Anji planted her mop like a spear and looked up at the grocery store manager. She tried to envision herself as a warrior preparing to stride onto the field of battle. It didn’t help that the manager loomed over her mousey figure the way a siege tower might right before smashing a lone foot soldier into the mud.
The manager pulled a full-face squint that made it look like someone had stapled one of his eyes shut.
“You’re the replacement janitor?” he asked.
Anji drew up to her formidable four-foot eight. She’d considered spiking her short black hair to add an inch or two, but figured it’d just make her look like one of those creepy dashboard trolls. Besides, with her pale complexion and dark purple lipstick, she pulled off the goth pixie look a lot better than troll.
Chin lifted, she smiled broadly. “Yes, sir. Here to keep your store clean and safe from every speck of dirt or germ that tries to sneak in.”
He rumbled a laugh. “Hun, I’ve seen germs that could beat you up and use you as a mop.”
Anji reminded herself not to growl at the nice man. “I can handle myself, sir.”
He tapped his badge, which read Marvin Snokesman. “Call me Marv. Or Mr. Snokesman. Or Snokes, like most of my team does behind my back. Just never ‘sir.’”
She indicated the name threaded in green on the breast pocket of her purple janitorial jumpsuit. “Anji.”
“The Janitor.” She hitched her shoulders back, proud to name herself among the ranks of the Cleaners. This would be her first solo job, and she was determined not to foul it up.
Marv’s frown almost hid his bottom lip. He shrugged, not picking up on the capital J. “Suit yourself. I’ll show you where Jerry kept his gear and you can get to work.”
She nodded over at the janitorial cart she’d hauled in from her van. “No worries. I brought my own supplies.”
“That going to cost me extra?”
“Nope. All part of the service.”
He studied her cart as if wondering how she’d managed to move it all by her teeny lonesome. Wheels and physics, of course. Thank Purity for wheels. They made so many things easier.
As his attention shifted, she woke the slightest bit of Pure energies within herself and cast about for any sense of Corruption in the area.
She murmured under her breath. “What kind of Scum could be causing trouble here?”
Marv came across normal enough, though his personal hygiene could’ve used a boost, as suggested by untrimmed fingernails and several yellow stains on his white shirt. He probably considered “All Employees Must Wash Hands” signs to be a suggestion rather than a rule.
She studied the store, comparing reality to the blueprint she’d memorized before reporting in. One more branch of a national brand, it somehow offered wide aisles and ceilings while still funneling people through carefully arranged paths crammed with the latest deals and fad foods. Bright lights glinted off tile and faux-wood flooring, while surfaces gleamed with brushed nickel and woodsy accents in an unlikely effort to create a homey feeling. It came across more like a mega-church devoted to the gods of munchies, nutritional supplements, and household supplies, with tithes and offerings laid on the altar of the cash registers.
At this late hour, only a couple of shoppers perused the shelves, while several staff in white shirts and green vests chatted over at the checkouts lines. Nobody gave off skeevy vibes to Anji, but she couldn’t discount an employee being the source of the trouble she’d been sent to sniff out.
She looked back to her temporary supervisor. “Marv?”
“This is a twenty-four hour grocery, right?”
“What clued you in? The Open 24 Hours neon sign out front?”
Okay. So maybe he deserved a growl or two. She kept her smile intact, even though her cheek muscles felt pinned in place.
“Just wanted to make sure so I don’t bust out anything that would bother customers too much.” That and she’d need to keep any displays of power subtle to avoid freaking people out. Company policy discouraged causing public freakouts. “So Jerry’s your usual guy? He out sick? Catch that bug going around?”
Marv shrugged. “Something’s got him puking his guts out, that’s for sure. Last we talked, he sounded like his lungs and stomach were having a cage match.”
Anji winced. “Any other of your team get sick lately? Or acting weird? Any new hires?”
He gave her an odd look. “You a janitor or a journalist?”
Clearing her throat, Anji forced a perky smile. “Right. Guess I should get at it.”
He waved toward the produce section at the far end. “Jerry usually started there and worked to the other side. He’d wrap up in the employee areas.” Marv pointed at the back, where wide swinging doors were marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. “There’s coffee in the break room, if you’re brave enough, and you get a half hour break. I’ll be in my office, so if anything comes up, just poke your head in.”
At her nod, he plodded off to a door over in the corner of the floral section.
Once sure no one stood within earshot, Anji took the radio off her belt and signaled HQ.
A voice crackled from the speaker. “This is dispatch. Janitor Anji, what’s your status?”
“I’m in,” she whispered. “Going to be actively scanning for anything suspicious while I work.”
“Noted. As a preemptive measure, we’ve scrambled their security cameras for the duration of your shift. However, inform us the instant you detect any Scum presence so we can send in backup. Remember, you are there for scouting purposes only.”
Anji frowned. Why’d they have to assume she’d need backup? She was a big girl…in a metaphorical sense, at least.
“Any idea what sort of Scum we’re dealing with?”
“Unclear. We’ve been analyzing reports from the other grocery stores that have experienced cases of food poisoning and contaminated goods. However, a wide variety of Scum could be responsible, and there’s always the possibility a human servant of Corruption is simply using mundane methods to taint the wares. Be ready for anything.”
Anji grinned fiercely. Oh, she’d been ready for this for a long time.
She scooted her cart into a corner where it wouldn’t be in the way, but stayed readily available if she needed a particular tool. She unhooked a short, flat-brush broom and eyed the area for the messiest spot to begin. Selecting a corner over by the organic veggie lineup—complete with the occasional fake lightning and thunderstorm as nozzles sprayed mist around—she started sweeping.
As she did, she poured a trickle of power down through the broom, activating its chanted nature. Subtle pulses rippled up from the brush and made the handle vibrate against her palms in seemingly random intervals. Her eyes half-shut as the actual labor continued through muscle memory while she focused on interpreting the feedback. As the broom gathered piles of dust and hair and other discarded scraps, she started to form mental images and more ephemeral sensations from the residue.
Here, someone had stood in front of the avocados in muddy construction boots. There, a baby had crawled on the floor, weaving a line of tiny-yet-grubby handprints until they suddenly disappeared—likely when the kid’s mother scooped it up. And over here…oh, for Purity’s sake. Someone had brought a dog into the store and either didn’t notice when it left a little puddle of piss or didn’t care.
Anji smiled to herself as she deciphered the pings and pulses her chanted broom provided. Sweeping sonar. A little trick she’d perfected that few other Cleaners managed. Some of her coworkers scoffed at the need for any sort of dirt divination, but she figured they were just jealous that they couldn’t pull it off like she did.
She continued analyzing recent traffic through the area, seeking anything unusual or tainted by Corruption. She picked up on plenty of scampering kids, one person who’d tracked so much shoe polish they might as well have bathed in the stuff, and at least one rodent scampering along under a counter. Oh, Marv would not be happy to know he had a mouse in the house.
Moving over to an open fridge containing enough veggie and fruit smoothies to feed an invading army of vegans, she started to sweep around the corner and—
The sense of decay and putrescence rammed into her frontal lobes so hard her brain quivered and tried to retreat into a dark corner of her skull. She gasped and braced against the mop, fighting against retching.
On recovering, she realized she’d become so wrapped up in studying the area, she’d overlooked a new shopper. The person shuffled through the produce section—a stooped man with scraggly brown hair that hid most of his face, while a grease-stained and muck-encrusted woolen coat hid his body. Even across the distance, the sour reek of unwashed body smacked her nose around and demanded its lunch money.
He didn’t seem to have noticed her as he limped along, mumbling to himself. Anji hunched in on herself, still pretending to sweep. Just a harmless janitor doing her job. Pay no attention, please.
The man approached the tomato display and leaned against it as if drunk. Anji’s eyes narrowed as he reached out trembling hands, with long, yellow nails that would’ve sent any manicurist fleeing in terror.
He patted over the tomatoes, touching every one within reach.
Anji’s mind raced. What was he doing? Casting some sort of Scum spell to spoil the fruit? Leaving a layer of supernatural grime behind that couldn’t be washed away? She had to stop this. HQ had said to call for backup, but with the Scum already in action, they might arrive too late to catch him. It was up to her.
Broom in one hand, she plucked the spray bottle from her work belt. So armed, she marched up behind the guy and planted her boots.
With a choked snort, he whirled, hands raised. He stared at her with bloodshot, jaundiced eyes. The reek of his breath hit her like he’d been sucking on rotted fish heads all day.
Strange, though. Aside from his generally unwashed state, she couldn’t sense any Corrupt energies emanating from him. Could some Scum hide their nature, even from the servants of Purity?
“Whaddya want?” he growled.
Anji leaned in, broom bristles aimed at his chest. “I know what you are. I know what you’re doing.”
He glanced around frantically, looking like Bigfoot cornered by a photojournalist. “I…I just wanna snack. Lemme ‘lone.”
“You aren’t going to get away with this,” she said. “I won’t let you.”
With a guttural chuff, he shoved at her. She snapped her broom up and blocked, but the blow knocked her back a few steps. By the time she recovered, he staggered toward the back of the store.
She aimed the spray bottle and pulled the trigger. A high-impact glob of water shot out and took him in the back. He hollered as he stumbled and crashed through a cardboard tower of pistachios. Reeling around, he fixed on her, expression crazed.
This time, he came straight at her, faster than expected. She fired another glob as he closed. It struck his chest and he flailed, but his momentum barreled him into her nonetheless. Anji’s back hit the floor with jarring force and both broom and bottle flew from her grasp.
“No!” Anji snatched at the bottle, but it soared away and smacked against the base of a large fruit display. The bottle’s plastic casing cracked—and the magically charged water within expanded with explosive force.
The display rocked. Toppled. Struck a couple displays beside it. Which also toppled into others, creating the healthiest domino effect the world had ever known.
An avalanche of oranges, apples, tomatoes, bananas, pineapples, and avocados careened across the floor, bouncing and rolling their way for freedom.
The man weaved on his feet, giggling maniacally.
“Snacks!” He grabbed a couple oranges and stuffed them in his jacket before racing off and out of the store.
Marv glared at Anji from across his desk. She sat in a chair opposite, hands clenched in her lap.
“Thirty years at this job,” he said, “and you start to think you’ve seen and heard it all.”
With his video feeds scrambled thanks to HQ’s interference, he’d had to rely on her story of a homeless man—which she realized far too late was all her target had been—going berserk and somehow overturning multiple displays before fleeing. Fortunately, one of the cashiers had spotted the man running out and recognized him as a vagrant who regularly loitered in the parking lot, which gave Anji’s tale a hint of credibility.
The store manager glowered for several minutes, his displeasure about as subtle as a brick hurled through a window. Finally, he sat back and crossed beefy arms.
“Exactly what were you trying to pull?”
Anji kept her back straight. “Just my weight, sir.”
“As if there’s much of that.”
She bowed her head to hide her glare. Why did so many big guys have to make jabs about their obvious size advantage? For her part, she refused to feel insecure about her conservative spatiality. After all, through countless bouts in the Cleaners’ sparring rings, she’d proven a well-placed squeegee could put down a bigger opponent every time.
Marv shook his head. “Not an hour that you’re here and I’ve got enough fruit rolling around I could use that section as a ball playpen.”
“Sorry, sir. I was just trying to do my job.”
“Since when does your job include ambushing customers?”
“It…it looked like he was stealing some food.” She shrugged. “I thought I could handle it. I approached him, but he just went crazy.”
“I bet you’ve taken a couple of self-defense classes and thought you could go all ninja on him, huh. Is that it?” He sighed. “We get snitchers in here all the time. So he would’ve taken a few apples. Big deal. You should’ve come and told me instead of trying to play My Little Batgirl.”
She winced. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I overstepped.”
“You’re here to clean up any messes, not make more of them.”
Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to meet his eyes. “I’ll help clean up the fruit displays.”
“No, you won’t. You’ve done enough to help.” Marv waved her out. “Go start working on the other end of the store. I’ll have my team handle it, since I can trust them to actually know what they’re doing. Going to take the rest of the night to get things fixed, and you better bet your ass I’ll be telling your boss about this.”
Head bowed, Anji sulked back to her cart and navigated through the fruit minefield. A couple employees stared at her while setting up folding warning signs to cordon off the disaster zone. Face burning, she pushed her gear along the main back aisle of the store.
Once her superiors heard of this, she’d be the laughingstock of HQ. She wouldn’t be allowed to scrub floors with anything more than a toothbrush. Why, they’d probably stick her on soap-carving duty for the rest of her life.
As she trundled along past the dairy aisle, a sudden wave of nausea made her gag. Eyes watering, body trembling, she pushed her cart off to the side and leaned against a cool freezer door. What…
Corruption. The sense of it grinding against her Pure energies was unmistakable. Just like before. Some manner of Scum actually lurked in the store. Anji had almost convinced herself she’d gotten a false positive off the homeless guy, but this confirmed her initial findings. Where did it originate? She needed eyes on the target before she reported in.
Straightening, she fixed on the meat and seafood counter just a couple aisles down. A door opened behind the counter, admitting the most corpulent man she’d ever seen. A bloodstained apron covered his store uniform and a fishnet cap stretched obscenely over a bush of curly black hair. Paying her no heed, the butcher pushed a rolling rack stacked with packaged meats around the front of the counter and down her way to an open-top display freezer.
Anji cringed at the waves of Corruption wafting off the…man? Creature?
He took a large steak off the rack. Before he placed it out for sale, though, he held it up and opened his mouth. A needlelike tongue shot out and penetrated the wrapping and meat. His body shuddered as if made of gelatin, and his throat flexed as he disgorged…something…into the meat.
Anji stared, aghast. Peering closer, she realized his body looked distended in spots to create his bulk, rather than from added weight—as if he’d been forced to take on this shape for some reason. She’d never even heard of this sort of Scum, but he had to be the source of the contaminated food. Without any idea of his nature or abilities, she was in way over her head. Time to call in the Cleaners cavalry.
As she reached for her radio, he chuckled and turned to look straight at her.
“Giving up already, little Cleaner?” He spoke as if his tongue had been put through a meat grinder.
She paused, finger on the radio button. “How do you know what I am?”
He gurgled in amusement. “I sensed you the moment you arrived. You think you’re the first Cleaner I’ve encountered? Though it’s amusing that they’d send such a weakling to deal with me.”
Anji took her hand off the radio to snatch a squeegee from her cart. She held it like a throwing star. “I’m not weak.”
Her mind helpfully suggested the image of a mouse squeaking dire threats at Godzilla. She banished the mental image, but couldn’t shed the feeling of termites gnawing their way along her spine, trying to undermine her determined posture.
“No, little Cleaner? Then why not indulge in a test of strength?” He flexed jiggling arms. “Your powers against mine. Winner take all.”
Scowling, she glanced around. No one in sight, and Marv had put most of his night skeleton crew to work on the fruit cleanup. If she made this quick, she could destroy the Scum and hopefully at least redeem herself in the eyes of upper management—plus prove she could handle being more than just a scout.
Or she could get herself popped faster than a soap bubble at a knitting convention.
Anji ground her teeth. She needed a brain with a better cheerleading section, that was for sure. If At First You Don’t Succeed, You’ll Probably Die didn’t make the best motivational slogan.
Grabbing her mop with her other hand, she dunked it into the bucket on the end of her cart. The smell of bleach filled the air as she thrust it at him like a sword.
“You don’t stand a chance, Scum.”
He grinned. “Excellent. Fresh meat is the best to spoil.”
At his first plodding step, she whipped the squeegee at him. It flew true, and its razor-sharp rubber edge struck him square in the belly. It sliced through the apron and disappeared into his gut, leaving nothing but a slice in the fabric to show its passing.
Growling low, Anji set the mop back in its slot and grabbed the handles of two plastic signs, each warning of the dangers of walking on wet floors. Holding these like batons, she waded in.
The chanted signs struck with the force of sledgehammers. Each slap sent shockwaves across his flab, rippling him from top to bottom. Yet the Scum took the hits while leering down at her, unmoved. Anji couldn’t even tell if he had bones.
One ham-sized hand caught a sign as it swung in, and she yelped as he yanked her up to his eye level. Dangling, Anji twisted, straining her shoulder and planting feet on his doughy chest for leverage.
His mouth opened, and the needlelike proboscis protruded.
“Not on a first date!” she cried.
She slammed a sign across his face, which snapped his head to the side. Letting go of the other sign, she dropped. An elephantine foot caught her in mid-air and threw her back against her cart. Gasping, she clambered to her feet. Every breath tore fire through her side. Cracked rib, perhaps.
She flung the other sign, which he slapped aside—to where it struck the rack he’d rolled out, bending one the stainless steel rods.
Anji grabbed her mop up again and charged, aiming to plunge it straight into his gullet and purge him from the inside-out. He grabbed the mop head, bleach water steaming against his palm, and wrenched it from her grasp. As she reeled, he gripped the handle in both hands and snapped the mop in half.
“Hey! That comes out of my paycheck!” Anji grabbed the bucket off her cart, spun full around, and sloshed the contents over his entire body.
The bleach water crackled and steamed on his skin, which blistered and blackened. Yet this only broadened his grin.
Anji clutched her side, wheezing. “Oh, for Purity’s sake. Now you’re just showing off.”
“Hardly.” He pulled a wad of his own melting flesh off and stuffed it in his mouth, chewing. “I’m just working up an appetite.”
“You know what else is good for that?” Anji asked. “Cardio.”
She turned and ran.
Yanking the radio off her belt, she signaled HQ. “This is Janitor Anji! I’m being attacked by an unknown Scum. Requesting backup. Repeat, I need a scrub-team here immediaagh!”
Something struck the back of her legs and sent her sprawling. Her radio skittered away under a shelf. Anji pushed up and looked back to see the broken halves of her mop, which the Scum had thrown to take her down.
Jumping to her feet, she frantically searched for options. She bit back the impulse to call for help, which would only put innocent lives at risk.
Then a desperate idea set her into a mad dash again. Heavy thumps signaled his following. Pumping her legs, she fought for every inch of a lead possible. She veered down one aisle, but halted halfway along, knowing she couldn’t let him get to the front of the store in this state.
Whirling, she took up a fighting stance. The Scum hove into view and plodded up to loom over her in the middle of the aisle.
Guttural laughter sent waves from his gut up to his quintuple chins.
“And now I feast, little Cleaner.”
“You’re right,” Anji said.
His bleach-burned face scrunched up in confusion at her admission of defeat.
She stood straight, chin up. “I am little.” She snapped her hands out, indicating the aisle they stood in. “And I am a Cleaner!” Another gesture above him. “And you should really be more careful where you stand.”
He looked up to the sign that read:
Aisle 8 — Household Essentials & Cleaning Supplies
Along the whole row, hundreds of bottles and boxes of cleaning fluids and powders displayed in vibrant colors, interspersed with all manner of housecleaning tools.
She lunged to one side and grabbed a mop. She lunged to the other and snatched up a stainless steel bucket. Not chanted equipment, but it’d have to do. And most Scum would be hurt by cleaning solvents of any sort, like with the bleach.
Rumbling, he lumbered forward, mouth agape. She glimpsed an insectile form in the recesses of his throat, its eyes glittering, its chitinous body forming the illusion of a skull beneath the protective layers of skin.
Its proboscis aimed at her as she raced in…
And shoved the mop straight in to plug that maw. The creature moaned and grabbed at the mop handle. She let go and darted past. Once behind him, she leapt with all her might, bucket clasped in both hands.
The Scum yanked the mop free—and she slammed the bucket over his head. It wedged tight, covering him down to the neck. He reared and reached up to paw at her. She back-flipped off him and stuck the landing.
She snatched a metal-handled broom off the rack and charged back in. The clang of a dozen strikes against the bucket echoed along the aisle.
At last, the Scum fell to all fours, grotesque body jiggling and twitching all over, bucket still lodged on his head. He rolled onto his back and wrestled to work the bucket free.
Anji dropped the mop, grabbed a box of laundry detergent, and held it over the Scum’s head. Having worked with cleaning supplies all through training, she knew just where to grab and tear for maximum application.
The bucket popped off with a slurping noise. The Scum glared up at her, and that hideous mouth started to open once more, like the portal to a glottal Hell.
“I’m not usually one for fad diets,” she said, “but try to keep an open mind.”
She tore the box wide and dumped the contents straight into his mouth. The Scum quaked, and a keening noise rose from inside his body. Anji danced around him, snatching bottles and boxes, ripping and popping them open and pouring all manner of cleaning powders and fluids until a mound of sludge hid his entire head. At last, his body stopped thrashing, and whatever had been infesting him stopped its awful shrieking.
Anji stood over the body, barely able to believe it was over.
She looked up as Marv ran around the corner. The manager stumbled to a halt and gaped.
“What in the…” he breathed.
Her legs decided they were going on strike, and Anji sat hard on the floor. She waved. “Hey, Marv. Would you mind reporting me to my superiors? I think I should clock out early.”
A flash of light reflected off the ceiling from a few aisles over. Anji grinned. A glassway had just activated. HQ must’ve used one of the reflective freezer doors to send in the troops.
“Oh,” she said. “Never mind. They’re already here.”
Moments later, six Cleaners appeared, three on either end of the aisle. They wielded everything from mops to brooms to feather dusters to plungers—though their faces bore the same grim expression.
The next hour held a flurry of activity as the scrub-team set about wiping the whole store of any evidence regarding the Scum and ensuing battle. The Cleaners closed down the place—for “emergency maintenance”—and applied both magical and mundane sanitation measures to the scene. Any employees were rounded up, ensured this had all been either a security test or elaborate prank, and that their feedback needed to be recorded.
They also got the Scum’s body sealed in a plus-plus-plus-plus-sized garbage bag, zip-tied up by the head.
Anji spent most of the time recounting her struggle to an older maid, who headed up the squad. The maid radioed the details to HQ and, once done, gave Anji a rundown of their reply.
“From what we can tell,” the maid said, “it’s a type of Scum we haven’t dealt with before. Our best guess right now is it seems to create contaminated food, and then somehow feeds off the illness that causes in humans. It also possibly uses spoiled meats to spawn more of its kind. We’ll have to check up on the food poisoning cases that drew our attention to this in the first place; make sure they’re not infected.”
Anji fought back a grin, feeling tall enough to see the curvature of the Earth. “Everything’s going to be okay here, then?”
The maid nodded and surveyed the scene as her crew finished tidying up. “We’ve got a plumber snaking out any damning memories, and their regular janitor should be back on his feet soon. No permanent harm done. However, there is one final matter to deal with. Your overall performance.”
Anji tensed. What had she missed? What could she have done better?
Then the maid smiled. “It’s rare to see a Cleaner so fresh to the field bring as much tenacity and ingenuity as you’ve shown tonight. In fact, I’ve already got a new job in mind for you—another solo assignment looking into a nasty flu outbreak at a local high school. We suspect more Scum at work.” She arched an eyebrow. “If you feel up to it, that is.”
Brimming with gleeful ferocity, Anji loosed her grin at last. “I’m going to need a new mop.”
Author and editor Josh Vogt’s work ranges across fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. His debut fantasy novel, Forge of Ashes, is a tie-in to the Pathfinder roleplaying game. WordFire Press launched his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor and The Maids of Wrath. He’s an editor at Paizo, a member of SFWA and the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, and is also a Scribe Award and Compton Crook Award finalist. Find him at JRVogt.com or on Twitter @JRVogt. He is made out of meat.