Sustenance by Bradley Robert Parks
by Bradley Robert Parks
This urban fantasy story introduces the reader to Harlan Powers, a supernatural investigator who advertises his services on Craigslist. This paranormal investigator isn’t quite what he seems, but then, neither is the disturbance he’s been called upon to investigate. A hungry soul devourer and a spirit with something to hide square off in “Sustenance.”
I knock on the door, and hand the woman who answers a card by way of introduction.
This one says:
“Holly?” I ask, and she nods, blinking at me, at the card, at me again.
“You answered my ad on Craigslist,” I say. We’re both embarrassed for our shared plight: she for calling a supernatural investigator, me for being one.
Her bloodshot eyes, ringed with dark smudges, testify to sleepless nights. She’s haunted. I’m hungry. The universe provides.
She doesn’t move. I chalk it up to lack of sleep. Or my appearance. I look like someone who doesn’t see much daylight. Or food. The effect, when I’m this hungry, is a little corpse-y. I won’t touch her. In my current state, that would not end well.
Instead, I say, “May I?”
“Oh!” She steps aside for me. “I’m sorry. Come in.”
“Cozy place you’ve got here.”
I’m pouring on the small schlock, to diffuse the weirdness. She looks around and nods, hugging her chunky, patterned cardigan closer around herself.
I must look particularly gaunt; her gaze stays glued to the parquet. Like I said, I’m hungry, and physical food gets me only so far.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of food. I’m sorta like a panda bear: they weren’t made to survive on bamboo, but it’s what they’ve got. They’ve adapted to it, which means they have to eat and eat to stay alive. It’s like that for me.
Holly murmurs something now in response to my observation. She’s ragged, flustered, probably not thinking very clearly. I get down to business.
“Where do the disturbances occur?”
She blinks some more before the question registers, then leads me back through the apartment. It’s a railroad affair, long and narrow. From the living room at the front, she leads me down a hallway of a kitchen, sink piled high with dishes, past a dark bathroom, and into the bedroom.
My stomach rumbles.
Once Holly had given me her address, I’d done my research. Long before the building was made into apartments, it sat abandoned for a few years. And before that … bingo! I knew I had scored the mother lode. It had been a sweatshop, filled with sewing machines where immigrant women and children, mostly Russian, some Irish, had toiled their days away.
Until the fire.
Reading that had set my mouth to watering.
For every obvious, moaning and chain-rattling spirit, several quiet ones wait, living in wall sockets or doorjambs, awareness so slow they never see me coming. Not terribly satisfying, but certainly the escargot to my main course.
Information helps with the hunt. Knowing who spirits may have been in life suggests patterns they might be replaying in the not-quite-hereafter.
I start walking around the room, hands hovering over the bookcase, the nightstand, the bed. It’s partly for show, to give her a reason to ask what she’s going to ask next.
“Harlan? Mr. Powers?”
Oh yeah. That’s me. I haven’t used this name in a while. For a weird moment, I can’t remember my real name, and it’s like vertigo.
“What do you need me to do?”
I snap back to myself and tell Holly she can go, maybe see a movie or get something to eat. I watch her wrestle with the idea of leaving a stranger in her apartment. She loses. She’s desperate and vulnerable. Good thing I don’t want anything she has. Anything she values, anyway.
As soon as the front door closes, I turn to testing my theories about this apartment.
I am so right.
All I have to do is lean against the bedroom doorjamb. Spirits prickle under my fingertips, their tinny little long-ago screams muffled by the painted wood and drywall that separate me from the original brick. I slide my messenger bag around until I can get to the outer pocket, already unzipped. A cramp kicks me in the side. Too long since I’ve eaten. My fingers find the long, thin hardness of my needles, and I draw out the velvet bag they live in.
Once free, they make their way into the crooks of my fingers as if on their own, chopstick style, already whispering to me. I begin prodding and pinching at the air around the door. The needles prickle, too.
“Come on,” I whisper, and start humming. Down by the Old Mill Stream. A guess. It’s from right around the time of the fire. Maybe they don’t know the song. Maybe they never listened to the music of their adopted country. I’d soon find out.
The first wisp to reach out for the needles finds itself pinched between them. I taste its surprise and shock as I draw it to my mouth and suck, like a tourist slurping ramen in a Chinatown cafe. This is pretty much why I don’t want anyone around when I feed. Sloppy and silly, if you can’t see the insubstantial form that slides like smoke through a crack in the wood.
Russian, I think, by the earthy, acrid tang, like mushrooms and gunpowder. Woman, young and frightened. Her last memory was frantic, smoke and fire and panic.
I have become accustomed to the flavor of fear, enough to enjoy it a little, like cilantro, yet the true pleasure is found deeper, in the culture she brought from her homeland, the love she carried for her family. I savor the remnants of her, the dreamy half-life of relived moments that have slumbered with her all these years, tasting the essentials that remain, painted like a minimalist character sketch across my palette. A passionate soul, this one, with subtle undertones of music. She played, or listened. And she had …
Yes! A little girl, the next to come to my needles. Young, not much for my appetite, but very, very sweet. Perhaps she was asleep when the fire took her, because there is almost no fear at all. An unexpected treat.
But even as the sweetness lingers, like the enticing hint of perfume left behind on the air, the room grows cold behind me.
This is why I am here. Not these frightened, sleeping slips of residue. I turn.
The moaners, the chain-rattlers, the furniture-shakers and window-foggers. These are what I hunger for, the stronger sustenance I need.
Something forms in the air, and I get a hint of not-quite-rightness. I can already feel a strange … substantialness. Not quite like the living, the ones I try not to touch. But the closest thing to alive I’ve ever felt from the dead.
My hunger surges, almost a live thing, urging me to lunge at this new spirit thing, even though I have just fed.
“What foul thing is this?”
Before it even has a face, it’s talking. Shit. It’s a talker. And that accent, like something from a BBC melodrama.
The face forms as it speaks. Big muttonchops, strong mouth, fierce eyes, smiling lips the blue color of death. Normally, I’m kinda–okay, almost totally–color-blind. Yeah, I know. Like I don’t have enough to deal with. Poor me. But spirits come to me in glorious Technicolor. And from the look of this guy’s costume, he probably predates movies by a few hundred years.
Oh, but what joy! If he’s a movie, he’s a talkie. Sure, they talk sometimes, but like death’s DVR, they play scenes from the show they lived. These words, they stop me.
“Soul-devourer,” he intones. “When I yet lived, I hunted your kind. Somehow, your progenitor escaped me.”
I shiver. This creature is different. This one is talking to me. Moreover, he doesn’t just see me, he knows who I am. Or rather, what I am. And therefore he’s got one up on me: I don’t know what I am. This development is all kinds of spooky, and that’s something, to someone who eats spirits.
“Who are you?”
I almost choke on the question. I do not generally like to chat with my dinner. It’s creepy. And repugnant. Eating the talking is just one step from eating the living. But what can I do? I’m no exorcist. I tried that once and it did not go well. Maybe I can just put him out, like a mouse in one of those no-kill traps. It’s laughable, but the alternative is more than I can stomach.
I’m torn. I’ve got a job to do, but this floating gasbag has information.
He puffs out his chest and crosses his arms. Oh boy, here it comes. “I am an instrument of holy terror. A warrior of the soul. A paragon of purity.”
“Are you finished?” I cross my arms and glare, pins tucked safely in the crook of my elbow.
He laughs, floating backward as though blown back on the gales of his mirth.
The joker. The braggart. The politician. I’m flipping through mental index cards, trying to classify him, trying to find an in. There’s an in for every type. And he’s got something on me, something I want desperately to know, but I can’t let him know I’m desperate, or it’s all over.
“Does this paragon of purity have a name?”
“In life, I was Granville Julius Sutton the Third. I suppose you are here to dispatch me.” He sighs, long and gusty, and drifts a bit farther away. “Such irony to find myself in this unfortunate situation. Then again, I fully expected to die at the hands of one of you, and that was not the way I met my end. Fate is truly a peculiar thing.”
“Mmm. Indeed.” I feign boredom as I sidle closer. “But you’re bothering the nice lady who lives here. Time to go.”
I raise my needles.
“Yeaaagh!” The spirit darts back, hovering over a writing desk, some old rolltop affair against the wall. This, I presume, is its home. It’s not native.
“The infernal pins!”
“What, these?” I wave them at him, and his form ripples as he’s pulled.
Sort of the way I was pulled when I first wandered into a secondhand shop where these had been hiding in a basket of knitting needles. From all the pretty, shiny, and, I presume, colorful needles, I pulled these. For me, they gleamed a hot red-orange. From the look on the clerk’s face when I paid ninety-nine cents for them, plus tax, they must have looked like they’d been dipped in shit.
A snap of the arm and a click, and I’ve caught him by the tail of his waistcoat.
“Gah, no! I shall not end like this!” He pulls back, but I have him now, like a kite. “How could I have failed so thoroughly at my life’s work that one of your kind could be reunited with your weapon! Would that I had my sword!”
“What do you know about these?” I gesture with the needles, and the misty body flits where I point.
But now he’s laughing too hard to answer me. It’s a dry, wheezing sound. Oh, hell no. I lunge, and the needles are in him. The laugh turns to a bellow of rage. I jerk back.
“This is rich. You have the pins, but know not how to use them. You truly do not know what you are!”
“Oh, come on.” I stab forward with the needles like I’m fishing for the last cashew in my cashew chicken. The ghost grimaces.
“You cannot hurt me, little soul-devourer. You can only destroy me, the only one who knows what you are.”
“Are you? You get CNN on that desk, do you? You up on the news?” He just looks at me, all baffled bemusement. “How do I know you’re the Library of Alexandria of soul-devourers? Why shouldn’t I just burn you down?”
“You lack the knowledge to wield the infernal pins to their true end. And,” he drifts a lazy circle, like he’s pacing the floor of his study, “I am still here.”
The bastard is enjoying this. He probably hasn’t had a conversation in a hundred years. All right, then, keep him talking. Throw a few banana peels and hope he slips.
“So,” I gesture at the desk, “what happened to the rest of the furniture?” I kick at the cheap rolling desk chair and the plastic rattles. “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
“My estate would shame the hovel you must inhabit, judging by your rags.” His hands run down the ruffles on his shirtfront. “Your kind were always easy to find. Gypsies and slum-dwellers.”
“Hey, this is vintage. And my hovel is rent-controlled. Where were you slumming when you went hunting?”
He ignores me, his voice going all wistful. “I recall those warrens, chasing my prey down fetid hallways as they scurried before me. Others feared your kind enough to hunt from a distance, with arrows.” He spits, or at least goes through the motions. Ecto-spit. I’ve heard enough, but he’s hardly finished. “With the sword, you could see the trapdoor to hell open behind their eyes.”
That’s a new one. I grit my teeth to keep from screaming at him. He does not get to know his words are anything to me but echoes in dead air.
“Must suck to know you failed.”
“I felled twenty and seven of you creatures, in my truncated existence. Hardly a failure.” He puffs up, proud of his little track record of murder.
First, my blood boils in my ears. At least, that’s what it feels like. I can’t hear for the rushing sound, like listening to the sea in a shell. Just when I think my head’s gonna pop, I remember to breathe. My mother’s voice comes to me, the way she tried to comfort the son she didn’t understand. He’s just another bully … He’s just another bully with a sword … He’s just another dead bully … He’s just—
I take a breath. And respond.
“And you’re worried about me? A guy with some rusty knitting needles?”
Sometimes this ploy works. Don’t laugh. Really, it does. You got a tough client, say. They called you, but they don’t believe you can do anything. So you turn it around, convince them you’re a fraud. In a blink, they’re arguing for you. Works almost every time.
He crosses his arms and looks at me, like, Let’s be honest with one another.
“What is the last thing you remember before you died?”
This is the question he didn’t expect. His face pinches up. I know this look. I get it a lot, usually when I’m giving my pitch. It takes more than that to deter me. But I also know when I have an opening. This look is not just closed; it’s been bricked up and sealed with cement.
Double-dog damn. He has me between a rock and my reputation.
Okay. My world may be weird, but still. People like Holly get frightened into believing, they call me, I get rid of their cold spots, their dishes that move by themselves, their talking toasters. Whatever. They don’t know how it happens. Most of the time, they don’t care.
And I get paid.
I need what he knows, but I also need to get rid of him.
Like I said. Reputation. It’s not much, but it’s my little empire.
Maybe I do have something. I’ve never tried this, so here goes. I’ve already got him in the needles. I yank, not toward my mouth, but toward the bedroom door. “What,” I say through clenched teeth. I yank again. “Are.” I walk slowly backward until I feel a stretch, like a rubber band starting to resist. “These.”
Now he screams, and the see-through body begins to splotch with irregular patches that are more translucent than the rest. It looks like it hurts. Good.
Then he starts to mutter something between clenched, transparent teeth, and the room gets really cold. Like, see-your-breath cold, except I can’t breathe, because the air is swirling with spirits, pouring from electrical outlets and doorjambs and cracks in the plaster.
The spirits are pissed, jabbing at me with freezing fingers. I’m so caught off guard, I can’t think. I snap out with my needles, but I’m snapping blind. My eyes fill with white fog. Too many of them, can’t suck in, can’t breathe—
Then they’re gone. I’m on my ass on the floor and he’s laughing down at me, free from the needles and being a total asshole about it.
Could he have killed me?
The idea is like Teflon-coated snot, so horrifying I can’t grasp it. I mean, imagine sitting down to a nice plate of spaghetti without knowing whether you or the pasta was going to survive.
I can’t have my dinner trying to kill me, any more than I can stomach the idea of eating something that can carry on a conversation.
Was this what my freaky forebears went through? Did they, too, feel like starving vegans at a churrascaria? Meat, meat everywhere and not a thing to eat? Or did they eat the living, and that’s what powdered-up wig-heads like Granville here couldn’t tolerate?
He thinks he’s so clever. He thinks he’s got me by the brains, like I’m so hot to know what he knows that I’ll grovel just because he’s some big shot from the beyond.
I drag myself to my feet, getting my breath back. Then I walk right up to him, face to floating face, and, I’ll give him props, he doesn’t even flinch.
“I’m not a creature. Did you ever get to know any of these people you dispatched? Did you?”
“Why should I bandy about with creatures such as yourself, spawn of the night who devour their own families to live?”
An image of my mother slams into the back of my eyeballs. So frail and weak, she wasted away, but she just kept on. She was always so sick, then she got sick, and she died. End of story. I did not eat my mother, I did not—
My arm snaps out, and before Granville can blink, I’ve caught him by the muttonchop. He’s given me no choice. A jerk of the arm, a lurch of the stomach, and a quick intake of breath through pursed lips.
The feeling of power is insane, burning down my gullet and spreading through me like an energy drink of the gods, a feast like a month of Thanksgivings, but without the urge to sleep in front of a football game until New Year’s. But it doesn’t last long.
This is where it gets bad.
I don’t get food poisoning, but I’ve had people tell me about it, ’cause I’m sick that way. I wanted to know if it felt anything like this.
Cramps, but from the inside, like my spine and my brain are having a fight. I hear my knees hit the floor, I don’t feel it. The room spins, so I close my eyes.
The only icing on all of this is that he’s aware of everything that’s happening to him, even as everything that was him gets swallowed into me. I feel the flame of his outrage like vomit at the back of my throat, and I’m talking, but I have no idea what I’m saying. It’s like my brain won’t register language. A sharp pain in my forehead tells me I’m on the floor, thrashing around, and I’ve hit something. Opening my eyes is a mistake; the spinning of the room twists my guts. The room is hot, I’m so warm, I’m never warm, why am I so warm—
“Mr. Powers? Mr. Powers!”
A woman’s voice, insistent, scared, and shaking my shoulder. Ow. I groan. She squeaks.
“Oh God, Mr. Powers, are you okay?”
Who is this Mr. Powers? Oh yeah, that would be me. I open my eyes. Holly is crouched beside me, wide eyes making her look animated. She’d be great at cosplay. I giggle, or choke, and her eyes get even bigger.
“This house … ,” I croak, and try again. “This house is clean.” That starts the giggling again. All my muscles are sore, like I’ve been stretched on the rack, but I feel really good.
“Oh, oh, I should call-” She reaches toward her nightstand. I resist the urge to grab her wrist.
“No! No calling.” I push myself up. “I’m fine. See?”
She nods, not quite believing. As I sit up, squinting into the light from the hall, she gasps.
“Mr. Powers! You look so different from when you got here. What happened to your forehead?”
I push past her, into the tiny bathroom in the hall, and look into the mirror. An angry red mark about an inch long, and narrow, runs down one side of my forehead, but other than that I look—
I look human.
By which, I mean healthy. Flesh-colored. Less like those creepy twins from The Matrix and more like Keanu Reeves. I never claimed to be all that good-looking.
I close my eyes, and like an unwanted houseguest, I’ve got Granville Julius Sutton the Third and all his shit taking up residence in the back of my head.
I see a house somewhere, a great big freaking estate. I see me shtupping his wife, and his servant girls, and a barmaid, and a prostitute or two. I see arrogant, entitled children, always wanting to borrow the keys to the carriage or get another pony or whatnot, ungrateful brats. I see him playing the mogul on his father’s money, making another fortune while his parents rot in some hellacious institution, and I don’t care, I mean, Granville doesn’t care.
It’s bits and pieces, the ones I could digest from the rancid stew that was Granville. My constitution can’t handle all the complexities of the living under the best of circumstances, but this dead guy went down like month-old milk left out on the counter for a week.
But sifting through the unsavories, I find some of what I was after.
I see secret meetings where he and his bigwig buddies scheme and wheel and deal and plot and hunt. Only, they’re hunting people. People like me. And not just people like me. The full spectrum of unnaturals, who pretty much make up the whole of my circle of friends.
What a prick.
Holly is hovering outside the bathroom door, those owl eyes quivering with concern.
“That desk,” I say, and she cocks her head a little, confused. “Where did you get it?”
“What … ? Oh! The desk. In my room. Is that where it, where he …”
“Was. But he’s gone now. I give you my personal guarantee you won’t be bothered again. But the desk?”
“An estate sale, on Craigslist, a place on the Upper East Side. They moved away a month ago. I don’t remember who they were. Why?”
“Call it professional curiosity,” I placate as I curse. Shit. Up a dry creek without a paddle. Someday, it would be nice to track down another me out there.
I hang around only long enough for her to transfer my fee into my PayPal, to hear the satisfying ping as the notification comes through on my phone. As I leave, I give my usual spiel, “If you have any friends that need a supernatural housecleaning, give them my name.”
I know it’s unlikely. Soon, I’ll be back to the hospital or the graveyard or the mall (you’d be surprised what you can find among the aisles of a J. C. Penney). Plus, you never know where the next job will come from. I live pretty cheap. I can keep going on this little stipend for a few weeks.
But this time, the money is hardly the reward. I’m about goddamn breathless with the implications of what I’ve learned. The reward for convulsing around in the dunking booth of Granville’s life, all his nasty, hateful, holier-than-thou ideas and ideals I’ve been plunged into, is this: I know more about me than I’ve ever known before.
And for a change, I’m not even remotely hungry.
©Bradley Robert Parks