Clean and Floss

Fans of Ghost Busters, Odd Thomas, and X-Files will enjoy this comedic paranormal novel.

Nick Solace is a part-time Washington lobbyist who trades favors in gray areas of the law. As his other job, he cleans and flosses supernatural crime scenes for the Secret Branch of the Smithsonian. Their motto is: there’s no such thing as monsters. Nick’s corrupt and complacent world is turned upside down when a body dump goes horribly awry. Having the evidence reanimate forces him to call in a debt from Vincent—a musician, janitor, and disgraced missionary.

Robert Cambridge actually vandalized the incredible DaVinci sketch depicted in this story, but my description of the events and people involved is completely fictionalized. This tale unfolded as an answer to the question: what would possess someone to commit an act like that? As I emphasized the word possess, this became a paranormal adventure.

Copyright 2013 Scott Rhine

Chapter 1 – Everybody Needs a Friend

It all started when the body dump went south.
Friday morning, Nick was in the middle of a simple, two-swap favor when he received the call. His client needed a parking ticket to go away because it linked him to the address of his mistress. The law-enforcement officer with the ability to make that record vanish wanted daycare close to the station so she wouldn’t arrive late to work. He couldn’t do a direct swap or there’d be a trail of breadcrumbs. Officially, Nick worked as a junior assistant for a well-known lobbyist company, but he was more like a Craigslist for favors in the gray area of the law. To make the impossible happen, he always remembered rule number one: everybody needs a friend. He had a sort of young Charlie Sheen, bad-boy appeal and could encourage anyone to confide in him.
He’d found a friend in need who worked as an exotic dancer at a tasteful club just off the Capitol Mall. Velvet Black sat on a courthouse bench chewing on a curl of her raven hair because her public defender was running late.
“First offense for possession?” Nick asked.
Velvet looked him over. In two heartbeats, she could tell to the dollar how much he had in his wallet based on the expensive suit jacket and chinos. However, she was willing to talk to him because his cowboy boots were well-worn, and his smile said he’d been arrested before. “The bag wasn’t even mine. Some guy gave it to me to hold when he couldn’t pay.”
“LEOs said you were high.”
“Law enforcement officers.”
She ranted, sharing her unflattering opinion of police for a while. For such a cute teenage girl, she knew enough sailor words to make Nick’s mom break out a couple bars of soap.
He winced.
Rule two: speak softly, to quote Teddy Roosevelt. Because of this, Nick never used the seven words you can’t say on TV. Powerful people offend easily. His adopted father had been a successful politician for over thirty years, and he told Nick, “Even in a heated argument, always pretend that you’re going to need the person you’re fighting to give you a ride home.” Nick listened to him because Dad wasn’t indicted until he broke his sacred ten rules.
“Don’t let the clerks hear you talking like that. This is a rough judge,” Nick explained. “He’s running for reelection with church backing.”
The word ‘church’ made her cuss more.
Nick nodded sympathetically. “But there is a way out.”
She was all ears, potty mouth closed tight.
“You’re still seventeen, right?”
“You like them young?”
He ignored her pass because of rule three: never touch the honeypot. First and foremost, this meant never sleep with pros or politicians. Never, ever take part of the bribe for yourself, not even a little snort. “I think young people make innocent mistakes.” She smirked. “A minor mistake like this might get overlooked if you were classified as an at-risk teen.” She furrowed her brow. “Someone with that designation and a slot in a treatment program gets probation with nothing on their adult record.”
“Like I could afford that.”
“A clinic I know does pro bono treatment sometimes.”
Velvet stared at him. “Treatment in exchange for bonin’?”
“Nothing’s free.”
He smiled. “Call it a kickback. I refer a lot of rehab business his way.”
She crossed her legs, giving Nick a glimpse of what he would be missing. Because it was a perfect May day, her purse covered more than her skirt did. “Refer—you’re a doctor?”
“Psychologist. If someone gave me a dollar, I couldn’t talk about our sessions in court.”
“And what would I have to do for you?”
“Nothing for me, but I have this friend with a specific need.”
“Does he want something . . . kinky?”
“Her. No. Your aunt runs a daycare.”
“What about it?”
“I checked the city rules, and she could fit a couple more children in if she wanted to.”
“So? The State Department asked her to have anyone new go through a pain-in-the-ass security check. One of the kids has parents in some embassy.”
The LEO mom would love the added safety factor. “She might fill out the forms if you asked her. Say it’s for a friend who needs someone to watch her kid while she studies for the GED or something.”
“Yeah.” Velvet stared at him. “Who are you?”
“Nick Solace.” He pronounced it soul-less. He handed her his card with its impressive K-street address.
She laughed at the slogan: Everybody needs a friend. “Who do you work for?”
He shrugged. “Casinos, bio-tech firms, Arabian horse organizations—you name it and I’ve smoothed the way.” He showed her his two-foot ribbon of business cards where most people kept baby pictures.
“I like horses,” she said.
Then Nick’s phone played the first few chords of “One Thing Leads to Another” by the Fixx—the signal for a text from his other job, the one where he took trips to shady places at odd hours to do things journalists couldn’t know about without risking scandal for half of Washington. Okay, the one that the government paid him to do.
When he checked his phone, Velvet read upside-down. “Clean up on aisle 4?”
Aisle four meant field office four, just outside Vegas. “My friend Janice has a degenerative nerve condition. She drops her groceries. I need to go help mop up. Milk goes everywhere, and she has trouble getting under the dishwasher.” Janice was a forensic pathologist at the site who probably needed him to dispose of medical waste of dubious origin. He hadn’t made up the nerve condition. A dollop of truth helped the lie go down.
“Ah. So sweet.” Her guard was down; he was in.
“So you’ll swap favors: a spot in rehab for one in daycare?” he asked.
“Yeah. You’re all right, Nick.” Her smile told him she felt she still owed him. He could add her phone number to his contact list for a future favor. Minutes later, he left with the address on the ticket corrected.
Because he kept a prepacked overnight bag in the trunk, he drove toward Reagan International Airport. The airfare was less than it would cost to park his leased Lexus at the airport for a week. Fortunately, he’d done a favor for the owner of a local no-tell motel and could park there for free.

With the time change, Nick arrived in Vegas just after two in the afternoon. Refreshed from a nap, he flirted with the new rental-car girl, a blonde named Monica. After a bit of banter, he learned she was an elementary-education student. Since he was being social, Monica informed him, “If you switch to a hybrid, you could save the planet.”
He wanted to laugh. Honey, from what I’ve seen inside the beltway, it’ll take a whole lot more than that. Instead, he invoked rule four: always find some important issue to agree on. “You know what? I think I will.”
Pulling out his rental card, Nick said, “But give me a Honda Civic instead of a Prius. I need a car with a real trunk and an MP3 player.” On long drives, he could hook up his phone and play tunes or the latest mystery book.
Monica gushed, “I’ve never seen a platinum membership before, Dr. Floss.”
The name was a little joke because his specialty on the team was referred to as ‘cleaning and flossing.’ He took care of the icky bits and those nasty stains. When he was done, everything was white and shiny.
“Nick, please. Unfortunately, I travel a lot in my business. They have trouble finding specialists in my area, so they call me in from out-of-state.”
“What do you do?”
He passed her one of his psychologist cards. “I can’t give you details,” he said, lowering his voice, “but whenever the cops raid a meth lab and find kids, they need a lot of special attention. Who could say no to children like that? They have nothing.”
Her face shifted like someone had shown her a three-legged kitten. “What kinds of attention?”
“Hypothetically? I’ve published papers on attachment disorder—when infants don’t get held enough, they can’t relate to other people later.”
Seeing no ring on his left hand, she asked, “What made you choose that specialty?”
“My . . . brother. He burned down our barn as a teenager. I wanted to understand how that kind of thing could happen.” Nick displayed a haunted look that he’d practiced for hours in the mirror. “I don’t even have time for dinner beforehand. Several squad cars and a couple child-services folks will be waiting for me. It’ll probably be late before I can break free.”
About this time, women usually told him they get off work at eight. She must have been shy, so he used the never-fail. “The sad thing is that the state pays for a meal anywhere I want, and I’ve found the perfect place, the meal you’d order if it was going to be your last. It actually serves four, but since the people there know me, I can order what I want.”
He started to describe Maggiano’s dinner for lovers with two of everything on the menu: appetizers, salads, entrĂ©es, extras, and desserts. He talked about the aroma and the texture as it broke apart and melted in his mouth. “But it’s such a waste for just one person. I always feel guilty.”
Monica had a paper bag in the corner with carrot sticks. “I . . . could help. I mean, I could go along if you’re interested.”
He smiled, flattered. “I’d be honored, Monica. Why don’t you give me your number, and I’ll call you when this unfortunate tragedy is wrapped up.” Afterward, he’d offer to take the leftovers to her apartment refrigerator so nothing would be wasted.
She gave Nick a free upgrade to a car with OnStar to keep him safe. He disabled the tracking feature before he left the lot. Rule five: never leave a record when you’re meeting a client.
He texted Janice, “HOW FAR TO FIRST HOLE?”
She sent back, “ABOUT 500 YDS.”
Five hundred miles—his hybrid could go almost exactly that far if one could believe the sticker. He needed at least another ten gallons to make it home, plus a little to soak the body. At a gas station, he bought three five-gallon containers and filled them. He never stopped for gas near the dump site because of all the cameras. He fueled before he had the body in case a LEO became curious.
The guy behind the counter looked at Nick funny as he rang up the gas and a six-pack of a new flavor of iced tea. Nick normally showed the professional-landscaper card to explain the gas, but the clerk had a Husqvarna cap. Instead, he decided to pull out his card for a chainsaw-art business. “We’re doing demonstrations of the latest model Stihl saw at a trade show tomorrow. We’ll be running those babies all day. Every other hour, I do an ice sculpture. We used to carve logs, until Herb hit a nail and the chain flew off. Man, we lost a lost of sales over that—blood everywhere.”
Then the clerk told Nick his favorite chainsaw-accident story involving alcohol and a frozen deer. Nick collected these sorts of stories to help explain the inexplicable.
On the way to the field office, Nick drove exactly the posted speed limit. Rule six: if you’re planning on breaking a big law, make sure to obey all the little ones.
Near dinnertime, Nick arrived at the razor-wire fence, and the guard came out of his shack. He was new and not sufficiently bored yet. His nametag read ‘Turner.’ “You’re on the list, sir, but what does a shrink do at a closed tire plant?”
Nick sighed. “The FAA leases some of the offices. I administer periodic psychological screening to certain federal airline personnel. I suspect they’re air-traffic controllers.”
Turner leaned forward and whispered, “I think this last bunch is air marshals. I saw a couple guns.”
Either there was a raid returning recently, or a strike team was here for the mandatory pre-mission isolation period. Nick whispered back, “I’m not officially allowed to know what their job is. I have to be impartial.” He put a finger to his lips.
The guard nodded and waved him through.
After Nick parked by the front door, he broke out the latex gloves from his suitcase. Janice wouldn’t talk to anyone who wasn’t wearing latex gloves and elastic covers for their shoes. It made the sex weird. Nick had only slept with her twice: the first time when he was working his way through grad school as a crime-scene cleaner, and the second time the day she was diagnosed with her disorder. Law enforcement couldn’t use her anymore because she might slip with a scalpel or embarrass them in court. That’s when he recruited her. Smithsonian Secret Branch needed skilled specialists.
He walked down the long hall to the locker room and badged in.
Derek was sitting on a bench looking haunted. He chain-smoked and ran his hand through his slicked-back hair once a minute when he was nervous. Skinny as a heroine addict, he was staring at the door to the autopsy room like a crocodile was going to burst through any moment.
“What’s the matter, run out of cigarettes?” Nick asked.
“Nah,” Derek said, trying to laugh. “The assholes here don’t care about health risks. I just saw something that reminded me of Katrina.”
Nick sighed. He didn’t really care about other people’s problems unless he needed something from them, but Derek was the team psychic, the eyes and ears of the team. If that guy had the heebie-jeebies, Nick wanted to know. He’d done Nick several solid favors in the past. “The cover-up for the hurricane?”
Derek shuddered. “Yeah. Packs of feral dogs scared the cuss out of me. Voices and scratching inside houses. Graveyards floating out to sea. The negative energy was off the charts.”
“A lot of bad stuff got loose. You guys put it back in the bottle,” Nick said. Granted, it had taken months and the cover-up was bungled.
“That thing in autopsy, the minute I sensed it, I called Janice in from vacation.” Derek was going to hyperventilate. Being around violent death made psychics more sensitive, like having a migraine and going to a rock concert. They developed a static charge that took weeks to wear off.
Nick nodded. “She’ll take care of it for you. Go home and take a tranq.”
“I wish. No, we’re pulling together a covert mission for tomorrow after dark in LA.” In addition to a psychic, most teams had a priest, two long-range killers, and two hand-to-hand experts. They defended the sleeping masses from boogeymen, and people like Nick cleaned up their messes.
Nick liked erasing horror and fear. “Aren’t you supposed to be in isolation with your men before a mission?”
“They’re all so afraid of dying; it’s all they broadcast. We’re bodyguards for someone with powerful enemies. The last time this guy visited Vegas, someone blew up the top floor of the Eidolon Tower, a row of cars, and part of a parking structure in an effort to kill him.”
“Aren’t you afraid of death?”
Derek shook his head and pointed to the autopsy room. “I’m afraid of coming back like that.”
“You know I wouldn’t let that happen,” Nick said. “It would ruin my reputation as the best cleaner in the world.”
The psychic smiled. “Well, now I can sleep safely.” His tone was sarcastic, but he relaxed as he rose. Before he left the room, Derek patted him on the back. “Sometimes you’re almost human.”
Nick put all his ID and credit cards into Janice’s locker. Agents should never take their real identity on a job. If they were arrested, they could lose everything. He even switched SIM cards for his phone so it couldn’t be traced back. The last thing he put in the locker was his bottle of meds—Janice had written the prescription, and having her name on him could endanger her.
He peeked through the window in the door, and waved to Janice through the glass. “Hey, good-looking.”
She smiled at the flattery and buzzed him through to the autopsy room. Built like a pixie, her lab coat dropped below her knees. She had to keep a step stool under her desk for adjusting the operating lights or opening the top drawer of her file cabinet. He could tell she’d brushed her hair and put on lipstick. Awkward.
“Is this going to be a late one?” Nick asked. He didn’t dare hurt her feelings by hinting about the woman he had waiting in the wings. “Some of my Pete Rose stuff is on eBay tonight.” He collected memorabilia from disgraced sports figures. His blue cell-phone cover was a replica of OJ Simpson’s old jersey.
She shook her head. “Why do you bother?” Her high-pitched voice was almost tremor-free today. Her new meds were working.
“People throw out all their cards and lunchboxes when a hero gets charged with something. Everything that’s left is worth more because it’s rare. Besides, sometimes they bounce back, like Tiger Woods did, or end up in the Hall of Fame, like Pete.”
“Is this about your father?” Janice was the only coworker who’d connected those particular dots. She’d found his name by matching a DNA trace he’d left in her apartment to his dad’s Department of Corrections sample—dangerously smart. Nick had corrupted his father’s records since. “We can talk.”
His ever-present, charming smile drooped. “Agents aren’t allowed to be seen together in public.”
“Neither one of us is a field agent. My cover is with the Smithsonian. Scientists can date. I’m even supposed to be on vacation today.”
He’d been tempted several times. He actually liked Janice. Last August, during his slump, he’d called her up a few times and just talked. She was a little older than him but way more perceptive. If he so much as shook hands with another woman, she’d know. He couldn’t risk getting any closer, or she’d find out too much. “Rule seven: don’t fish off the company pier.”
“It is about your father.”
“What’s the emergency?”
She sighed. “The offer stands, Nick. Follow me.”
They went back to the cold room where they both put on masks.
Janice punched the combination on a stainless-steel drawer and pulled. Nick was instantly glad he hadn’t eaten yet. The corpse was more bloated than normal and completely hairless. The drawer was lined with rock salt. He coughed at the stench. “What is that?”
“I’m not sure yet. I had to send some of the lab work out. My best guess is a type-four zombie.”
“Hence the salt. Why does he have the tumors and swelling?”
She shrugged. “It’s kind of like cancer. The agents who captured them said the growths are padding. Punches, even nightsticks, don’t seem to faze them. It takes gunshots in the right place or a sharp object to penetrate. Their fists are even reinforced with the stuff, like boxing gloves.”
“Is it elephantitis, like the Elephant Man?” he asked. The guy could’ve been a body builder.
Elephantiasis,” she stressed, correcting him, “is caused by worm parasites. Merrick actually had NF-1 or Proteus Syndrome. I’ve already done a complete CAT scan and swab workup. The tumors look well-behaved, but I won’t know what we’re dealing with until DNA tests come back. I’m waiting for results before I cut the others—protocol.”
He poked the fibrous mass on its side with his protected finger. It felt like a squid head, and he wrinkled his nose when fluid leaked out a seam in the belly. “Toxic.”
“This one’s a leaker; it’s overwhelming my fume system. We need to dispose of it safely.”
“I got you an incinerator. Use it.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Thanks. One visit from the EPA this month is enough.”
“I’ll get you that license; it just takes—”
“The right favor. I know. Until then, you should bury this body deep in the Great Salt Lake Desert.”
“Won’t you need it for analysis?”
“No. I have several others that are fresher.”
“An epidemic?”
“Six in all. They took out one of the investigators who discovered their nest. We might need your services when you get back to find the point of origin.”
“Now I’m a detective?”
She smiled. “Someone went through the trouble of chemically scrubbing the fingerprints. The zombie’s DNA has either been corrupted by the growths, or he’s never been in the system. One of the bullets I pulled out of him wasn’t ours, though. Ballistic analysis tells me that it came from a gun in DC registered to a private security company. I can’t get access to police reports, but you know people in that area.”
“Our agency is based in DC. Everyone knows people.”
“Please.” Her voice quavered a little. “I have a feeling this is important. I don’t know if it can wait till Monday.”
Nick nodded. “I’ll do it for you, Janice.”
He took a picture of the body with his phone, including a close-up of the tattoo on the shoulder. She let him snap photos of the ballistic report and dental X-rays as she said, “He also had orthoscopic knee surgery. There are several injuries consistent with a football or rugby player. From his jaw and facial damage, he’s been in a lot of outright brawls. I’ll tell you more when I autopsy the others.”
Together they bagged the ugly, packed extra salt around him, and wheeled the gurney to Nick’s trunk. He grabbed his collapsible shovel, a coffee can, a few road flares, and boxes of baking soda from the locker room. His normal MO was to drive to the salt flats, dig a hole, place the hands over the face of the zombie, and obliterate all means of identification at once.
“That coffee can is so gross,” she muttered.
“The trip is seven hours each way. I can’t stop at a restaurant to urinate or cameras will record me—not that Utah has any service stops to speak of.”
“Use a bush like a civilized man.”
“Would you stumble around cacti in the dark with your pants down?”
“If an officer tickets me for public indecency, I show up on his video camera and then on the registered-sex-offender website.”
She brought the luminol, cyanoacrylate, and a few other chemicals to help him obscure evidence he might have missed. They worked together like an old married couple. He left the gloves on as he sprayed freshener for the methane smell. He’d have to remember not to use the cigarette lighter around this thing.
“Where’s my good-luck charm?” Nick asked.
With a sigh, she handed over a shoebox and had him sign out the weapon. “Bring it back or you’ll have to fill out a ream of paperwork.”
He opened the box and withdrew a white-phosphorous grenade, which he’d decorated with silvery holy symbols so no undead could grab it. “The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.” He kissed it and slipped it into his jacket pocket.
Waving good-bye to Janice at 5:30 p.m., he was on-schedule to do the burial at just about midnight.

The hybrid may not have saved the planet, but it probably saved Nick’s life.
The iced tea wasn’t caffeinated—a rookie mistake. He’d been so wrapped up in the conversation with the clerk that he hadn’t checked the ingredients. While only 9:30 Utah time, it was after midnight DC time, so he had a bad case of the nods. Normally, the scenery was enough to keep him alert. The stretch of road between Vegas and Utah was more awe-inspiring to him than the Grand Canyon, and he was able to drive by at close range. But after dark, Interstate 15 was a sensory-deprivation tank. The terrain to either side dropped off steeply. If he fell asleep at the wheel, searchers might never find his body. He turned off the cruise control, forcing him to pay attention to the control panel in order to maintain the indicator at 70.
Nick hadn’t downloaded any new books on tape, and the car didn’t have satellite radio. His only choice was playing rock music from his smart phone through the sound system, which he had cranked. Singing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody” was fun, but he needed more energy. He had to keep pinching his leg to stay awake, so he advanced the play list to “We Will Rock You” and pounded out the bass line on the steering wheel.
During the second play, the music halted. For a moment, his singing was the only sound in the car. Blast, is the phone out of charge? He panicked as he fumbled with the tethered phone. No. He still had 50 percent on the battery. Why had it stopped? He was just about to hit play again when a woman’s voice came through the speakers, scaring the piss out of him. “This is OnStar. Can we help you?”
“Um . . . I didn’t push the button.”
“Sir, we show you experiencing electrical problems, and your GPS is malfunctioning. Are you all right?”
Nick was probably an hour from the nearest town and screwed if the rental gave out on him. He did what any reasonable man would in this situation; he lied. “Right as rain. I . . . went through a car wash and forgot to close the moon roof all the way.”
“Very good, sir. Don’t hesitate to call us if you need assistance.”
If I wanted to be arrested, sure. Blast, it’s hot in here. The AC had shut off, too. He hit the ‘on’ and set the blower to maximum. Then, he pushed play again, praying that the wiring would hold for one more hour.
Halfway through a Nine Inch Nails song that was so loud it masked his worries, the whole instrument panel flickered . . . in rhythm to the song. Weirder, he could hear thumping to the beat coming from the backseat. Were the back speakers on too loud? He turned just in time to see a fist hammer through the backseat, and by extension the car battery. All light in the car extinguished. He was going 70 mph with no headlights.
As he stood on the brakes, careening blindly, his phone’s screen lit up. By the glow of the iTunes interface, he watched the zombie from the trunk crawl through the hole it had battered.
The left side of Nick’s face stung, and his left eye was watering. Why can’t I move my shoulder? Did someone kick me in the chest?
He patted the seat and realized he was in a car. But why was there a breeze? Why was it dark?
He unclipped the seatbelt and experienced a stabbing pain in his right hand.
Only afterward did he piece together that his thumb had been hooked under the wheel. When the car hit the barricade, his body continued to lurch forward inside. His thumb had actually bent backwards.
He smelled gasoline, which was never a good sign.
He needed a flashlight—his phone had an app for that. He found the cell on the floor, tucked under the brake pedal. The wan light revealed a gaping hole in the front window, but no glass littered the interior. That meant something had launched out. Nick stepped out to follow the evidence. Several feet away, he found the heavily abraded zombie.
God in Heaven, it twitched!
Nick dropped the Holy Hand Grenade on its chest.
There was a whoosh sound as blue flames danced from the corpse over to the car.
“Oh, crumbs.” Nick dove aside as the car full of gas fumes went up like a barbeque grill. All his clothes and fake IDs were in there, everything except what was in his wallet. When the police arrived, they’d think the corpse was Dr. Floss. If they didn’t find a wallet, there would be an investigation. Faking his own death was the only way he could dispose of the zombie. He pocketed the business cards and cash. Gritting his teeth, his tossed his cover wallet atop the body. The heat was withering, even from a yard away.
Nick followed the tire tracks uphill to the smashed guardrail. This earned him a single bar on his phone’s signal strength. If his zombie had revived despite the salt, Janice could be in serious trouble. Violating protocol, he called her cell number from memory, but it went straight to voice mail. Next, he looked up her office number.
Three tones sounded and a mechanical voice said, “The number you have called is temporarily out of service.” A code number followed. He texted her cell three letters—RUN.
Nick scrolled through every DC number he had. He wouldn’t be able to reach anyone important in Washington this late on a weekend.
A secondary explosion knocked him over when the battery went off like a firecracker, spitting a cloud of sand and fine rocks. He roared in frustration. In the annals of screwups, this was the grand champion. He crossed the divided highway to the southbound side so the cops wouldn’t associate him with the flaming accident. To return to Vegas and check on the field office, he was going to have to break another rule and call in a favor. First, however, Nick had to locate a mile marker.

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