Clean-freak college student Dani Hashelheim never imagined she'd discover her latent magical ability in, of all places, a bathroom. But when she ducks into the ladies' room at the library, she's put in the crossfire between an elderly janitor and a ravenous muck-monster that emerges from the sink. Dani's previously unknown power manifests in self-defense, and she floods and burns down the library—at the same time.
Enter Ben, the janitor, who works for the Cleaners, a supernatural sanitation company that keeps reality tidy and safe… and a company Dani now works for as well, whether she wants to or not. This puts a significant crimp in her dream to attend med school and become a doctor. Nor is Ben happy, since it's his duty to help Dani adapt to the job and learn to control her chaotic talent before it kills them both.
Dani barely has time to try on her new company uniform before she and Ben are hunted down by a cult that wants to cleanse all life from the planet, and believes her power provides the means to do so. While fighting to survive the cult's increasingly violent recruitment attempts, the pair must battle dust devils, navigate a maze of mystical sewers, face down trash golems—and scrub the occasional toilet.
Also at WordFire, we publish Josh Vogt's ENTER THE JANITOR and are about to release the sequel, THE MAIDS OF WRATH, in his series about supernatural cleaners. Josh worked for us at many of our shows and took a lot of work off my shoulders; we nicknamed him mini-me (although he's bigger than I am). He's just moved on to become an editor at Paizo Publishing, so you'll see a lot more from him. – Kevin J. Anderson
Ben shuffled into the college library, tugging his squeaky janitorial cart along like a coffin-on-wheels. The moment he entered the place, his right arm started aching, adding a small, but significant voice to the chorus of twinges, knotted muscles, and scars that composed his aging body.
Ignoring this as best he could, he took a big whiff of the place. He snorted and shook his head, gray ponytail flapping.
At the noise, heads popped up from textbooks and tablets as students stared his way. Ben gave them his best grumpy grandpa look until they turned back to their books. A study group that had circled up chairs in the center of the room resumed murmuring calculus equations at each other, which might as well have been a foreign language to Ben.
Resisting the urge to massage his arm, he made eye contact with the young man behind the main desk. Jason, the work-study for the evening, flashed a relieved smile as he lurched out of his chair and headed the janitor's way.
Ben tugged at his blue jumpsuit so his name, threaded in red on the left breast, displayed prominently. The spray bottle hanging on his belt quivered as the water sloshed within. Ben scowled and slapped it.
"Shaddup," he whispered. "I can handle this."
Jason arrived, glancing around as if afraid of angering some librarian deity. His combed hair and tucked polo shirt made him look like the chrysalis version of a politician, close to breaking out of the cocoon into full suit-and-smirk mode.
"If I'd known anyone was coming, I would've established quarantine," he said.
Ben cleared his throat with the subtlety of a garbage disposal. "If I'd known any winnin' lotto numbers, I woulda retired years ago. What's your point?"
Flushing, Jason caught the janitor's arm. Ben let himself be guided to one side, but once they got out of earshot, he grumbled at the younger man.
"Leggo of my arm. The suit don't block everythin'."
Jason snatched his hand back. "I—er. Oh."
"Yeah, 'oh.' And here I thought you was one of the smarter recruits."
"Should I… uh…" Jason wiped his hand on his shirt.
"If you caught anythin', it wouldn't matter if you stuck it in boilin' water until the skin came off. Just don't grope me again."
"The Board processed my report?" Jason asked.
"Yuppers. Figured it was worth a look."
Jason squinted in doubt. "And they sent you?"
Ben pushed his sagging cheeks up and leaned in. "You wanted someone prettier? Want me to go steal some lipstick from the girls' dorm and get gussied?"
Jason coughed and backed up a step. "Sorry, I just… I waited a while to call in. You know how HQ gets if you file too many false alarms. Wasn't sure if I actually sensed anything or was just being paranoid."
Ben rolled his bowed shoulders, which crackled like bubble wrap. "What're we dealin' with?"
"The vents keep rumbling," Jason nodded at a nearby grille, "and I've noticed above-average grime buildup. Definitely Corruption of some sort. Could be coming in from the air ducts. Maybe a muttermite infestation."
Ben sniffed. "Naw. You trainees are gettin' sloppy. Muttermites ain't never made this kinda stink."
Jason's nose wrinkled. "I haven't smelled anything."
"That's 'cause you ain't an old hound dog like me. You couldn't sniff out Corruption if bile got pumped straight up your blowholes."
The water in the spray bottle sloshed again.
"Hmm." Ben nodded. "Good idea."
Jason eyed the water as it spun. "Is that… Carl?"
"You betcha." Ben patted the bottle. "And no. You ain't gonna hold him, pet him, snuggle, or take a sip."
"I wasn't going to—"
"Hush it. Lemme concentrate."
He shut his eyes to fix on his prey. He blanked out the hushed chatter of the students, the hum of air conditioning, and the clack of fingernails over keyboards. He pushed past every distraction until…
The subtle foulness in the air congealed into an olfactory hook that set in his nose and jerked him toward the source of Corruption. Along with this came the sound of leather being dragged over rusty metal, and a messy snuffling, like a dog gobbling up fresh goose droppings.
Ben cocked his head at the bathrooms. "We got ourselves a blot-hound nested in the pipes."
Jason paled. "But there haven't been any suicides. They leave pretty distinctive trails, too. I'm sure I would've noticed. And if it has a nest, that's even worse. They always fight hardest against threats to claimed territory and—"
Ben sighed. "Are you tryin' to be helpful or just make yourself look smart?"
Jason stuck his chest out. "I've been studying. Almost ready to test for active field duty."
"Studyin'. Heh." Ben smirked. "Lemme fill you in on a company secret, kid. With the Cleaners, you don't learn through information. You learn through action. Gotten any of that lately?"
"I'm… not sure you mean it that way."
He clapped the trainee on the shoulder. "Don't think about it too hard. After all, I'm just a geezer here to get the job done."
"What should we do?"
"We? Nuh-uh. I got this. You plant your butt back behind that desk and keep clear."
"Sir, I've been ready for this for a year now."
"If you think that, then you sure as shootin' ain't ready yet."
Jason's face fell.
Ben scratched his arm, which itched where the kid had grabbed it. "You really wanna be useful?"
"Then go get me a sign that says the bathrooms are closed. That'll give me time to check things out and see if there's somewhere to fit you in. Anyone in either of them now?"
"Don't think so," Jason said. "I'll get a sign up, but—"
A growl wavered out from the women's bathroom, loud enough to perk up several students who glanced about in confusion. Ben's neck hairs prickled, and Jason's eyes widened.
The librarian wiped at a trickle of sweat that escaped a trimmed sideburn. "Uh… are you sure you don't need any help?"
Ben snorted. "Kiddin'? I've been moppin' up Scum since before you started shavin'."
A grimace. "Right. Guess I'll… get that sign and then alert the scrub-team."
"You do that." Ben plodded back to his cart and hefted a plunger. "Ain't gonna take more than ten, mebbe twenty minutes."
The spray bottle gurgled.
Jason scowled at it. "Does he know I understand him?"
"'Course he does," Ben said. "He wouldn't have said it, otherwise."
"Well, he doesn't have to be so insulting."
The water slopped about, making chuckling noises.
After Jason left, Ben nudged the cart into motion with a knee.
As he maneuvered it between a bookshelf and coffee table, a slender female student burst through the double doors of a side hall. She wore black leather gloves and a white headband pinned frizzy red hair behind her ears. Wide-eyed, she peered around the room until she spotted the calculus study group. She raised a finger in the universal just a minute sign. Adjusting her backpack, she bolted through the room.
Ben's blood chilled as he realized she was aimed for the women's restroom. He flung the plunger at her back in a desperate attempt to stop her. However, she slipped into the bathroom, and the tool bounced off the door as it slapped closed.
O O O
Something thumped against the door, but Dani ignored it as she tossed her backpack onto the counter. She fumbled in the main pouch and hauled out her jumbo bottle of sanitation gel.
In her haste to make it to the study group, she'd bumped into two people on the way. Two! Who knew what their hygienic standards were? When had they showered last? Did they even own toothbrushes? One had awful halitosis, and had huffed an apology in her face as she shoved past, trying to control her rising panic.
She tugged her gloves off and pinched them under one arm. Then she pumped double-handfuls of gel and slathered it over her hands and forearms. The cutting odor of alcohol filled the restroom. Her panic subsided as the fumes surrounded her, a protective shield against a filthy world.
As the gel evaporated, she envisioned it taking bacteria and dirt with it. Vapors singed her nose, but she breathed deep. Clean body, clean mind. She had to remain vigilant, otherwise who knew what germs might hitch a ride on her skin and then burrow deep? A shudder rippled through her as she counted off possibilities: Staphylococcus. Streptococcus. Escherichia coli. Oh, god! What if she'd contracted Clostridium difficile? Should she schedule a doctor's appointment? Should she—
The door banged open behind her. She shrieked and whirled about as a tall, elderly janitor barged in, waving a plunger like a sword.
"Aren't you supposed to knock?" she cried. "I could've been—"
She dodged as his cart almost ran her over. It rammed into a stall and soapy water sloshed out of the bucket.
"Hustle outta here, missy," he said, pursuing his equipment. She pulled back against the sink to avoid touching as he shouldered by. "We're closin' the place down for a lil' maintenance."
"C-close? But—" Dani hadn't finished her self-assessment. "I need a few minutes, okay? I've got an emergency of my own."
She squeezed her thighs together, faking the urgent need to pee. As she did, her bladder alerted her brain that it could actually use some relief. She stifled a groan. Using a public restroom would tack another ten minutes onto her routine, not counting prep-work to make sure the toilet was clean enough. Had she brought enough wet-wipes?
Grabbing her backpack, she edged toward the nearest stall, but balked as he barred the way with an arm.
"Whoa, hey there." His craggy smile accentuated the bags under his dark blue eyes. Oh god, was there dirt in his wrinkles? "Lemme rephrase. Nasty case of pipes backin' up in here. Gotta shut 'er down before things go Old Faithful. If you don't wanna flood of piss all over your shoes, you need to leave. Now."
Tasting bile, Dani considered retreating. But she couldn't leave without finishing her routine. She just… couldn't. He had to be exaggerating. If it was that bad, they would've had signs up and cordoned the place off.
"Look, gramps, I'll be quick. Just a minute or two so I don't wet myself."
"Nothin' doin'. Time to build a little character, princess. Get outta here and lemme do my job, a'ight?"
She sniffed. "Riding bikes builds character. I am not getting a bladder infection because you want to get back to reading porn in the janitor's closet."
He eyed her, grinning for some reason. His brown-streaked teeth made her stomach roil, and his breath had a tinge of spoiled meat.
"I ain't gonna argue about this, princess." He snatched a toilet brush off his cart and prodded her stomach. "Outcha go. Shoo."
She yelped and hopped back. What was he doing? He used that thing to clean up after people… after they… She couldn't complete the thought. He kept jabbing at her while she danced and dodged.
A cattle prod would've been less of a deterrent. Her gloves fell to the floor as she jumped away from a vicious thrust. She thought of screaming for help, but what good would that do?
At last, she bumped back against the door. How many greasy handprints had she just come in contact with? How many people washed their hands before leaving? Screw study group. She needed a steaming shower and a change of clothes before she lost her mind.
The janitor came on, grinning like a jester monkey. She tried to kick the brush out of his hand, but he pulled away.
"Ah-ah." He flicked the brush in reprimand.
Droplets hit her forehead, and she stiffened. Code Red exposure. She almost wiped the vile liquid off, but then realized her hands remained exposed. Her gloves. Where were her gloves? Her gel remained on the sink, taunting her. She reached for it even as the distance increased.
The janitor closed the gap. "There's more'n one set of bathrooms 'round, ain't there?" A final jab of the brush had her out in the library again. "Or there's some comfy bushes outside, if you got the gumption."
She bristled. "Now hold on—"
The door slammed in her face.
O O O
Ben shoved his cart against the door and leaned on it, sighing. Where was Jason with those Purity-forsaken signs?
He studied the place while ignoring the shrill voice outside. The women's room had four stalls and three sinks, walls done in blue and white tile, and a frosted glass window at the far end. Halogen lights gleamed off the fixtures.
Making sure the cart jammed the door, he double-checked his inventory. Mop with the metal-tipped handle? Check. Squeegee with a razor edge? Honed and ready. Radio? Charged. After hefting his mop, he walked by each stall, letting the prickling in his right arm escalate into a burning sensation.
Nothing drew him to any of the toilets, so he returned to the sinks and crouched to check under the counter.
The middle sink turned out to be the creature's hidey-hole. The S-shaped pipe had ruptured halfway down, jagged metal poking outward while black-green ooze dribbled from the hole. Ben gripped his mop like a staff as he kicked at the puddle of inky glop spreading beneath the break. The sulfur stink made his nostrils flare.
"I know you're in there, you cruddy little bugger."
He spat into the bucket of soapy water hanging off the cart. The saliva sizzled as it hit the surface, and he glared at the puff of steam. Using the squeegee, he scooped up a dribble of the black muck and dunked it into the water as well. More foul smoke rose from the tool, which emerged clean.
Carl gurgled in his bottle. Ben stuck the squeegee away and grabbed a rag.
"Yeah, well, you gonna be a tattle-tale? Not like they can do anythin'."
The water formed a brief vortex.
Ben flicked the bottle. "Have a little faith, buddy. If it gets any worse, they'll just kill me and burn the corpse. Problem solved. Everybody goes home happy."
He whacked the mop handle against the pipe. A spark leaped from the metal grip and shot an electric spiral down the copper length. A growl reverberated within the wall where the pipe buried itself in the concrete.
Without taking his gaze off the hole, Ben unzipped a breast pocket and pulled out a vial of bleach. He soaked the rag with this and wiped around both ends of the broken pipe. The muck clinging to the metal bubbled away in seconds until a shining copper ring capped the edges.
Another dribble of bleach went into the bucket. He plunged the mop into this and stirred. As he pulled it out, the solution sprayed across the black puddle. Wherever drops landed, steam rose and left the floor spotless.
Ben fought the urge to scratch his arm, which now burned up to the shoulder. He eased through several breaths, distancing himself from the pain. He shut out the sweat slicking his back, the electric buzz of the lights, and the raised voices from outside until only he and the broken pipe existed.
Drawing the mop back like a golf club, he prepared to swing.
O O O
Dani hugged herself and tried not to move. She'd never felt more exposed—not even on that night when Tim, her first—and last—college boyfriend, had coaxed her into that disastrous attempt at sex. She'd ended up missing classes for a week.
She tried to ignore the stares of her fellow students. She knew her reputation as the "campus clean freak." So what? She couldn't comprehend how others wallowed in germs all the time. Didn't they know eighty percent of infections spread through personal contact? Didn't they know library desks had more than four hundred times the bacteria of a toilet?
As her thoughts circled back to bathrooms, her fear switched to fury, and she imagined several sensitive places where the janitor could go stick his toilet brush. How dare he treat her that way? He, above all people, should know the importance of sanitation, and yet he'd been the rudest, crudest human being she'd ever encountered. Even the smell of him lingered like a dog fart.
She gritted her teeth as she considered her options. The nearest women's restroom sat on the far end of the building, and her full bladder might not survive the sprint—not to mention the warzone of contamination she'd be running through without protection. Use the guys' restroom here? Women's restrooms were bad enough. But her bladder made the situation clear. Relief first. Then damage control.
She turned to that door right as the librarian locked it and hung a sign on the knob. He didn't meet her eyes as he mumbled, "Sorry. Closed for maintenance."
She stopped just shy of grabbing him. Instead, she tore her headband off and threw it at the librarian, who ducked as it spun over his head.
"Are you kidding?" she asked through clenched teeth. "Come on. I just need, like, ten seconds."
With a rueful shrug, he returned to his desk. Moments later he spoke in low tones on a handheld radio.
Dani raked fingers through her hair, silently cursing as she tugged a few snarls. This couldn't be happening. How had things spiraled out of control so fast?
She forced her spine straight and made fists. No. She refused to let herself be bullied. She needed her gloves. Her gel and wipes. She couldn't go anywhere without them. What was the janitor going to do? Have her arrested for retrieving personal property?
She glowered at the women's room door. The thought of touching the handle set off mental sirens, but it'd be temporary exposure. Once she got her stuff back, everything would be okay. She could do this. She had to.
As she reached out, a screech echoed from within the restroom.
She paused. That didn't sound like any kind of plunging or toilet-scrubbing. Her frown deepened. What was this geezer up to? A push opened the door an inch, but the janitor's cart blocked anything more.
Screw this. With a wince, she lowered her shoulder and shoved.
O O O
Another growl shuddered up from the pipe, liquid and menacing. As Ben checked the cleansing ward he'd set up around the exit hole, someone thumped against the door.
"Keep your panties on," he shouted. "Just a few more minutes."
He whacked the pipe with the mop. Every strike sent sparks flying and a musical chime rang out. Each note melded with the others until the pipe and the wall around it vibrated with a pure tone.
Discordant howls rose in chorus to this. Ben tensed, waiting for his quarry to emerge. One hand went to the spray bottle.
The door burst open behind him. His cart skittered to one side and the redhead stumbled in, almost falling on her face.
Ben swore. "For Purity's sake! I toldja to get lost."
She glared at him with bright green eyes as the door swung shut behind her. "Keep your diaper on. I need my backpack."
He moved to shove her back out. "Go! This ain't—" A snarl warned him. He whirled and lashed out with the business end of the mop.
In that instant of spinning and striking, the beast lunged from the six-inch pipe opening. A dark form swelled to the size of a mastiff, looking like a mad scientist's experiment in mating snakes and hounds. Muscled forelegs reached for Ben's face with obsidian claws that dripped venom. Purple and blue scales covered the sinuous body. Fangs extended; nostrils and yellow eyes flared.
The mop connected. Bleach water sizzled against the creature's skin as the impact redirected the beast past the girl's legs. It smacked into the wall and tiles cracked.
The girl shrieked and jumped aside, knocking Ben's cart over. Water sloshed everywhere.
The blot-hound scrabbled upright. After shaking like a wet dog, the beast opened its maw as if to howl. Instead, it vomited a stringy black mass at the redhead. The sputum slapped her against the wall beside the door, where she stuck fast, feet dangling a few inches above the floor.
She writhed, eyes bugging, and keened, "Ohgodohgodohgodohgod…"
The blot-hound hunched, but Ben stepped in as it lunged. He caught it across the spine and slammed it to the ground, where it thrashed. Claws raked the legs of his jumpsuit but failed to shred the material.
Ben plunged the mop into the beast's body, aiming for the core of Corruption that enlivened it. When the mop connected with a hard ball in the blot-hound's chest, he twisted the handle and sent another surge of energy through it. Cloth strands twined around the ball and he wrenched upward, drawing the core out as it trailed black ichor.
The blot-hound screeched and kicked before going limp. Eyes dulled, its form began to ooze into the floor. Ben crushed the core beneath a heel and then waited until the trembling in his arms faded before going to the girl.
She stared, teeth chattering. "Wh… who are you? What was that… th-thing? Is it infectious?"
"You're in college and can't even read?" He tapped the name threaded on his uniform. "I'm Ben. And that was somethin' you wouldn't have had to worry about if you'd stayed out like I toldja."
A splash of bleach water dissolved the sludge pinning her to the wall, and she dropped to her knees. Wet blotches stained her pant legs and crotch, but Ben pretended not to notice.
She huddled in on herself, shoulders heaving as she came dangerously close to hyperventilating. Ben sighed and leaned on the mop as the effort of eradicating the blot-hound caught up with his failing body.
"Don'tcha worry. The scrub-team'll get here soon to give your memories a nice hose-down. By the time they're done, you won't even remember me. Ain't that a relief?"
She blinked up at him, and he recognized the distant look people got when events didn't align with their neat and tidy version of reality.
"Are you some sort of… crazy person?" she asked. "Please tell me it isn't contagious."
Ben grinned. "Crazy is the easiest explanation, ain't it? Run with that and you'll be just fine." He frowned and flexed his right arm, which continued to burn. Why hadn't the pain faded?
Shouts came from out in the library, along with chairs being overturned and feet thumping. The scuffle in the bathroom hadn't gone unnoticed. Jason had better be running interference.
The girl whimpered and dropped to her butt, trembling.
Ben shook his head. "Look, princess, I ain't gonna hurt you. I'm the good type of crazy—"
A scraping noise jerked him around in alarm. Yellow light flared in the blot-hound's eyes as it clawed up, standing twice as tall as before, reformed legs knotted with muscle. The head rose, now as big as Ben's torso and sporting slavering fangs. As the blot-hound fixed on him, a hungry growl made his guts quiver.
"Oh, cleanse my colon." He snatched the radio from his toppled cart and hollered into it. "Francis, I need backup. Now!"