we’re going to need to help getting the house ready and I thought I might hire you so long as you attend the party after you’re done cleaning.”

     “No way. I don’t want to attend the party to see a bunch of morons I stopped caring about a long time ago and I don’t need your petty cash to clean a house I don’t live in anymore. I can make it on my own. I’ll collect Stan on the way and we’ll be gone soon.” Jack took a few steps before he stopped and looked up at his father, “I’m…I’m glad you’re not dead, father.”

     “Me too. Consider my offer.” Jack continued down the stairs and took a deep breath. The smell of whiskey was tempered with blood now and it mixed with the stagnant air in his house to create a new and truly horrible stench. At the bottom of the stairs, Madeline was sleeping soundly with Sam having performed some first aid on her wounds.

     “She’ll be fine, she just needs to sleep a bit.” Sam looked up the stairs at Jack, “So I take it this means you and Stan are leaving again?”

     Jack stepped around her and Madeline without answering Given where Stan had attacked from earlier, he must have been eating in the servants kitchen. What he found was hardly surprising. Bodies lay sprawled out all around the floor, some contorted into impossible postures, likely the result of Stan’s efforts. Food remained on the table, half eaten. Stan’s unconscious form lay slumped against the wall. With some effort he managed to sling Stan over his shoulder so that his feet were dragging behind him. Slowly, he took him out to the front and stopped to take a breath, You know father. Can’t live with him, can’t live a thousand miles from him. God help me, I don’t know what I would do without him and that’s why I live in the next town over.”

     “Figures. I’ll come and visit you soon, I know you’ll need to work off some steam.” Jack tried not to think about that too hard as he dragged Stan outside to the van and somehow managed to open the doors in the back and work Stan into the large back compartment over the softer cleaning supplies.

     “What do you eat that makes you so heavy?” Getting into the unfamiliar driver’s seat, Jack started up the van and started on his drive back down to the office and the small town that Jack called home now. The road twisted and turned, but Jack barely needed to keep his eyes on the road and could allow his thoughts to roam free. Clearly the head of the Goodbody family had gotten into something a little too big for him, but thankfully the timing was pretty good.

     Once every five years the Goodbody family gathered as many members of its family, who were still alive and able to show up, in one place for a celebration of the family’s complete and utter insanity. Even after almost thirty years Jack was still not so sure how he felt about the event. When he was younger, he used to assume, with his sister, that no other family had reunions. When he got a little older, he found out that other families did in fact have something they called reunions, an event where aunts and uncles come in from out of town to complain about potato salad and their unfulfilled dreams with scorn towards younger family members. That led Jack to the conclusion that the Goodbody family affair was still a fairly unique one.

     Being a family that emphasizes the individual, sometimes as Jack had learned, to the exclusion of the family itself, there was a lot of branches to the family. Jack often referred to them as vines, and there were some vines that were larger than others. The proper Goodbody family was really only comprised of three families with direct descent from the founder and a smattering of cousins that shared the Goodbody name and very little else. So the house was filled with Goodbody’s and related families all vying for importance and their own dreams and that led to a reunion that was uncomfortable at best and violent and uncomfortable at worst. The house certainly needed to be cleaned before that happened, but Jack wasn’t interested in listening to family members who were big fish in little ponds make snide comments about his choice of career all the while spilling wine all over the place and making more snide comments about how he would have to clean that up as well.

     Neither Jack nor Stan left the office for a week. Stan took some time off his feet to let whatever he had been drugged with work its way out of his system and Jack took the time to check his stock of cleaning suits. Several jobs into the season and one suit had a date with the drycleaner and one was torn and ripped beyond repair. The summer heatwave continued and even several days after both Jack and Stan had recovered they still had one last standoff that returned for them every summer. The phone stubbornly refused to ring. As the days dragged on, all thoughts of family trouble and frustration with other things faded as Jack and Stan, Paranormal Cleaners, eagerly awaited their next job.