The Soul Collector

📅 Published on June 9, 2023

“The Soul Collector”

Written by J.C. Fields
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


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A poorly tied slip knot, which held the body to a sandbag on the floor of the lake, succumbed to the forces of buoyancy and failed. This failure did not happen at first, but gradually as decomposition within the torso produced sufficient gases to cause the cadaver to tug on the badly secured rope. The fact a rather large catfish nibbled on the knot did not assist in keeping it intact.

At about midnight of the third day, after the poor soul’s decapitated torso entered the water, the knot failed and it rose to the surface. A rather strong wind out of the northwest helped guide it toward the shoreline. By five-thirty in the morning, the nude, partially decomposed figure rested half out of the water next to the fishing docks of a rather busy marina.

* * * * * *

Adel County Missouri Sheriff Michael Osborne watched as two EMTs lifted the body bag, now containing the headless victim, onto a gurney.

“Did either one of you find any tattoos or other distinguishing marks before you placed her in the bag?”

Sally, a rather large-boned female EMT shook her head. “Sorry, Sheriff, I didn’t see any. What about you, Joel?”

“Not a thing.”

Osborne followed the gurney to the ambulance and stopped them before they loaded it inside. He pulled a latex glove onto his right hand and looked at the female EMT. “I need to check something before you load her.” He unzipped the bag and withdrew one of the arms with his gloved hand. Turning it so he could see the palm, he bent closer and stared at the fingertips. When he was done, he returned the arm and zipped the bag closed.

Turning to Sally, he said, “Fingerprints look intact. I’ll need a set.”

“You got it, Sheriff. Stop by the hospital when you’re through here.”

He nodded. Not quite ready to return to the crime scene, he stood and watched the ambulance pull away from the dock area. When it disappeared, he sauntered down the sloped launching ramp to where early morning fishermen discovered the body.

Once he ducked under the yellow crime scene tape, he removed the glove from his right hand and approached one of his deputies’ taking pictures of the crime scene. “Hey, Dwight, can you tell me who found her this morning?”

Pointing toward two men now sitting on a dock, both smoking cigarettes, Deputy Dwight Smith said. “There they are. Good luck.”

Osborne looked in the direction indicated by the deputy and raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean, good luck?”

“Both are attorneys from Kansas City here for a long weekend of fishing. They’re not happy their weekend is being delayed.”

Osborne’s lip twitched. “Aww, poor things, if they have attitude, their day could get a lot worse.” He stared at the two men and trudged toward them. When he got within fifteen feet the older of the two men jumped down from the dock.

“You Sheriff Osborne?”

“Ayup. Are you one of the fellas who found the body this morning?”

“Look, Sheriff, we don’t know anything about the body. We just happened to be the first persons to see it. Now, can we go about our business?”


The old man replied. “Why not? We don’t know anything about it.”

“Well, I don’t know what you don’t know until I start asking questions.”

The younger man rolled his eyes and jumped down. “Sheriff, we know our rights. We didn’t see anything other than the body. So let us get back to what we came here for.”

Tilting his head, a bit, Osborne looked from one to the other. “What time did you two get here?”

“A little after five.”

“Did you see her then?”


“Where were you?”

The younger man pointed toward a boat in a bay of the dock. “Getting our fishing gear on our boat.”

“What time was it when you saw the body?”


“From where I’m standing, it appears your boat has a clear view of the body’s location.”

“Yes, but we weren’t paying attention. The sun wasn’t up and we were concentrating on getting our gear in the boat.”

“You said that earlier.” Osborne pointed up at a large security light. “That lamp, right there, illuminates this whole area. If the body was where I’m standing, you’d have noticed. So, from the information you’ve given me I would estimate it washed ashore between five and five-forty.”

The two men looked at each other and nodded, the older one said, “That seems about right.”

Osborne smiled. “See, you two did know something. You’ve helped me determine the time the body washed ashore.” He turned and started to walk away. “Good luck with your fishing, gentlemen. You’re free to go.”

* * * * * *

Adel County Hospital

Osborne watched the coroner examine the headless body. He stood off to the side, a surgical mask tight against his face. “Other than missing her head, Doc, does she have any other trauma to the body?”

Doctor Frank Austin, a retired physician who worked part-time for the county as the medical examiner, looked up. “Nope. It’s a damn clean cut too. Most decapitations are messy, this one isn’t. Almost like what you would expect from a guillotine.”

“How long was she in the water?”

“Less than a week.”

Folding his arms, Osborne stared at the doctor. “Did you get a set of fingerprints?”

He nodded and handed the sheriff two cards. “Both hands. I’m sending a copy of them and a DNA sample to the Crime Lab in Jefferson City.”

With a nod, Osborne took a quick glance at the woman. “Any idea how old she was?”

“We’ll get a better estimate when we get the results back from the lab, but I would say somewhere between twenty and thirty.” He handed him a picture printed on a laser printer. “She had a small tattoo on her ankle.”

“Huh, a rose.”

“Looks like it. The EMTs didn’t find it because of the rope marks.”

The sheriff looked up from the picture. “Rope marks?”

“She’d been tied to something. I found an indentation on her ankle caused by a rope.”

“Okay, Doc, keep me informed.”

“Will do, Michael.”

Walking out of the hospital he headed toward his county vehicle while staring at the picture of the rose on her ankle. When he got to the pickup, he dialed a number on his cell phone.

Dwight Smith answered. “What’d you find out, Sheriff?”

“Won’t know much until the lab gets back to us. Do you still have the phone number of those guys who find submerged cars?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Call them, I need to have a meeting.”

* * * * * *

Former Navy Seal Josh Oliver, a barrel-chested, curly reddish-brown haired man with a thick beard asked. “So, what are you thinking, Sheriff?” He and his brother owned and operated a sonar search and rescue team based in Kansas City.

“The coroner showed me evidence the woman had been tied to something underwater. Maybe it was a submerged car or something similar.”

“You want us to do a sonar search of the lake?”

“That’s what you guys do isn’t it?”

Kevin, Josh’s brother, chuckled, “Sheriff it’s exactly what we do. What do you suspect?”

“I’m not sure. But I don’t like the implications of a decapitated body washing up on a lake shore that appears to have been tied to something.”

Josh frowned. “Are you concerned about other bodies being down there?”

“That’s exactly what I’m worried about.”

* * * * * *

The cavern, created eons ago by wind and rain on the bluff above the lake, maintained a steady inside temperature of fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit. The man who called himself The Soul Collector rappelled down to the entrance and scurried through the small opening.

He sat inside, next to the entrance and closed his eyes. The smell of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, and methanol reached his nostrils as he inhaled. The odor reminded him of his trophies within the cavern. His newest acquisition, the head of a woman who told him to ‘get-a-life’, joined the menagerie five days ago.

The man opened his eyes and inhaled the intoxicating fumes. He rose and carefully negotiated the slippery path into the interior of the cave.

* * * * * *

Five Days Later

The sheriff waited patiently as the winch slowly brought the submerged vehicle to the surface and onto dry land. Examination by divers working for the Oliver brothers indicated two bodies were in the vehicle. Both headless.

The uneasiness he felt intensified as he approached the car still attached to the tow-truck. Water poured out from every opening and crevice. His first task, check the license plate for the state and the year.

Josh Oliver met him at the rear of the Ford Fusion. “Kansas plates, tag year of 2016. They’ve been in the water a while. We found it in a fairly deep area, roughly thirty meters.”

Bending over, the sheriff looked at what he could see of the bodies. “Skeletal remains, no heads?”



“Want us to keep looking, Sheriff.”

“I think we have to. Something’s going on and I’ve got to find out what.”

Frank Austin stepped up next to Osborne. “You know Michael, it takes a while, but there could be bodies, like the woman they found a few days ago, who have decomposed and will never be recovered.”

Osborne stared at the doctor, but remained quiet for a few moments. “What are you saying, Frank?”

“I think you’ve got a psycho on your hands. If the bodies in the car have been in the water since 2016, this guy’s been at it for a while.”

“Don’t say that in mixed company, Doctor. We’ve got enough problems around here without talking about a serial killer.”

The doctor shrugged. “Just saying, Michael.”

“I know, if it is a serial killer, what the hell is he doing with the heads.”

“An interesting question, my friend.”

“No, it’s a horrifying question. The answer is every police officer’s nightmare.” He stared at the car and then turned back to the doctor. “You do your autopsy and I’ll run down the license plate and VIN number.”

Two hours later, Osborne’s frustration level inched up a notch. Deputy Dwight Smith walked into his office. “Hey, boss, the Ford’s VIN has a stolen vehicle report on it from 2015.”

“From where?”

“Olathe, Kansas.”

“What about the owners?”

“They settled with the insurance company years ago and never thought about it again.”

“Let me guess, the license plate was a dead end as well.”

“You got it. It belonged to a totaled BMW being stripped for parts in a junkyard in Fort Scott, Kansas. The owner of the lot had no idea the plates were missing. Plus, he didn’t seem to care.”

“Great. Okay, thanks for the update, Dwight.”

When the deputy left, Osborne stood, put his sheriff’s cap on and left his office.

* * * * * *

The Soul Collector watched Sheriff Osborne exit the courthouse on the town square and cross the street to one of the local diners. Looking both ways he also crossed the busy street and entered the café a minute after the sheriff.

A small crowd of potential diners waiting for a table stood in front of him. Casually, he searched the dining area and saw the sheriff speaking to a waitress and placing his hand on her shoulder. The two then laughed. Afterward, Osborne proceeded to a table next to the lunch counter already occupied by two men. One of the two, The Soul Collector recognized. He then watched as the director of the state crime lab shook the sheriff’s hand and introduced him to the other man at the table.

Being too far away to hear the conversation, he waited patiently for a table to open. When it was his turn to be seated, he asked. “Is it alright if I sit at the counter?”

The waitress who had spoken to the sheriff, handed him a menu, “Sure hon, help yourself.”

The stool he chose happened to be next to the table where Osborne sat. When he settled on the seat, he could hear snippets of the conversation.

“No fingerprint matches, right, Sam?”

“Sorry, Michael. It just means she wasn’t in the FBI database.”

“Yeah, I know. What about the DNA?”

Sam O’Neal, smiled and pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket. “We got lucky there…”

“Ready to order, hon?”

The Soul Collector blinked several times and realized a waitress had appeared in front of him, wanting to take his order. “What’s the special?”

“It’s Wednesday, it’s always meatloaf on Wednesday.”

“I’ll have that and a cup of coffee.”

“You got it.” She wandered away.

He returned to listening. But words spoken by the occupants of the table were indistinguishable due to a large group getting ready to leave. The din of chairs being scooted and multiple individuals laughing saying their goodbyes, mingled with the clattering of dishes. The clamor drowned out the conversation at the table next to him.

His order of meatloaf arrived and the waitress asked, “Can I get you anything else, hon?”

“Uh, no. No, thank you. I’m fine.”

“I’ll give you your check now, that way you can leave when you need to.”

He nodded and looked at the disgusting mixture of meat and mashed potatoes smothered in a brown-colored gravy and a side of green beans. He took his first bite as the noise in the café subsided. Back to listening.

He heard Osborne say, “I appreciate your work on this, Sam. How’s the family?”

The Soul Collector closed his eyes. Learning what the sheriff knew about the newly discovered bodies would not occur today.

* * * * * *

When Osborne returned to his office, Dwight Smith asked. “What’d you learn?”

“As we guessed, the fingerprints were a dead end.”

“Kind of expected that.”

“While the DNA did not tell us who she was, it did indicate she has genes associated with the Oklahoma tribes which suggests Cherokee ancestry.”

“Want me to check on missing persons from that area?”

“There’ll be plenty of missing people. But we have more.” He pulled the picture of the rose tattoo and handed it to the deputy. “Check the national NamUs database in Washington. It maintains a clearinghouse for missing person cases for Native American Tribes.”

“Got it.” Smith looked at the picture of the rose. “How old do they think she was?”

“Late twenties.”

Two hours later, Smith entered the sheriff’s office. When Osborne looked up, he saw his deputy with a broad smile on his face. He returned the smile. “Who was she?”

Smith laid a picture and a couple of printed pages on his desk. “Tayanita Martin, went by Tanya. She went missing two weeks ago after work. FBI did not have her fingerprints, but the Oklahoma gaming commission did.”

Osborne studied the photo of the girl. “Pretty. Where did she work?”

“Blackjack dealer at a casino in Grove, Oklahoma. She got off at midnight and never arrived home. Apparently, she never stayed out at night. A friend of hers told the police you could set your watch by when she got home.”


“No, divorced. Lived with a roommate.”

“What about the ex-husband?”

“He has a pretty solid alibi.”

“And that is?”

“He’s in the navy aboard an aircraft carrier currently stationed in the Philippines.”

“What about security camera images from the casino parking lot?”

Smith shook his head. “She’s seen getting into her car and driving off. I spoke to a Grove police detective. They checked with all the convenience stores between the casino and her apartment. Nothing on security cameras. She just vanished.”

“What about her car?”

“Parked in her usual spot at the apartment.”

“Any security cameras there?”

Smith shook his head. “Small town.”


Osborne stood and went to the window in his office. He stared out over the town’s square. “Any chance we could get security tapes from the casino the night she disappeared?”

“What are you thinking?”

“I would almost guarantee there are more headless bodies in the lake. If that’s true, someone is using it as a dumping spot. Or…” He turned to look at his deputy. “He lives here.”

He grabbed his cap and walked toward the office door. “I’m gonna check with the Oliver brothers and see if they’ve discovered anything new.”

* * * * * *

The Next Day

Three body bags lined the southern shoreline close to where the body of Tayanita Martin washed up. EMTs and deputies from Osborne’s department swarmed around them.

The sheriff stood huddled with Josh Oliver. “Where were they found?”

“Within a hundred feet of each other. All tied to sandbags.”


“I’m afraid so.”

Folding his arms, the sheriff stared out over the lake. “Where?”

The diver pointed to the West. “About two klicks that way, there’s a tall bluff above the location and the depth is between seventy and a hundred meters.”

“I know the spot. How’d you find them?”


“You’ve dealt with these types of discoveries before, Josh. Best guess on how long they’ve been in the water.”

“Sheriff, I’d have to say less than a year, one of them, maybe a little longer.”

Osborne nodded, his concentration still on the body bags.

“One other thing, Sheriff.”

Returning his attention to the diver, “What?”

“We found a sandbag with a loose rope attached. It hadn’t been in the water long. Probably the one that held the Martin woman.”

“Let me get my binoculars and then I need you to take me to the bluff.”

* * * * * *

Using his binoculars Osborne scanned the rock face. The bluff, composed of layers of limestone and other sediment, stood at least five hundred feet tall.

Oliver watched him and occasionally adjusted the position of the boat. “What are you looking for, Sheriff?”

“Not sure. But I’ll know it if I see it.”

The diver chuckled. “How much longer do you want us to survey the lake?”

Lowering the field glasses, Osborne asked, “How big of a radius have you searched around this spot?”

Pointing to the east, Oliver said, “All the way to the marina and a half of a klick to the west. Once you get too much farther, the lake gets extremely shallow.”

“Did you see any trauma on the bodies other than being without a head?”

“I’m not an expert, Michael, but we didn’t see anything obvious.”

Training the glasses back on the bluff, Osborne thought he saw something, but when he lowered them to check if he could see it with the naked eye, he couldn’t. Returning to viewing the scene through the magnification, whatever it might have been was gone.

Lowering the field glasses, again, Osborne turned and studied the opposite shore.

“What are you looking for, Michael?”

“Landmarks. I want to be able to return to this location in case I need to.”

“Got it.”

“Okay, Josh, take me back to the marina.”

* * * * * *

As the sun peaked over the eastern horizon, Osborne drove his Ford F-150 Police Responder over the back roads until he reached the top of the bluff above the lake. Orienting himself at the peak, he searched for landmarks on the opposite shore. When satisfied he stood above the spot where the bodies were found, he studied the surrounding area.

A heavy dew from the previous night soaked the grass and brush. The area looked undisturbed at first glance. No tracks, crushed blades of grass or broken tree limbs were visible. In ever-widening semi-circles, he looked for signs of the intrusion by man. Fifteen minutes into his search he found it. A rappelling anchor embedded at ground level in the trunk of a large tree.

After taking pictures of it with his cell phone, he paced off the distance to the bluff’s edge. Forty yards. Looking over toward the lake, he did not see anything out of the ordinary on the rock face below. Returning to the anchor, he noted the rust. “Shit.” He mumbled. “No telling how long that’s been there.”

* * * * * *

The Soul Collector seldom slept all night. Tonight, being a repeat of a typical one, he woke up in a sweat. Around three a.m. he threw off the covers, stared at the ceiling and tried to calm his rapid and ragged breathing.

“Damn you, Michael Osborne. You have no right to be hunting me. I’ve not harmed you or anyone in this town.” He spat the words out with venom.

Rising from his bed, he stood in the hall of his small trailer house just outside the city limits of the Adel County seat. He preferred living alone. In fact, his whole life centered around avoiding interaction with society. The exception being when he found a soul he needed to collect. Then contact with his fellow man became necessary.

Wandering into the bathroom, he switched on the light and studied his image in the mirror. Dark circles under his eyes greeted him as he leaned over the sink. The urge to get in his ancient Jeep and drive to the cave suddenly became overwhelming. He needed to be with the captured souls. They were his friends and spoke to him when he needed company. They were the ones who told him he needed to find another to join them.

Closing his eyes, he resisted the temptation. Leaving now would mean by the time he arrived, it would be daylight. Visiting the cave during daylight posed problems he did not care to address. He would go after dark tonight.

By 10:04 p.m., a partial moon rose in the eastern sky as he prepared his ropes for the trip down to the mouth of the cave. His night vision goggles magnified all the ambient light, allowing him to maneuver down the side of the bluff to the small cavern opening. Once inside, he removed them and lit the Coleman lantern he kept for just such visits.

By the light of the lamp, his collection grew visible and a smile graced his lips.

“Ah, my friends, I’ve come to seek your counsel. A man is trying to find me. If he does, he will prevent me from returning and replenishing the vital liquids keeping you all safe.”

He heard no response.

“What shall I do?”

The stringent odor of formaldehyde permeated the cavern where he stood. As the fumes from the harsh chemicals engulfed him, his supposed friends opened their eyes and stared at him.

“Ah, you are all awake. Good.”

Twenty large glass beakers were scattered around the cavern floor. All contained the head of one of The Soul Collector’s victims.

His oldest soul, a hitchhiker he befriended a decade earlier asked him. “Why do you call us your friends?”

The Soul Collector stared at the head that spoke. “Because you are here and I can take comfort in your company.”

“With no regard for us?”

“I have preserved your souls and you are eternal.”

“You stole them for your own pleasure.”

He screamed. “Liar.”

The voices of all the severed heads sounded inside The Soul Collector’s mind. He dropped to his knees. The anguish emitted by the voices overwhelmed him as his eyes rolled back and he fell unconscious.

* * * * * *

Thunderstorms plagued Adel County as a cold front blew through the area. Sheriff Michael Osborne stood at the window in his office sipping coffee. Rain lashed at the window. An occasional flash of light would be followed by a rumble a few seconds later. He enjoyed these types of storms as he liked to calculate the distance of the lightning by the time delay of the thunder.

Dwight Smith entered his office. “Excuse me, Michael. You got a second?”

Turning, Osborne nodded and sat at his desk. “Sure, what’s up?”

He handed him a manilla folder. “Autopsies on the three bodies the Oliver brothers recovered.”

Slipping readers on, he scanned the reports, looking for details besides the cause of death. When he found it, he raised an eyebrow. “They all had tranquilizers in their systems?”

“Doc said it was Klonopin. Which is a high-potency benzodiazepine.”

“I’m familiar with it. One of the main uses is to treat mental health disorders.”

Osborne read the documents in more detail, remaining quiet for a long period. Finally, he stood and returned to the window. “Dwight, I’m afraid we haven’t even scratched the surface of the number of bodies hiding in the lake.”

“So, what can we do about it?”

“Did we ever get the security videos from the casino in Grove?”

The deputy shook his head.

The sheriff stood and grabbed his cap. “I’m going to see Judge Holden about getting an out-of-state subpoena.”

“You’re going to Grove, Oklahoma, aren’t you?”

“If I can get a subpoena, I am.”

* * * * * *

Two Days Later

Grove, OK

Sheriff Michael Osborne shook the hand of Director of Security Harry Wingfoot. “Thank you for seeing me, Director Wingfoot.”

“I’m curious, Sheriff Osborne, what do our security videos have to do with Adel County in Missouri?”

“One of your blackjack dealers was recovered from a large lake in our county.”

The man’s eyebrow shot up. “Uh, let’s discuss this in my office.”

When the door closed, Wingfoot asked, “Which one?”

Osborne tilted his head. “You have more than one?”

A nod was his answer.

“How many?”

“Over the past three years, three.”

“All female?”

“Yes. They all occurred around the same time each year.”

Osborne folded his arms. “Do you still have security videos of those dates?”

“Yes, we do.”

“Would it be possible for me to view them?”

“Definitely. As long as you call me, Harry.”

The sheriff smiled. “I’m Michael.”

An hour later, Osborne sat next to Wingfoot as they reviewed the security tape from the night Tayanita Martin disappeared. “How long are their shifts?”

“Everyone works an eight-hour day, but they get twenty minutes per hour as a break.”

“Why so often?”

“It helps keep them fresh and breaks up any pattern a customer might have recognized. Tanya was a senior dealer. She’d been here for several years and worked her way up to get whatever table she wanted.”

“Did she make good money?”

“Depends on your definition of good money. But at this casino, she was a top earner.”

Wingfoot played the video at double speed until Osborne asked him to slow it down. “Harry, go back about five minutes.”

“What are you looking for?”

“Someone sat down at her table. I can’t be sure, but he looked familiar.”

“You got it.”

When the tape played again, Osborne said, “Stop.” He put his readers on and got closer to the monitor. “Can you enlarge the image of this man?” He pointed to a small dark haired man who sported a mustache.

“Sure. Do you know him?”

“No, but he sure looks familiar.”

They watched the man sit again. “What’s the time stamp?”

“Ten forty-five, she got off at midnight.”

Sitting back in his chair Osborne folded his arms. “I hope I’m wrong, but he’ll get up a few minutes before she leaves the table.”

“Let’s find out.” Wingfoot fast-forwarded the recording. At exactly ten minutes before midnight the smallish man stood, gathered his chips and left a tip for the dealer. Wingfoot said, “I’ll be damned. You’re right.”

“The guy knew the make of car she drove and didn’t harass her in the parking lot, too many security cameras. He follows her home and abducts her when she gets out at her apartment. No security cameras there.”

“Let me load the tape of the other two dealers.”

Over the course of the next two hours, Wingfoot and Osborne confirmed the small, dark-haired man had been present at the table of the other two dealers the night they disappeared. After this revelation, Wingfoot set a program on the casino’s computer to go through all the security recordings and search for the man at other times during the year.

“This will take a while, Michael. What do you want to do?”

Looking at a still photo taken from the video, Osborne tapped it with his finger. “How many casinos do the owners operate?”

With a slight grin, the security man said, “The Cherokee Nation owns this one. We operate ten locations in Oklahoma.”

“Could you get them to search their security recordings for this guy?” He tapped the photo one more time.

“My pleasure.”

“I’ve got a three-hour drive.” He handed the security director a business card. “If you learn anything new, would you call me?”

“Expect a call, regardless.”

“Thanks, Harry.”

* * * * * *

The Next Day

Adel County

The Soul Collector woke with a splitting headache. The severity caused him to dry heave and stay on his hands and knees. What time was it? He checked his cell phone and discovered he had been unconscious in the cave for forty-eight hours.

“Oh, my gawd. My job.” He tried to stand, but vertigo kept him on his knees. “No…”

“Serves you right.”

He slowly turned and searched the beakers for the one who spoke. “You’re not alive.”

“Not what you said two days ago. Or was it three?”

A chorus of laughter assaulted his ears and he pressed his palms against them to drown out the noise. His world spun as the sound of their taunting increased. No amount of pressure against his head silenced their mocking accusations. Consciousness eluded him one more time.

* * * * * *

Osborne sat at a table near the kitchen entrance of Jack’s On the Square café. He showed the picture to Jack, the owner. “You see most of the folks in this town at one time or another. Does he look familiar?”

“Yeah, but I can’t place him.”

“I know I’ve seen him as well, but I don’t know where.”

The café owner continued to study the photo. “Sorry, Sheriff, but I see so many customers every day. Maybe one of the waitresses will know him.” Jack looked up and motioned for one of his long-time employees, Claire, to join them.

When she arrived at the table, she smiled. “Hi, Michael.”

Handing the photo to her, he returned the smile. “Claire, do you recognize this guy?”

She glanced at the photo and said, “Yeah, he comes in once in a while. What about him?”

“Do you know his name?”

She shook her head, “He always pays cash.” She continued to study the picture. “I think he works at one of the funeral homes here in town. Not sure what he does. But when he’s here for lunch he usually smells funny.”

“What do you mean by funny?”

“A chemical smell. Sometimes it’s so strong it gets nauseating. No one likes to sit next to him.”

Osborne accepted the picture back. “Thanks, that’s more than I knew five minutes ago. Have you seen him lately?”

“Yeah, he was sitting at the counter on Monday. Ordered meatloaf, if I remember correctly.” She pointed to the last stool at the lunch counter. “He must not have liked it. Left most of it on his plate.”

Osborne realized the stool she pointed to was next to a table where he sat talking to the Director of the State Crime Lab and the head of the Highway Patrol’s Criminal Investigation Bureau on the same day.

Taking a deep breath, Osborne returned the picture to his uniform shirt pocket and stood. “Thank you.” He prepared to leave. Before he walked away, he gave Claire a smile. She returned it.

He exited the diner and hurried back to his office.

* * * * * *

McCullen & Bosso Funeral Home

Two Hours Later

Osborne sat in the office of the Funeral Director and handed him the picture of their suspect. “Does he work here?”

“That’s Leo Salazar. He is, or I should say, was our embalmer.”


Bob McCullen nodded. “Yeah, he hasn’t shown up for work for three days. Hasn’t called in or notified me. I’ve had to do his job for him.”

“And he’s never done that before?”

“No, never. He is an odd duck, but at least he was punctual.”

“What’s his address, Bob?”

“Let me check.” McCullen opened a desk drawer and removed a manilla folder. “7296 Farm Road 37. Do you know where that is? I certainly don’t.”

“Yeah, it’s north of town. Mostly trailers in the area, if I remember correctly. Can I see his file?”

“Sure, he’s been with us for over seven years. Always been on time and never caused us any problem.” McCullen handed the folder to him. “Why are you looking for him?”

Looking up from the pages, Osborne said. “Routine follow up.”

“Well, if you find him, tell him not to bother coming back.”

Studying the pages, Osborne answered with an absent-minded nod.

Five minutes later, he sat in his pick-up and keyed the radio. “All available units, 10-25 courthouse.”

Seven units responded with a 10-4. Osborne drove toward his office.

* * * * * *

By 3:30 p.m., Adel County sheriff deputies and their boss surrounded a rundown trailer two miles north of the county seat’s city limits. The place looked abandoned, but Osborne used the department’s bullhorn anyway.

“Leo Salazar, this is the sheriff’s department. Come out with your hands up.”

Dwight Smith stood next to the sheriff behind the F-150 and chuckled. “That sounded like something from an old cop show on TV.”

Osborne shrugged. “Only thing I could think of.”

They waited several minutes with no response from within the mobile home. Osborne repeated the demand. A pregnant silence filled the air. Finally, he returned the device to the toolbox behind the cabin of the pick-up. He unholstered his Springfield 1911 .45 ACP service weapon. “Okay, Dwight, let’s go knock on the door.”

Pounding on the front door, Osborne yelled. “Leo Salazar, sheriff’s department. Open the door.”

Silence emanated from the interior. Osborne tried the door knob and it turned. He looked at the deputies positioned strategically around the manufactured home. When everyone nodded, he opened the door and rushed in, followed by three deputies.

Inside the trailer, the pungent smell caused each of the men to gag. Osborne placed a handkerchief against his nose, his right hand still clutching the pistol. He started searching the small house.

Smith, followed. “What the hell is that smell?”

“They say the areas in the brain that process emotions, learning, and memory also process odors. Smells can trigger lots of memories. From twenty years as a sheriff, that my friend is the stench of death.”

“You think Salazar is dead.”

“Don’t know yet. Let’s find out.”

The first room they came to contained the contents of a bedroom. However, the chaos and disheveled nature of the space caused Osborne to doubt the man slept well. Down the hall they came to a closed door. The powerful smell seemed to emanate from within the room. The doorknob resisted the sheriff’s effort to open it. Standing back, he raised his leg and smashed his foot next to the door knob. The flimsy door flew open and crashed against a wall.

The scene the sheriff and deputies encountered would haunt them for years.

* * * * * *

After Sunset

Doctor Austin emerged from the trailer followed by a gurney holding a body bag. He let the EMTs pass him and he strolled up to Osborne. “Any idea where this Leo Salazar might be, Sheriff?”

Shaking his head, Osborne leaned against his truck. “No. He hasn’t been at work for almost four days now. I thought we’d find him inside.” He paused and looked at the doctor. “How long had she been dead?”

“At least five or six days.”

“Well, we now know where he performs his decapitations.”

“Yeah. Lucky us.” The doctor paused. “Did you see the stack of ten-liter beakers in the closet?”


Austin took a deep breath. “A human head will fit nicely in one of those. All you have to do is fill it with a preservative and you’ve got a display.”

Osborne stared at the doctor without comment for a long time. “What kind of preservative?”

“The kind you find at a funeral home.”

“Shit.” The sheriff pushed off from leaning on the truck, opened the door and got behind the wheel. He used his cell phone and searched for a number. He pressed the call icon and waited for an answer.

“McCullen & Bosso Funeral Home, this is Bob. How may I help you?”

“Bob, Sheriff Osborne. Are you at the funeral home?”

“No, we have call forwarding. Why?”

“I need you to meet me there in twenty minutes.”

“Is this about Leo?”

“I’ll answer your questions when I get there.”

* * * * * *

McCullen led the sheriff into the basement of the building. “The embalming facility is down here.”

“Where do you keep the chemicals?”

“Storage room.”

“Who orders them?”

The funeral director stopped on the stairs and turned to look up at the sheriff. “Leo handles that part of our business. He was in charge down here, why?”

“Do you keep tight records on those chemicals?”

“OSHA demands it.”

“I hate to ask you this, but has your company done an audit on your inventory?”

The man slowly shook his head. “If we have, Salazar would have been the one who conducted it.”

“Bob, you need to perform one. Preferably tonight.”

Standing halfway down the staircase, McCullen blinked several times as he looked at Osborne. “I’ll need to call in the staff.”

“I think that would be an excellent idea.”

By two in the morning, the audit concluded two hundred liters of formaldehyde, methanol, sodium borate, sodium nitrate and glycerin were missing from the inventory records of the funeral home.

McCullen handed the summary sheet to Osborne. “What the hell would he have done with two hundred liters of this stuff, Sheriff?”

“I think a better question is where are the two hundred liters?”

* * * * * *


The sensation of traveling on a high-speed merry-go-round assaulted The Soul Collector’s equilibrium. How long had he been unconscious? His cell phone, the battery long since depleted, provided nary a clue.

A metallic taste in his mouth left a dry and unpleasant sensation. Focusing on anything challenged his ability to steady himself. He tried to stand, but his knees could not bear the weight of his slender body and he collapsed to the cavern floor.

He turned to look at his gallery of collected heads. They all glared at him, a fiery light behind each set of eyes.

“What day is it?”

No answer came from his collection.

He closed his eyes one more time and a voice interrupted his thoughts.

“Set us free.”


A chorus of voices said, “Set us free.”

“No, no, no, no…never. You are my family.”

The chorus returned. “We are not your family. You stole our souls. Set us free.”

“Noooooooooooo….” He crawled toward the entrance of the cave. When he reached the opening, exhaustion overtook him and he succumbed to darkness again.

* * * * * *

The Following Morning

“Nothing in the resume Salazar gave Bob McCullen, when he applied for the job, exists in the real world, Sheriff.”

Osborne listened as Deputy Dwight Smith summarized his search for the missing embalmer. “Is it his real name?”

“Doubtful. I found an artist and a musician with the name on social media, but the state where he claims to have been born doesn’t have a birth certificate of anyone by that name.”

“What about former employers?”

“The funeral home where he claims to have worked for twenty years went out of business when the owner died. Or so Salazar claimed. I checked with Bob before I came in here. He said he had a horrible time finding anyone willing to apply for the job so he didn’t check Salazar’s references. The guy knew how to embalm a body, which is all that mattered, so he hired him.”

“Great. No one’s seen him either, right?”

“Nope. Hasn’t been to the diner or work.”

Standing, the sheriff turned to the window and stared out over the town’s square. “Dwight, there’s a chance the guy got wind of us looking for him and he might be long gone.”

“I had the same thoughts, Michael.”

“The bodies the Oliver brothers found below the bluff still bother me. Why there? Why concentrate on discarding the corpses there?”

“Do you think he threw them off the bluff?”

Remembering his study of the rock face while in the boat with Josh Oliver, Osborne smiled and turned. “There’s another possibility. You stay here and keep searching for anything you can find about Salazar. I’m going to have Josh take me back to that section of the lake.”

By mid-morning, the small run-about used by the Oliver brothers floated over the area where the last bodies were found. Osborne once again studied the bluff face searching for what he thought he saw earlier in the week. Ten minutes into his search he located the abnormality and studied it for a few moments. “Josh.”

“Yeah, Sheriff.”

“See the tight grove of short-leaf pines at the top of the bluff?”

“Okay. What about them?”

“Five pine trees from the far right. What do you see?”

The large man trained his field glasses on the spot pointed out by the sheriff. “Huh. Looks like a rope extending down about fifteen meters.”

Lowering his glasses, Osborne smiled. “That’s what I thought. It disappears at an outcropping on the face of the bluff.”

“You’re right, it does.”

Looking behind him, he searched the opposite shoreline. “I need line-of-sight landmarks so I can find the location from above.”

“What do you mean?”

“Two objects that line up and point toward the outcropping. Once I’m on top of the bluff, all I have to do is line those two positions up and have a guide to where I need to look.”

“Got it.” Oliver started the outboard motor on the run-about and headed toward the southern shoreline.

* * * * * *

A distant boat motor and voices prompted The Soul Collector to crawl his way back to the surface of consciousness. A breeze out of the southwest brought fresh fumeless air to his nostrils. The after-effects of breathing toxic fumes inside the cavern slowly dissipated and the conversation below the bluff morphed from nonsensical noise to recognizable words.

Still prone, he inched his way to the edge and peered over it. Two men in a small run-about approached the southern shore. When the craft beached itself on dry land, the man in the front hopped to the ground and tied the boat to a tree. The now-standing man on the shore looked directly at The Soul Collector.

His words indicated he did not see him, but they produced a panic never-the-less.

“Okay, Josh, let’s find what we need. Then I’ll drive over to the bluff and look for our landmarks.”

“Got it, Sheriff. I think I see two candidates right now.”

The comment by the smaller of the two men concerning driving to the top of the bluff created a tightness in The Soul Collector’s stomach. He watched them mark two trees aligned with each other. Every muscle in his body clenched as he watched them return the boat to the water and drive it east. When it disappeared around a bend in the lake, he tried to stand. His legs felt rubbery and gaining his balance took effort.

He closed his eyes for a few moments, taking deep breaths to clear his lungs. Ten minutes later he climbed the rope.

* * * * * *

Osborne approached the edge of the bluff with caution. He waved at Josh Oliver sitting in the boat below. Finding the two landmarks, he adjusted his position to align both trees and looked over the edge. His reward was a view of an outcropping below. The rope he had observed earlier no longer hung there.

With a frown, he searched the surrounding area and discovered the ground surrounding the rope anchor screwed into the tree disturbed. Retrieving his cell phone from his back pocket, he dialed the number for Dwight Smith.

When the deputy answered, Osborne said, “I need our rapid response team sent to my location and I need them now.”

“Got it. Give me the directions.”

An hour later, Osborne watched as one of his younger deputies using a harness and rope, lowered himself down the side of the bluff. When he got to the outcropping he looked up. “Hey, Sheriff.”

Looking over the side, he answered. “What’d you find?”

“A cave entrance. There’s a strong chemical smell coming from within.”

“How big?”

“Large enough for a man to crawl through.”

“Okay, Steve, get back up here. I’m calling in the Highway Patrol team.”

By late afternoon, the area above the outcropping contained men wearing Haz-Mat suits, deputies wearing assault gear, a medical examiner and a state crime lab van. Osborne stood next to Sam O’Neal and listened as the director spoke on a radio with a team of investigators inside the cavern.

When he finished, he turned to the sheriff. “They found twenty beakers with severed heads. Twelve females and eight males.”

“I was afraid that’s what they’d find.”

“The fumes in there are toxic. They’re using oxygen.”

Osborne nodded. “That’s why I called you guys. We don’t have Haz-Mat equipment.”

“Michael, I believe we need to bring in the FBI.”

“Yeah, I agree. This is way above my experience.”

“Mine, too.” O’Neal pulled out his cell phone and made a call.

After the conversation, the director turned to the sheriff. “Any word on Leo Salazar’s location?”

“Nope. I sent four deputies to his trailer. He’s not there and it doesn’t appear he’s returned since our raid. Salazar’s in the wind.” He paused. “What about the FBI?”

“They’ll be here in the morning.”

“Okay, let’s seal this place up. I’ll post deputies here and on his trailer until the Feds arrive.”

* * * * * *

The Next Day

The activity on top of the bluff intensified as an FBI investigative van and dozens of agents processed the contents of the cave. Reluctantly, Osborne relinquished control over the scene to the Bureau and returned to his office. His second in command, Dwight Smith, knocked on his door frame. “Got a minute, Michael?”

“Sure, come on in. What’ve you got?”

“I was talking to an FBI agent earlier this morning. He told me this wasn’t the first time the bureau processed a scene similar to this one.”

Raising an eyebrow, Osborne remained quiet.

“About seven years ago, they were brought in to look into a serial killer in Mississippi. When he mentioned this, I remembered something we learned about Salazar. His last job was in Mississippi.”

“Same town?”

“According to the agent it was.”

“I take it they never caught the guy.”


“Did they have a suspect?”

A nod from Smith. “His name was Harold Kowalski.”


“Small, dark-haired male, with a thin mustache.”

“Sounds like our Leo Salazar.” Osborne drummed his fingers on his desk. “This guy’s a traveling freak show. Why here in Adel County?”

“The fed agent told me the Mississippi town was about the same size as ours.”

“Mississippi has casinos, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, on the Gulf Coast and near Memphis on the Mississippi River. The town was equal distance between the gulf and the Memphis area. We’re close to the Kansas City casinos and the ones in the northwest corner of Oklahoma.”

“That’s right, Dwight. I forgot about KC having them.” He paused for a short moment. “Are you going back to the bluff sight?”

“If you want me to.”

“Take a picture of Salazar and show it to the agent you spoke to. See if he recognizes him.”

“You got it, boss.” He turned and walked out of the sheriff’s office.

Staring out the window behind his desk, he watched the comings and goings surrounding the courthouse where his office was located. With Salazar’s cave and house trailer now swarming with FBI agents, the whereabouts of the man remained a mystery. It had been thirty-six hours since he last stepped foot in his small house. Checking the time, he decided he had time to stop at home, take a shower and change into a fresh uniform shirt.

As he walked out, he said, “Mary, I’m going home for a while. Call me if anything important occurs.”

“Will do, Sheriff. Get some rest.”

He chose not to respond as he headed toward one of the marble staircases in the hundred-year-old building which led to the sheriff’s designated parking slot.

Ten minutes later, he approached his house, slowed and parked behind an older Jeep Willy’s sitting on the street in front of his home. He displayed a frown as he checked to make sure his Springfield 1911 was charged. Holding it in his left hand, he exited the vehicle and approached the front door with caution.

Stepping onto the front porch, he noticed the front door ajar. Placing his keys back in his pocket, he grasped the pistol with both hands.

Standing aside the opening, his back against the front wall, he pushed the door open and yelled. “This is Sheriff Osborne. Time to give up, Salazar.”

Inside the house, silence prevailed.

“I know your name is also Harold Kowalski and you’re wanted by the FBI.”


“What are you doing in my house Harold?”

Silence returned.

“I’m not gonna wait all day for you to make a decision, Harold?”

“The name’s not Harold.”

Osborne tightened his grip on the pistol and prepared to storm in. He said, “Okay, Leo. You need to make a decision on what you’re gonna do. Surrender or I’m coming in after you. If I do that, you won’t like the outcome.”

“Name’s not Leo, either.”

“What is it?”

“The Soul Collector. I would advise you not to enter, I have a guest.”

“Who is it?”

“A friend of yours from the diner.”

The sheriff hesitated, “Let me talk to her.”

“She can’t talk right now.” The Soul Collector let out an unearthly laugh.

Osborne released the safety on his pistol and charged into the house. Standing at the entrance to the kitchen, a small man stood holding the severed head of a waitress from the cafe in one hand and a large butcher knife in the other.

Osborne recognized the man the second he saw him. He also noticed his eyes, wild and wide open. Sweat drenched his nude body. The sheriff’s finger pulled the trigger on the Springfield 1911 until he emptied the mag.

* * * * * *

Crime scene tape encircled the home of Michael Osborne. A team of FBI agents gathered evidence inside while Sam O’Neal spoke to his friend, who leaned against his pickup.

“What did he tell you?”

“Not much. Except he claimed his name was The Soul Collector.”

O’Neal nodded. “The FBI found journals in his trailer where he referred to himself that way.”


“According to the manuscript, he claimed the human soul was centered in the brain and that if he collected heads, he would own that person’s soul.”


“The FBI said he had eight bullet wounds. All in the chest and head.”

The sheriff nodded. “I don’t miss.”

“Who was the victim?”

“Her name was Claire.” His voice broke slightly. “She worked at the diner on the square.”

“Did you know her?”

Osborne nodded, again. But remained quiet.

“Sorry, Michael.”

Taking a deep breath, the sheriff let it out in a sigh. “She was living with me. That’s why she was here. We had plans to get married someday.”

Rating: 10.00/10. From 2 votes.
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Written by J.C. Fields
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: J.C. Fields

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