Ideal Beauty

📅 Published on March 19, 2022

“Ideal Beauty”

Written by J.M. Cennamo
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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Dusk had only just settled over the vacant crop fields of Goochland County, a vast, rural, farming area just west of Richmond, VA.  The sky was bruised in shades of burnt orange near the horizon that bled into deep reds, purples, and blacks as the sun continued to sink with each passing moment.  On any other night, this would have been the start of an ideal Summer evening for this normally serene area.  Unfortunately, special agent Lowell knew this would be no ordinary evening as he and his partner raced down route 6 toward their latest assignment.

“Tell me, how can it be this goddamn hot with the sun almost all the way down?”  Groaned Evans, Lowell’s partner for the past 5 years.  “I mean shit, we aren’t even that far south.”  Lowell chuckled as Evans dabbed the sweat from his forehead with his necktie and adjusted the AC vent to blow directly in his face.  “So, what’s the word?  Heard you were supposed to fill me in on the way to the scene.”

Lowell peered out the driver side window with his steel blue eyes and watched the long shadows of the neighboring forest smear across the painted sky.  “Couple of kids were out here in the countryside firing a potato gun at the windows of an abandoned barn just off the main stretch here.  One of the kids decided to look through the broken windows and found it to be not so abandoned after all.  Local PD was called in, but they phoned us.  They think it may be another one.  They said they preserved the scene and haven’t touched anything.  The local contact, someone named Danvers I think, said he wants us to look over the scene with his CS team.  We’ll know more once we’re there.”

“Potato gun?”  Evans mused aloud.  “The hell is a potato gun?”  Lowell chuckled again.

“Some cobbled together PVC pipes, a potato, some hair spray, and an igniter.  Heard these things can launch a potato over 100 yards.”

“Could you use other vegetables?  Like a carrot or an onion?” “How the hell should I know?  Look, we’re almost there.  I’m gonna need you to talk to the officers that responded to the boys’ call.  Find out what you can from them and see if any of the boys wants to give a statement about what happened.  I’ll talk to our contact about the situation and anything suspicious that may have happened recently in the area, then we’ll both examine the scene together.”  Evans nodded that he understood the protocol then turned his attention to his phone messages.  “And Evans,” Lowell continued, “keep the potato gun questions to a minimum please.”

* * * * * *

Night had finally settled in as the two special agents pulled up to the crime scene.  Gone now were the painted skies and endless fields of shadows.  Only the hypnotic swirling of red and blue police lights pierced by long spotlight beams illuminated the small wooded area, projecting dancing shadows onto the surrounding trees and decrepit barn.  As the two agents got out of their vehicle, a local detective hastily approached them from behind the yellow police tape.

“Special Agent Lowell!  Special Agent Evans!  Thank you for coming out here on such short notice.  We got a real mess back there and…well, I suppose you men would like to have a look for yourselves.”  Special Agent Lowell gave the young detective a once over before turning to his partner,

“Evans, go get statements from the other officers and CSI on the scene and find out if any of the boys is willing to talk with us tomorrow morning.  I’ll go with Detective Danvers here and inspect the victim and the barn.  Join us when you’re ready and bring the CS lead with you.”  Evans nodded, retrieved his notepad and pen from his pocket, and proceeded toward the other officers and crime scene personnel standing outside of the yellow taped perimeter.  Lowell gestured to Detective Danvers to lead the way.

“Sir,” Detective Danvers began as they crossed under the police tape and made their way toward the barn.  “It is an honor to get to work with you and your partner.  When we heard the FBI was sending agents to our podunk, little county, we never imagined it’d be you and agent Evans.”  Agent Lowell gave a brief smile and nodded to show his appreciation.  He had never considered himself and Evans as big names at the FBI, but this latest series of murders and their grotesque tableaus had made them household names and regular discussion topics at dinner tables across the Mid-Atlantic region; even with no major leads or arrests made in regards to what the news organizations were now calling the “Virginia Vampire.”

Detective Danvers cleared his throat and turned to Special Agent Lowell.  “Sir, quick question. How did you know my name?  I know I was a bit flustered when you arrived, but I don’t remember introducing myself.”  Special Agent Lowell paused at the entrance to the weather worn barn.

“Well, I was told I would be assisted by a Detective Danvers.  You match the description I was given, you were the first person to approach us upon our arrival at the scene, and…well, it’s on your name plate.”  Lowell tapped the detective’s name tag with his pen and the two men shared a brief chuckle before remembering the grotesque horrors that waited just beyond the decrepit, wooden door that separated them from a waking nightmare.

The barn’s interior expressed the same stages of decrepitness and disuse as the exterior had suggested.  Broken farm equipment and tools, rusted field implements, decomposing planks, and cobwebs adorned every wall and surface not otherwise occupied by the crime scene which stood in the glow of the flood lights like a true to life Halloween display. The stench of the place was just as offensive as the sight of it.  The mustiness and mildew odors coupled with the wretch-inducing smell of decay and carnage left to bake in the Virginia heat was enough to make even the seasoned agent cover his nose and turn his head as the initial wave hit him.

The grizzly tableau before them stood in horrific beauty like a scene pulled straight from a kabuki play.  The victim’s remains were positioned as though she were running and in mid stride.  Galvanized wiring and steel rods held her lifeless body erect. Below her waist, where her legs had once been, were two antique rakes; crudely inserted into the ragged stumps.  Agent Lowell sighed and shook his head.  This was undoubtedly the work of him.

“So, what do we got?” Evans asked, entering the barn with a look of disgust on his face.  Lowell pulled out a pair of latex gloves and slid them onto his hands.  He turned to his partner.

“Was about to have a closer look now, but from a preliminary check over…I think it’s him.”  Evans shook his head in disappointment.

“Him?  You mean The Vampire don’t you?”  Detective Danvers asked as a tone of dread grew in his voice.  The agents nodded almost simultaneously then proceeded to collect evidence from the killer’s latest victim.

* * * * * *

Perfection.  There was no other word to describe them.  Even the jagged saw marks that graced the severed appendages like a row of shark’s teeth could not detract from the abject beauty of these trophies.  It had taken Dalton Grigsby months to find her then weeks to memorize her jogging schedule and routes, but he finally had them: the most perfect pair of legs.

He parked his van in the little, concrete driveway that ran alongside the house he and his late wife had purchased shortly after their wedding.  The house stood at the end of a rural, dead end road that backed up to a heavily wooded area.  His nearest neighbor had a small farm that was closer to the main road about two miles away.  Dalton didn’t mind.  He required seclusion for this endeavor.

The once quaint, brick rancher now slouched in various stages of decay and neglect.  From the cracks running through the bricks and foundation to the weather worn roof with patches of moss and missing shingles, this once promising home now stood as a reflection of its sole occupant’s mental state; broken, rotted, neglected.

He made his way through the worm-eaten front door and proceeded down into the only room of the house he appreciated anymore, the cellar.  There, in the cool, subterranean dungeon, Dalton had begun what he considered his life’s most important work.  For well over a year he had studied, hunted, subdued, and mutilated five people to complete this masterpiece.

But it was more than just art to him.  These components, these objects of flesh and bone, would soon be elevated into something so beautiful, so magnificent, that to behold it would make even the most steadfast person drop to their knees and weep.  He cradled the bloody appendages in his arms like one would a cooing infant, then placed them gently onto his work bench.

Dalton reached out with his blood drenched hands and caressed the two perfect limbs.  He knew he would cherish this moment just as he had cherished the others that came before it.  He groped around under his work station and retrieved the tools and equipment he required to continue what he now considered his life’s only true purpose.  These implements he used were nothing fancy: some galvanized metal wire, rebar, heavy gauge needles, and a suture kit.

Once everything was ready and in place, he walked the six, short steps from the bench to the display rack where his incomplete masterpiece awaited, draped in a cloth.  With a quick jerk, Dalton ceremoniously removed the covering and tossed it to the ground.  He gazed at the magnificence that hung before him as tears welled up in his eyes.  He extended a trembling hand towards his beautiful creation while his lips quivered uncontrollably.

“Soon,” he longingly whispered.  “Soon you will be complete, my darling.  Only a few more pieces left…”  His voice trailed off as determination and purpose reignited in him.  It was time to add these gorgeous legs to his beloved creation, but first, he must consult the book.

* * * * * *

Thin trails of smoke danced carelessly from the end of agent Lowell’s cigarette as he poured over his notes and papers from the previous crime scenes.  The dim, orange glow from the nightstand’s lamp washed over the room casting vague shadows on the walls from the outdated furniture.  While he had grown accustomed to staying in meager accommodations while on assignment, his current dwelling gave the impression it had not been renovated since the mid-seventies.  Thankfully, he didn’t have to stare at too much of the décor.  The better part of the dated bedspread was covered in a sea of witness statements and crime scene photos.

Lowell let out a deep sigh, expelling the smoke from his lungs.  All of the evidence left at the scene fit the “Vampire’s” M.O., but they were no closer to identifying him, let alone bringing him in.  He hated to admit this, but this killer was good at what he did.  He knew exactly what to leave to entice the agents and, simultaneously, what to take with him to avoid capture.  He abducted his victims in one county or city, killed and dismembered them somewhere private, then staged them in an entirely separate location.  Whatever tools and implements he used, he brought with him, save for the “props” he would improvise onto and sometimes into the victim’s corpse.  He left no prints or hair.  The only fluids at the scenes belonged to the victims.  He hunted and killed people of different races, ages, and genders.  Even his choice in trophies changed from killing to killing.

The first victim, a twenty-two year old white female swimming instructor named Melissa Jarvis, had what could only be described as her torso removed – everything from her neck down to her pelvis was taken.  Victim two, a forty-three year old black male named Jeffery Shepard, known in the music scene as “Big Papa Crown”, had his skull, ears, and tongue removed – all other aspects of his head, body, and face were present at the scene.  Eighteen year old Anna Lau, an Asian American girl voted prom queen at Hermitage High school, had her face and scalp removed.  The fourth victim, a thirty-four year old bodybuilder named Hassim Jabal, had both arms removed at the shoulders.  Last, but certainly not least, the latest victim, identified as twenty-nine year old Amanda Westfell, had both of her legs removed.

“Why these parts?”  Lowell muttered to himself.  “What are you doing with them?”  This question had stumbled aimlessly around his mind since the first victim’s remains were discovered.  Why was he so discerning about what parts he kept from what victims?  How was he choosing them?  What was his endgame?  Lowell needed to call it a night.  He had been at this for hours since they returned from the scene and he knew they would need to get an early start questioning the locals and running down leads in the morning.

He carefully collected his files and placed them on the armchair next to his bed.  With any luck, sleep would find him quickly and he could get some rest before his alarm went off in four hours.  Just as his head graced the nearly flat motel pillow, an abrupt knock echoed from the adjoining door that led to his partner’s room.

“Lowell, you still up?” Evans asked as he tried the knob before getting a response. Agent Lowell let out a deep sigh, threw off his covers, put on his robe, and unlocked the door for him.  “Sorry you weren’t sleeping were you?  I saw the light under the door and figured I’d see if you were still going over the case.”  Lowell shook his head and gestured for him to have a seat.  Evans moved the papers and files off the chair and placed them on the floor.  From the looks of it, he had been having a long night as well.

“Trouble sleeping Evans?”  Lowell asked as he offered his sweat soaked partner a drink which he graciously accepted.

“It’s just so damn hot!”  Evans replied, pressing the cool glass of scotch against his forehead.  “Isn’t it supposed to get cooler when the sun goes down?”  Lowell chuckled and took a sip of his drink.

“If Virginia was a desert, sure.  But the humidity here traps the heat in.”  Lowell set his glass down on the nightstand then collected the papers from the floor, returning them to the bed where he had just finished going over them.  “Well, I don’t suppose you came over here to bitch about the heat.  What’s on your mind?”

“Look, based on what we saw today, there is no doubt it’s him, but I feel like we are still no closer to catching him than we were when the last victim was found.  If he is eating them, he is leaving a lot of stuff behind.  If he’s disposing of the parts elsewhere, he is doing a damn good job of keeping those locations a secret.  If he is keeping them, then we still don’t have a motive other than ‘derangement’.”  It appeared the two men were struggling with the same blocks in the case.  Lowell had hoped Evans would have found something he didn’t or noticed something that had eluded them from earlier that day, but sadly, this was not the case.

The two agents compared notes until the first signs of dawn emblazoned the shades on Lowell’s window and the alarm he had set began to screech from his cell phone.  With no sleep to be had for either of them, Lowell and Evans got dressed, drank some coffee, and headed out to the parking lot where their rental was waiting.

“You know,” Lowell began, “I thought of something.  All of the victims we’ve found were good if not great at something.  All of them had talents or outstanding features. Swimming, rapping, weight lifting, physical beauty.  They all had body parts taken relating to their gifts. Going off what was taken from the latest victim, I bet you she was a runner.”

“So, you think he is collecting the best parts of the people he murders?”  Evans responded.  “How does that help us prevent the next one?  What parts do you think he is after next?”

“I don’t know, but I feel like his hunting ground is a lot smaller than we originally thought. They may not live near each other, but maybe they share a common link.”  Lowell pulled out his cell phone and called into the field office.  “Washburn, yeah it’s Lowell.  Listen, pull the files on the Vampire’s victims.  I need you to check credit and debit card statements, phone records, and social media.  Find out if any of them frequented any of the same places in the last few months leading up to their murders.”  He hung up the phone and shot Evans a smile.  “Come on, this may be the break we needed.”

* * * * * *

“So, what exactly are we looking for?”  Evans asked as he, Lowell, and Washburn rigorously poured over bank statements and social media posts belonging to the victims.  “Any thoughts on what you think links them?”  Agent Lowell let out a deep sigh.

“No, but he had to have seen them all somewhere.  While they weren’t all from the Richmond area, they were all residents of Virginia.  I think he is using out of the way locations to dispose of the remains to give the impression he travels far to find them, but I’d bet good money he found them all within a thirty minute drive of where he first saw them.  They are all in different age groups.  They are different races.  He is not picky about gender, but something connects them.”

Agent Washburn removed his wire-framed bifocals and gave his temples a firm, but therapeutic rub.  He had been in the FBI for over twenty years and had worked on everything from sequence killings to human trafficking.  While his days in the field were far behind him, he still had the insight and intuition to help on serious cases like “The Virginia Vampire”.  Unfortunately, this was no ordinary case and the gruesomeness of these killings were more vile and grotesque than the cases that had crossed his desk since he was reassigned to a desk job.

This reassignment was not by choice.  While working in conjunction with local SWAT and narcotics units in Detroit, Washburn had caught a stray bullet.  Though his injury was not fatal, the 9 mm round had shattered his right knee.  James Brisson, director of the FBI at the time, told him he couldn’t remain in the field.  Though Washburn insisted he could still function out on assignments, Brisson gave him an ultimatum: desk or retirement.  Washburn begrudgingly took the desk job, knowing he could still be of value to the bureau.

“So, we don’t think this one is eating them?  Remember that case back in 05?  We didn’t think that guy was eating them either because of what he took and what he left, but he turned out to be a cannibal,” Washburn mused as he monotonously clicked through the social media posts of the deceased.  He had been at this for hours now. Everything from photos, to Tweets, to check-ins, to memes.  His eyes were beginning to burn and his brain felt fuzzy.  He needed a break.  “I’m gonna head down to the commissary and get some good coffee.  Either of you want anything?”  Evans shook his head and continued to scan through bank statements and receipts.  Lowell gave no response.  He seemed transfixed on something.  Evans and Washburn knew he had found something

“Washburn, go back to those photos of Big Papa Crown’s album launch party.  Evans, pull up the monthly statements of Melissa Jarvis.  Check specifically for automatic withdrawals like donations or memberships.”  A look of righteous determination spread across Lowell’s face invigorating his colleagues.  He was good like that.  They knew once he was onto something they would find a new lead in the case.

“Here,” Washburn called from his desk.  “Shepard’s album launch party.  Looks like they held most of the shindig in the modern art section of the VMFA.”  Lowell turned the screen to get a better look.  It was undoubtedly the Virginia Museum of Fine Art.  He made it a point to visit when they first arrived in the Richmond area.  “Why the museum?  I took a listen to some of Shepard’s music.  Doesn’t seem like the artsy type to me.”

“You’d be surprised, Washburn.”  Lowell responded without looking up from the screen. “Look here,” Lowell continued while pointing at the photos.  “This painting is in almost every photo.  Turns out, it was painted by the same artist that did his latest album’s cover art.”  Evans nodded in agreement as he quickly opened a document on his own computer.

“Look here!”  Evans shouted excitedly.  “You may have hit it Lowell.  Melissa Jarvis was a frequent donator and visitor to the VMFA.  Her bank statements show monthly donations.”  As the day went on, more and more connections to the museum revealed themselves.  Anna Lau took her senior photos in the museum’s sculpture garden.  Hassim Jabal worked in the shipping and receiving department of the museum, using his impressive physique to move the heavier shipments the other workers couldn’t.  Finally, there was Amanda Westfell, the runner.  She attended a VMFA banquet to honor the winners of the Monument Avenue 10K.

“Washburn, give the VMFA a call.  Let them know Evans and I are on the way.  Then get in touch with local PD from Richmond, Henrico, and Goochland and fill them in on what we know.  Evans, grab your stuff.”  Evans quickly gathered his things and followed Lowell out to the car.

“You think our guy is another museum regular?”  Evans asked as they hurried through the parking lot.  Lowell handed his partner a series of printouts from their computer searches.

“Notice anything Evans?”  Lowell asked as he lit his first cigarette since the one he smoked last night.  “See this guy with the camera snapping shots of Sheppard from the crowd? Same guy with his phone out in the background of Anna’s senior photos.  Same guy taking a selfie with Amanda at the banquet.  In all of these photos he’s wearing a museum ID badge.  He made sure to keep his name out of full view in all of the photos, but you can just make out the museum name and insignia.  He works there, Evans.  Come on, get in the car.”

* * * * * *

It was nearly closing time as agents Lowell and Evans arrived at the museum.  The sound of highschool field trips and young children enjoying the youth art programs had faded to the light murmurs and echoing footsteps of the more mature patrons seeking to view the antiquities and masterpieces after a long day of work in peace.  Evans couldn’t help but admire some of the exhibits they passed as they walked toward the information desk.  He was never one for museums as a child, but was slowly coming around to them.

“I wish we had time to look around,” Evans whispered to his partner as they approached the desk.  “Some of this stuff is really fantastic.”  Lowell sighed and shook his head.

“You should have come with me when we first got to town.  Place is really something.”  Evans was prepared to retort, but was interrupted.

“So sorry if I kept you gentlemen waiting.  I am Geoffrey Zelinski, head curator.  Any trouble finding us?”  Zelinski was a slight, bespectacled man.  His light reddish brown hair grayed near the temples and tapered down into a white, short cropped beard.  Agent Lowell shook his hand and introduced himself and his partner.

“No, not at all.  I actually visited your lovely museum a few weeks ago when we got into town.” Mr. Zelinski smiled.  He had been a lover of art since he was just a little boy and always enjoyed hearing praise heaped on the museum.  With introductions and pleasantries out of the way, the three men strode through the lobby and into the curator’s private office.

“So, gentlemen, what can we at the VMFA assist you with?  I spoke with an agent Washburn, I believe, yet he gave no indication of what matter of import we would be discussing.  Should I have them close the museum early?”  Mr. Zelinski was clearly rattled by the FBI needing to speak with him.  Not that he had done anything wrong or had anything to hide.  He feared this visit would shed unfavorable light on the museum.  He had read the local papers and knew why the two agents were in town, but he refused to believe his museum had anything to do with it.

“Relax, Mr. Zelinski,”  Lowell said in a calming tone.  “There is no need to make your patrons leave.  Agent Evans and I just have a couple of questions and some photos we would like for you to look at.  After that, we should be on our way.”  The old curator gave an anxious nod, cleared his throat, and gestured to inform the agents he was ready to proceed.  “Now, Mr. Zelinski, how long have you been here at the VMFA?”  The curator took a sip of water from the glass on his desk then let out a steadying sigh.

“Well, I started here right out of college as a docent while I studied to become a curator.  That was about thirty-two years ago.  I have been head curator here these last twenty years,”  he added with a small hint of pride in his voice.  Agents Lowell and Evans made quick notes in their notebooks before proceeding.

“In that time, did you ever notice anyone acting strangely: staff, patrons, visitors?”  The curator shook his head.  Agent Evans reached into his briefcase and produced several photos.  He carefully placed them on the desk facing Mr. Zelinski.

“What about this guy?”  Agent Evans asked, pointing to the man in the selfie with Amanda. “Anything noteworthy or peculiar about him?”  The curator examined the photo more closely, adjusting his glasses on his nose as he did.  He shook his head regretfully.

“No, that’s just Dalton Grigsby.”  Mr. Zelinski began.  “Good worker.  Started out in the shipping and receiving department.  Big guy like him helped unload some of the heavier pieces the other workers couldn’t handle.  Him and Hassim.”  The two agents looked at each other then back to Zelinski.

“Would that be Hassim Jabal?”  Agent Lowell queried as he frantically jotted down what the curator had said.  Mr. Zelinski nodded nervously.

“Y-y-yes,” he stammered.  “He, um, he did volunteer work here in the shipping and receiving department.  There is nothing on the books about him, but I…I remember him.  He was also really strong; bigger than Grigsby even.  He stopped coming a few months back…I just figured he was finished with his volunteering.  Oh God.  He…he was one of the victims, wasn’t he?” Agent Lowell gave a solemn nod as he saw tears forming in the old man’s eyes.  The names of the victims had been kept out of the papers as well as some of the more gruesome details of their deaths.

“You said Grigsby started out in shipping and receiving,” agent Lowell started again after the curator regained his composure.  “What does he do now?”  Mr. Zelinski steadied his nerves and removed the pocket square from his jacket to dab away the tears that had streamed down his cheek at the thought of Hassim’s demise.

“He, uh,” Zelinski began after clearing his throat.  “He works as an exhibit designer now.  He has a great eye for detail and…”  The old curator paused.  His eyes darted back and forth between the two agents.  “You don’t think Grigsby had anything to do with this, do you?”  Agents Lowell and Evans exchanged an uncomfortable glance at one another.  Agent Evans straightened his tie and leaned forward in his chair.

“Look, this Grigsby guy is in all of these photos and -”  Before he could finish, Lowell interjected.

“We would just like to talk with him.  See if he knew anything about Hassim or any of the other victims.  You wouldn’t happen to have an address for him, would you?”  The old curator nodded quickly and began to leaf through the rolodex on the desk.  With a look of solemn hesitation, he slowly removed one of the address cards and handed it slowly to Agent Lowell.  “Thank you very much Mr. Zelinski for your cooperation and hospitality.  You have a lovely museum here and I look forward to visiting again, under happier circumstances.”  Mr. Zelinski gave a weak smile and stood to escort the two agents back through the lobby.

As the three men crossed the now entirely deserted museum entryway, a thought came to Agent Lowell.  “Mr. Zelinski, do you mind showing us what Dalton Grigsby has been working on most recently?”  The curator, not wanting to refuse the requests of the FBI, led the two agents into the special exhibits wing on the second floor.  Outside the roped off archway leading into the exhibition hall was a large banner that read “Art, Science, and the Occult: Paganism’s Impact Throughout the Eras.”

The darkened rooms and corridors of the vast, marble hall echoed with the footsteps as they entered.  Statues of Pagan deities, various crumbling books and tomes written in dead and forgotten languages, and paintings of witch’s sabbaths and occult rituals all sat on display in dimly lit cases or atop pedestals.  Agent Evans tried his best not to look at some of the more grotesque pieces as the three of them made their way toward the exhibit Dalton Grigsby had been assigned to work on.  Unfortunately, as they rounded a sharp corner toward a dimly lit passage, a particularly disturbing painting sat in wait.

From a distance, it appeared to be a depiction of a large gathering around a bonfire.  However, as the trio drew closer, the ghastly details became easier to discern for agent Evans.  The bonfire was a large pile of nude, mutilated corpses that had been set ablaze.  Men, women, and even small children were present in the heap of decay and desolation.  The attendees of the gathering were far more horrific than they had originally seemed as well.  Various beings and creatures stood with arms raised around the great death pyre.  Beings with disproportionate sized limbs and appendages that bent and twisted in undesirable ways.  Beings with faces that gave only the vaguest impressions of humanity.  Beings covered in the blood and gore of those deemed worthy of the pile.  However, the worst of these atrocities stood triumphantly atop a small hill adorned with a crudely hewn stone pulpit near its center.  If scale were taken into account, this musclebound goliath would have been nearly ten feet tall.  Much like the others in the cabal, this horror stood upright like a man, but its naked form was covered in reptilian-like scales and thick, dark fur.  Its face was split from forehead to chin with a vertical maw lined with teeth and protruding pieces of bone.  With one clawed hand it held a torch, the apparent catalyst of the great fire.  With the other it pointed menacingly outward at those that dared view this scene.  Below the painting was a small, beige information plaque that read:

The Great Reclamation

Circa: 1100 – 1200 AD

Tempera paint on animal hide

Artist Unknown

Agent Evans was the first to turn away from the painting.  The horrifying vista coupled with The Vampire case had entwined a knot in his stomach and put ideas in his head that he did not dare put into words.  Agent Lowell and Mr. Zelinski studied the painting silently for a moment.  Lowell pondered what medieval mind could have imagined such a scene while the curator stared at the painting in a mix of disgust and awe.  Zelinski shook his head and gestured to a small area just across from the macabre scene.

The partially completed display consisted of several marble pedestals and glass display cases, some already adorned with sculptures and artifacts dating back to the Roman occupation of Jerusalem.  At the very center of the display sat an ancient tome bound in a thick, dark leather of unknown origin.  A look of confusion spread across Mr. Zelinski’s face.  “No, no this isn’t right,” he said in a trembling voice barely above a whisper.  Agent Lowell placed a reassuring hand on the curator’s shoulder before speaking up.

“Is everything alright Mr. Zelinski?  Is there something wrong with the display?”  The curator nodded and, with a shaking hand, pointed to the leather bound book that seemed to be the focal point of the exhibit.

“That is not the right book.  This is the Liber Animarum.  The book that is supposed to be here is the Liber Sacri Ritus.”  Agent Evans gave his partner a concerned look before chiming in.

“Is there any way this was a simple mistake and Grigsby grabbed the wrong book by mistake?” Again the curator shook his head.

“No.  Dalton had seen both books before.  He even did the exhibit this book belongs in.”  Agents Lowell and Evans jotted down the names of the books and the three men quickly made their way back to the main lobby.

“Thank you very much for your time and cooperation Mr. Zelinski.  We are going to swing by Grigsby’s house and question him about the missing book and what he knows about Hassim and the others.”  The old curator swallowed hard.

“Agent Lowell,” He began.  “You…you don’t think he really committed those murders, do you?” “We just need to ask him some questions.  Nothing is concrete yet and as soon as we rule him out, the better.”  With that, the two agents sped off in the night toward the home of Dalton Grigsby.

* * * * * *

It was just after midnight when the two agents parked their car across the street from Grigsby’s house.  The road was nearly vacant save for one or two bats that flapped their wings and screeched in the jet black night, hunting for prey.  Agents Lowell and Evans strode carefully through the overgrown crabgrass and weeds that comprised the majority of the front yard before reaching the front stoop.  Without hesitation, agent Lowell gave three quick pounds on the aged door.  The echo from his knocks were the only response to greet them.  Apart from the van parked in the driveway, the house seemed completely deserted.

After waiting for almost a minute, agent Lowell repeated his knocks.  It wasn’t long before the sound of footsteps could be heard moving through the decrepit domicile, growing louder as they neared the front door.  With a loud click, the porchlight illuminated, casting the agents in an unnatural ochre glow.

“Hello,”  a low, tired voice called out from the other side of the door.  “Who is it?”  Agent Lowell cleared his throat.

“Good evening Mr. Grigsby.  We are sorry to disturb you at such a late hour.  I’m Special Agent Lowell and this is my partner, Special Agent Evans.  We would like to speak with you about the museum you work for.  It appears something has gone missing.”  Only silence answered them for what felt like an eternity, before the door slowly creaked open.  Before them stood a man in his late thirties.  He was of average height, but even the loose fitting jeans and black t-shirt he had thrown on to answer the door could not hide the muscles that must have taken him years of training to pack on.  Dalton pushed his long black hair out of his face and rubbed the last traces of sleep from his eyes.

“Would you gentlemen like to come in?  I can put some coffee on if you like.”  The agents accepted the invitation and followed him through the front sitting room and into the kitchen. Much like the rest of the house, the kitchen was in dire need of renovation.  The paint chipped and cracked in various places revealing the color the walls had originally worn.  The wallpaper was torn and peeled away in places as if someone once had the idea to change it, but gave up. All of the appliances were outdated and could do with some cleaning.  Oil and grease stains covered the stove’s flat top and the surrounding counters.  Dalton started the coffee maker then took a seat across from the two agents at a small, round dinette table in the center of the kitchen.

“Mr. Grigsby,” agent Lowell began while pulling out several folders from his briefcase.  “Were you aware that one of the artifacts from your exhibit had gone missing?”  Dalton gave out a deep sigh and solemnly shook his head.

“No,” he lied while looking agent Lowell in the eyes.  “Last I checked, everything was where it should be.  Do you mind telling me what’s gone missing?”  Agent Evans took out his notepad and tried his best to pronounce the name of the stolen book.

“The Liber…Sacri…Ritus.  Mr. Zelinski said another book had been put in its place.  A book belonging to another exhibit you had worked on not long before this one.”  A look of annoyance spread across Grigsby’s face.

“You think I stole it, don’t you?”  His voice was flat and nearly robotic in its delivery.

“What can you tell us about Hassim Jabal?  Mr. Zelinski said you and he worked together briefly.  He hasn’t been at work for a long time.  Do you think he had anything to do with the missing book?”  A sardonic smile spread across Dalton’s face.

“Hassim,” whispered Grigsby with a sense of longing in his voice.  “Oh, I remember Hassim.  He had the most amazing physique.  I once thought about asking him to train me at the gym, but I was too shy.  I mean, did you see the arms on this guy?”  Evans shot Lowell a worried glance. A high pitched beeping noise began to soundoff from the coffee maker on the counter behind Grigsby, but he ignored it, his eyes fixed on the photos in front of him.  Agent Evans slowly reached for the gun in his holster so as not to draw attention from the reminiscing man across the table.  “Don’t bother…”  Grigsby said calmly without even turning his attention to Evans.  In those next moments, several things happened in rapid succession: both agents drew their sidearms, Grigsby flipped the table toward them, shut off the kitchen light, and darted toward the door that led into his cellar.

“Evans!”  Agent Lowell shouted through the darkness, gun still drawn and at the ready.  “Do you have eyes on Grigsby?”  Agent Lowell groped the walls until his fingers found the lightswitch. With the lights back on, the two agents scanned the room for the missing suspect.

“I heard a door open near the living room.  I think he ran into the cellar.”  Evans replied as sweat began to drip down his forehead.  Adrenaline coursed through his body as the thought finally came to him: we found him.

“Okay, Evans, listen,” agent Lowell whispered to his partner.  Go secure the living room and front door while I call this in so we can get some backup out h-”  The agent’s words were suddenly cut short by several blasts from a shotgun that penetrated through the floor beneath them.  Agent Evans returned fire blindly into the deteriorating floorboards, hoping to end this situation as quickly as possible.  After exchanging several volleys, the gunfire from the cellar finally ceased.  There was the sound of a shotgun clattering to the ground and the thud of a body slumping onto the floor.

Agent Lowell let out a deep sigh.  He and his partner were not hit by any of Grigsby’s shots.  He caught his breath and turned to Evans.  “Okay, let’s call it in and sweep the house.  I think whatever he was doing with his trophies, he was doing here.  It’s quiet, isolated, and unassuming.”  Agent Lowell reached for his radio to call in for backup.  His hand had barely grasped the receiver when a loud bang erupted from the cellar just beneath his feet.  Buckshot and wooden shrapnel pierced through the bottoms of his feet and calves.  With that final assault, the floor gave way and crashed into the cellar below.  Agent Lowell hit hard on the dusty, concrete floor below with his partner landing close by.  Grigsby was nowhere to be seen.

“Lowell!  Lowell!”  Evans shouted.  “Did he get you?  Are you okay?”  Agent Lowell gave no response.  The blood loss from the ragged flesh that once composed the lower portion of his legs and the sudden fall through the floor had stunned the veteran agent.  “Oh my God!  Lowell, I am going to call for help.  We’re going to get out of here.”  Evans fumbled for his radio when the sound of a cocking shotgun behind him shattered the silence.

“I wouldn’t if I were you.”  Grigsby threatened in a controlled tone.  “Don’t worry agent Evans. You have the great privilege of witnessing what comes next.  Unfortunately, until my work here is complete, I must devote my undivided attention to the tasks at hand.”  With that, Grigsby slammed the butt of the shotgun into the back of agent Evan’s head.  Evans felt the room spin. Then his vision blurred.  Then it went dark.  Then there was nothingness.  Terrible, empty nothingness.

* * * * * *

“Agent Evans…Evvvaaannns…You awake?”  A muffled voice called to him from across the tenebrous cellar.  His skull throbbed with a searing pain that radiated from the bloody impact point at the rear of his head to just behind his eyes.  Full consciousness had not yet returned to him, however, even in this brain fogged nightmare, he knew it was Grigsby that called out to him.  He tried to shake off the daze and return to his feet, but it was no use.  If the weakness and tremors were not enough to keep him slumped onto the floor, then the ropes and duct tape surely were.  He struggled only for a moment before realizing it was futile and consigned himself to conserving his energy in the off chance a backup call had gone out prior to the floor collapsing.

As his senses returned, agent Evans became suddenly aware of the putrid smells assaulting his nostrils from an area of the room unaffected by the sudden cave in from the firefight.  His eyes had still not fully adjusted to the dark, but he could see what he assumed was Grigsby working at either a work bench or table.  In the far right corner stood a massive object covered by a cloth.  The sound of Grigsby’s tools ceased as his imposing figure turned to face him.  He approached with slow, heavy footsteps then crouched to meet his gaze.

“Oh, finally awake I see.  Good.  I really didn’t want you to miss this.”  His deep voice tinged with a hint of excitement echoed through what remained of his workshop.  “I am sorry I wasn’t a better host to you and agent Lowell.  If you two hadn’t brought up Hassim so early in the conversation, we could have at least enjoyed our coffee.  Well, that doesn’t matter anymore does it?  I mean, I think the time for pretense has come to an end.  Besides, I don’t believe agent Lowell is in any real position to drink anything.”  Evans felt his heart sink.  He struggled to move once again, but still could not break the binds that held him in place.

“Grigsby, where is agent Lowell?  What have you done?”  His questions fell on deaf ears. Grigsby gave him a calm smile, patted him on the cheek, then returned to his work station.  “We Called for backup, Grigsby.  They’ll be here any minute.  Don’t make this any worse than it has to be.  Let me out of here and we can talk.”  The lies that spewed from his mouth only elicited an amused chuckle from his captor.

“Backup?  Well, someone should tell them they are running very late.  See, you’ve been unconscious for hours.  Look around you Evans.  I have no close neighbors.  No streetlights on this road.  Hell, did you hear even a dog bark after all of that gunfire?  No.  I’m afraid it’s just the three of us.”

A small feeling of relief washed over Evans.  He said “three”.  Maybe Lowell was still alive, and just unconscious.  “I am not a cannibal, you know.”  Grigsby explained.  “Far from it.  I loved those people.  Well, I loved parts of them.  I spent years working at the museum, surrounded by gorgeous paintings and antiquities, but, beautiful as they are, something was missing.  Then, I saw it.  I believe you saw it too.  The Great Reclamation.”  Agent Evans shuddered at the mere thought of that painting.  “Oh?  You didn’t like it?  Sadly, everyone’s a critic these days.  What you might have thought grotesque, I saw true beauty.  Why do you think I took the parts that I did?  Imagine, a being with the best legs.  The strongest arms.  The prettiest face.  All combined into one, ideal human.  You know, I used to think my wife was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.  I was so wrong.  Again, I am glad you are here to witness this.  This will be the greatest discovery in modern science coupled with true art and form.  I am truly sorry that you have nothing to contribute to my masterpiece.  Your partner, on the other hand, gave me some truly invaluable materials.  I just knew he’d be the perfect fit for my work.  Now, after you’ve told me what you really think of my work, I suppose I can use you for concept art.  A ‘sketch’ if you will.”

Grgisby snapped on the overhead lights that had not been damaged by the debris.  He carefully adjusted them so their beams fell on the blood stained cover draped on the thing in the corner.  He turned his attention once more to the subdued agent.  “May I present to you Ideal Beauty; mixed medium.”  In one quick motion, Grigsby drew back the sheet revealing the culmination of all of his work.  There it hung in all of its grotesqueness and morbidity.  The trim torso of the young swim instructor, Melissa Jarvis, connected to the muscular arms of Hassim Jabal and the toned legs of Amanda Westfell.  Above the neck were the skull and ears of Big Papa Crown with Anna Lau’s face and scalp stretched and stapled to fit the much larger bone structure.

Agent Evans wretched at the sight of this abomination.  This amalgamation of limbs and body parts was reminiscent of those things that cheered and bayed around the pile of mutilated bodies in that abhorred painting.  Grigsby shot agent Evans a disappointed glance.  “Look, I understand that art is subjective, but how could you deny its magnificence?  Well, maybe this next part will change your mind.  Give you a new perspective and a true appreciation for my craft.”

Dalton Grigsby returned to his work table and retrieved an ancient looking book bound in a dark leather.  Though he had never seen it before, Evans knew this was the missing copy of the Liber Sacri Ritus.  Grigsby opened the tome to a page he had carefully marked and began to chant in some otherworldly language.  The shouts and screams of his blaspheming grew as if amplified by some unseen choir.  The overhead lights flickered and buzzed with each syllable as if they would soon explode.  The foundation quaked and rumbled beneath them as Grigsby finished his incantation.  With one final utterance, the horrid creature that once hung motionless, began to convulse and shake on its mountings.  The ill-fitting body parts writhed and twitched as the sutures and wiring holding them in place strained and pulled in every direction.  Its mouth fell open with a disgusting snap, issuing an unearthly howl of pain and terror.  Evans closed his eyes as tightly as possible.  He could not bear to see this impossible thing defy all earthly logic and reanimate.

“E-Evans?”  an unfamiliar voice called to him from across the cellar.  Agent Evans slowly opened his eyes.  The monstrosity gazed at him with an all too familiar look.  A look that Evans had come to know over the past few years.  The monster’s steely blue eyes started to well up with tears as it wailed and raged in that subterranean hell. Grigsby began to laugh hysterically, his head down on the bloodied work table before him.  It was that telling laughter and what he saw next that finally splintered what remained of agent Evans’ sanity, sending him into fits of screams and cries for help.  On the wall, just next to where the creature hung was the body of his partner, agent Lowell.  His eyes and brain neatly removed from his skull.

Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by J.M. Cennamo
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: J.M. Cennamo

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