This story was written for a flash-fiction, smash-and-grab challenge on Chuck Wendig’s blog. I don’t want to publicize Wendig any more than I have already, so won’t put a link to his blog here. The challenge was to use a random-number generator to pick two subgenres from among 20 presented, and then to write a short story in the two subgenres. The two I got were Occult Detective and Body Horror, which, honestly, I didn’t even know were actual subgenres. This is the short story that resulted, admittedly a bit, um, different.
# # #
Another damned message. They never leave me alone, like I’m some sort of friggin’ miracle worker.
I push the replay button to stop the flashing light. Call me old-fashioned, but I still prefer an out-dated answering machine to voicemail. Something about the sound the buttons make when I punch them. The whine of the tape rewinding. Easier to replay messages, too. And there are other reasons, reasons most people wouldn’t know about. Like the way the tape picks up sounds from the other side that voicemail doesn’t. And if there’s something no one else should hear, it’s easy enough to destroy the tape or throw it in the river. No telling where a voicemail could wind up.
The tape snaps to the end and begins to play back the message. I listen in passing, flipping through the unopened letters on my desk. But after a few seconds this message catches my attention. Something about it is different from the usual bilge that winds up on my machine. Maybe it’s the sound of the voice, clear and slow, the sound of an older person. A bit quivery, too, betraying real fear. And it’s what the voice is describing, that’s what really gets me.
I reach out and grab a pen and small pad off my desk to scribble down the caller’s name and number. I wasn’t planning on returning any calls this late in the day, but this one can’t wait.
It’s the same voice from the tape. And the same quiver.
“Yes, this is Mrs. Quinton. Ms. Young? Is that you?”
“It is. I just got your message. You have my attention. Can we meet?”
“Oh, yes, Ms. Young, as soon as possible. The situation, I’m afraid, is desperate. Can you come over now?”
I’m not one to enjoy encroachments on my time. Surprises even less. But when you’re in the business I’m in, you don’t get to pick and choose. Not with something as serious as I know this case is. I’m still in my overcoat, and in minutes I’m in my car and heading across town to the address Mrs. Quinton gave me. It’s in a nondescript part of the city, not notable for either the higher or lower manifestations of the human spirit or economic endeavors, which gets my curiosity up even more. Why pick that neighborhood? That home?
The house I pull up to is as nondescript as the neighborhood it’s in.
“Come in, come in, Ms. Young. So good of you to come right over. I fear there is no time to waste.”
My prospective new client looks in person like her voice sounded on the phone. A sweet older lady, gray hair bushed up in a perm, modestly dressed. But obviously agitated, her voice still aquiver. She ushers me into a parlor as nondescript as the house and the neighborhood, and we take up places in facing plush armchairs.
“Tell me what’s going on, Mrs. Quinton. Don’t spare any of the details.”
“It’s my daughter, Ms. Young. Normally she’s such a good girl, but since they laid her off down at the plant she’s taken up with some bad characters. I had a feeling something bad might happen to her, but when she didn’t come home last night . . . ”
Her voice trails off.
“Go on, please.”
“I knew she hadn’t come home when I checked her bed this morning and found it empty and still made. And then this . . . ”
Again she pauses, before reaching beside her to take a plastic baggie from a side table. She holds it out to me. As the baggie passes to my own hands my stomach tightens. From previous experience I know all too well what its contents portend.
“What is it, Ms. Young? It’s not good, is it?”
“How did you get this?”
“It just appeared on my porch. The bell rang around mid-day, and when I opened the door there was no one there. Just that baggie, left on the mat.”
“You didn’t see anyone?”
“No, not a soul. I looked up and down the block and there was no one there. No one in any cars, either. Not that I could see.”
“And what led you to call me?”
“Well, after getting no satisfaction from the police – I called them first, of course – I looked in the phone book and you were the only detective there that showed ‘occult’ among the services in your listing. I just knew this, whatever it is, went beyond the natural world.”
I look down again at what I hold in my hands and I know she’s made the right decision. Even so, it might already be too late to intervene.
“Mrs. Quinton, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. Very bad news.”
“Oh, dear. Please don’t say that.”
The poor woman almost falls forward out of the arm chair. There are tears streaming down her wrinkled cheeks. I need her to pull herself together, so fire off another question.
“There was no message left with this, was there?”
She lifts her head upward, and then straightens up, with a great sigh.
“No, none at all. Just the baggie with what you see. But it gave me such a feeling, I can’t really explain it, and that’s what got me to call you.”
She doesn’t have to explain to me the feeling she had or what gave it to her. It’s all too clear, looking at that baggie and its contents.
“Mrs. Quinton, I regret to inform you that it is not human captors who have taken your daughter. What is her name?”
“Julia. Her name is Julia. Whatever do you mean, not human captors?”
“Mrs. Quinton, I’ve seen this before. I’ve had cases in which I’ve held in my hands exactly what I’m holding now. And I can tell you, without a scintilla of doubt, that it is other-worldly beings who have taken possession of Julia.”
I’m concerned Mrs. Quinton might collapse right in front of me, and then I’d have two crises on my hands, the last thing I need at this point.
“Mrs. Quinton, please hold yourself together. Can I get you something? Some water?”
She sits up, tears still running down her cheeks, seemingly embarrassed to have displayed such emotion to a stranger.
“No, no. I’m so sorry. I’m afraid I lost control of myself. I’m just so frightened for Julia. What can we do, Ms. Young? Can you find her, before it’s too late?”
I know finding Julia isn’t the problem. I know exactly where she is. When her captors left that baggie on the porch they telegraphed where they are keeping her. It’s what I might find when I go to where she is being held that troubles me.
“Mrs. Quinton, I know where Julia is. That’s not the problem.” I hesitate, looking into the woman’s tearful eyes, before going on. “It’s what I may find when I go there. That’s my concern.”
“Oh, Ms. Young. You are scaring me. Can you go there now? To free my Julia from her captors? Money is no object. Whatever you might need, I’ll pay you. It’s just Julia that matters.”
“Let’s not worry about the money, Mrs. Quinton. We can deal with that later. I’ll go immediately to where Julia is, but I want you to know that it may already be too late. These beings that have her show no mercy. It may not be a pretty picture. I don’t want to mislead you.”
“Go, go now. Please see what you can do, Ms. Young. Should I call the police again, to go with you?”
“I’m afraid the police will be of no use. I’ll go on my own. It’s not me they want.”
It only takes me a quarter hour to get to the old brick warehouse where I know Julia is being held. It’s in a run-down industrial part of town, and it’s been abandoned for years. I don’t know why it hasn’t been torn down, except I suspect the aura about the place keeps mere mortals far from it. I find one of the boarded-up entrances and, using a pry bar I keep in the trunk, pull the plywood back far enough to gain entrance. I sense I know where I’ll find Julia, and I head directly toward the place deep in the old building, my flashlight leading the way. I steel myself for what I might find when I get there, but even that is insufficient to prepare me.
Julia is there all right. Or I should say, what is left of Julia. She’d been stripped naked and strung up by her arms, attached by snake-like cords to overhead wooden beams. As I approach and my light reaches her eyes, her head twitches and she groans, so I know she’s still alive, if just barely. Parts of her are missing, and not just the chunk of flesh her captors had placed in that baggie. A chunk of flesh they cut from Julia’s left breast, glowing around the edges, a glow they put on it with their special powers. A gaping hole is clearly visible where they cut the flesh out of Julia’s body, and it’s oozing dark, thickened blood that runs down over her ribs and side.
No one, no thing, is visible in the chamber, but even as I watch parts of Julia are being cut away right before my eyes. A long, thin strip of flesh is separated from her right thigh, her legs below the knees and her feet already mostly gone, and she cries out weakly, with what remains of her strength, as the cut strikes deep, right to the bone. I still can’t see who is there to eat the flesh as it comes away from Julia’s thigh, but it is eaten and disappears even as I stand there.
These things, whatever they are, thrive on human flesh. That much I know, having found out the hard way on those previous cases. They don’t want any ransom or payoff, just the flesh they consume from their victim. There’s nothing I can offer them, short of myself or another victim, that can dissuade them from their human meal. Their meal of Julia. The baggie with the chunk of flesh in it, the chunk of flesh with the glowing edges, was just a way of telling her mother to despair of ever seeing her daughter alive again. A kind of remembrance, of sorts. I can call out, I can plead, I can shout out empty threats, and nothing will stop the feasting going on before me.
I stand there as long as I can take it, powerless. I found Mrs. Quinton’s daughter, sure enough, but there’s nothing I can do to save her. I’m held there feeling the hopelessness of my position, of my profession. I don’t feel I can ask any payment from my client. All I can do is report to her that I found her Julia, but she was already dead, and then her body was taken away so she won’t even have a daughter to bury. I’ll spare her the actual details. The police can open a file, but they’ll never solve the case.
Bit by bit poor Julia disappears before me, and by the time her heart is dug out of her chest and consumed she has long since passed on, and I can take it no longer. It’s time to leave.
As I push my way back past the plywood barrier, out onto the street that now has grown dark and where yellow streetlights illuminate the early night, a terrible realization comes to me. Once more sustained, these ghouls will be back again, back to feast on another victim, another parent’s daughter or son. And when they do, I’ll get another damned message on my machine, and the story, like a circular tape, will just repeat itself.