As some of you might have seen, I published some info posts at the end of July and start of August about a short fiction writing contest hosted by Plot Monster in celebration of their one year blogiversary! I was honoured that Plot Monster asked me to be a judge for this contest, and I agreed. And at the end of August, Plot Monster, myself, and the other judge, Darque Dreamer Reads, picked the first, second, and third place winners! So, starting last week, I began posting the three winning entries starting with third place! I hope that you enjoy these stories, and please do let me know if you’d like to see more content like this on Flavia the Bibliophile and all related social media outlets!
– 2nd Place Winner –
“Jerome of the Rosary” by Steven Spitzer
Note: This story contains adult language, adult subject matter, and graphic scenes such as mutilation and murder.
A light burned dimly in the corner of the basement, its light slowly creeping into the darkness. Wooden stairs were just visible, the side of each step tracing a vague, staccato line up towards the ceiling. A table stood in the center of the room, surrounded by darkness which the solitary light could not penetrate. On its surface, light reflected brilliantly amber off of small, round objects. Several rested on some kind of foam, difficult to see in the dim light. Most of them, however, lay in a line, strung together. Shadows lingered in the interior of each ball, making the impression of something embedded inside. The details, however, were shrouded in darkness.
Detective Alan Szczepanski stared at the bulletin board in front of him. Photographs littered it, arranged in pairs. Brutal, even to his jaded eyes, the photos glowered down at him, crying out for retribution. For answers. For explanation, if nothing else. His eyes roamed from pair to pair, studying each set in turn.
It had started off as a curiosity. An odd happening which, in and of itself, was not exceptionally alarming. Then it had simply gotten strange. Then it had gotten frightening. Now, he was afraid of what might come next.
He gazed at the first photographs, taken of a pair of pigeons. The birds had been killed, sliced open across their abdomens. Surgically performed, there were no signs of hesitation. Little else had been done apart from the photographs. After all, they were just pigeons.
Then a pair of crows had turned up. More photographs, a bit of mumbling, and everyone had moved on. Then pairs of other birds had turned up. Always two. A pair of hawks, found on the edge of the city, had gotten more attention. The raptors were rare. Not threatened, not yet at least, but they were far less common than they had once been. Those birds had been given a good deal more attention. The science geeks told him it was extremely precise, done with a scalpel or a similar instrument. They also indicated that both birds had been females, about to lay eggs. The oddest part? One of the eggs was missing.
Other animals had begun to surface. All with cuts to their abdomens. All female. Racoons. Opossums. Squirrels. Porcupines, even. All killed with snaps of the neck and sliced open in the same way. All females, all carrying eggs or in the earliest stages of pregnancy. Always two. Always one fetus or egg was missing, from each animal.
Szczepanski was worried. Already there were over two dozen species discovered, and he was fairly sure others had gone unnoticed. Fears of a serial killer in the making grew with each new find. So far, the media had played down the events. Most people in these parts, after all, did not care very much about wild animals. That, he knew, was about to change.
The latest photographs were from the City Zoo.
The zoo’s cameras had been disabled remotely. Security guards had found the tragedy. Szczepanski knew the animals well, even if he could never remember their name. Monkeys, to him. He had gone to see them with his father, and had recently begun taking his daughter to see them. She adored the primates, and delighted in watching them leap, play, and eat fruits. He sighed. They were an exceedingly popular exhibit. Glancing at the name, he grunted to himself, trying to remember their name. Capuchin monkeys. Classical monkeys to his way of thinking. Then again, he was no expert. He just liked the little guys, hopping around. To see two of them, dead and discarded on the concrete walkway of the zoo, gashes on their abdomens pulled open… It was disturbing. Zookeepers had indicated that the two were part of the breeding program, and they had suspected they were both pregnant. The autopsies had shown that, indeed, they both were. How the killer had known was anybody’s guess.
The zoo was worried, and stepped up security. They were cognizant that it was only pregnant animals which were being targeted, but that alone did not solve their problem. There were other animals which might be pregnant, including a number of large bats called flying foxes, which were all approaching their due-dates. The police department had set up a network of cameras and were watching the exhibit closely. Zoo guards patrolled heavily as well, unwilling to let the police shoulder the entire responsibility for the safety of their animals.
Szczepanski sighed. He needed a lead. No understandable motive. No forensic evidence. No witnesses, no tips, no sightings, not so much as a rumor.
He stood before a wall of glass. On the other side of the wall, fish swam serenely, moving about in calm, rhythmic patterns while the light, tinged blue by the water, dappled across the scene in its ever-shifting way. Szczepanski’s attention, however, was entirely focused on the pair of small bodies lying before him. Sea otters, part of the aquarium’s breeding program.
He cursed. The case was getting under his skin. The senseless slaughter was continuing without signs of stopping, and for now there was nothing much he could do without a break in the case. What was worse for him, it was causing problems in his personal life. His wife, Tracy, had announced just last night that she was pregnant. All he could do upon hearing the wonderful and much hoped-for news was to hold back a sob and hold her tight. His wife, unaware of the details of his current case, had been less than understanding when she saw that these were not tears of joy being held in. She had gone to her sister’s house, furious with him and, he knew, terribly hurt by his reaction. Still, better that than share with her something like these otters, killed, mutilated, and robbed of their unborn offspring.
As he slowly walked back to his car, he gazed around the aquarium. Penguins, fish, sharks, octopi, otters, frogs, all sorts of animals were to be found here. Any number of them might be breeding populations. Most of them, he had been told, were comprised of only females, but a number of them included males in the hope of reproduction. Fortunately, most of the fish and amphibians bred externally. At least they would never be pregnant, or gravid rather, so their lives were presumably safe. If someone had taken the eggs out of the water, however, was anybody’s guess.
Unnoticed, a small camera watched Szczepanski. Embedded in the aquarium’s wall, it replaced one of the similar decorative circles found studded throughout the facility. The fish-eye lens watched him as he crossed its field of view, embedded microphones picking up his voice as he called his wife, only to leave a voicemail for her when she refused to answer.
Jerome knelt on the stone floor before a massive cross, constructed out of aged wooden beams. Unadorned, the cross was a beacon of simplicity, age, and innate power without the need for ornamentation or decorative trappings. In the same way, the small chamber was spartan, featuring a stone floor, stone walls, and a single wooden altar. Apart from the cross, no decorations were to be found on the walls. The sole source of light in the room came from above, a glass-less skylight. A small drain was placed in the center of the room as a precaution against rain. Otherwise, the room was left to the elements and God’s will. Surprisingly little mold or moss grew in the chamber, proving to him that he was fulfilling the Lord’s plan for him.
As Jerome knelt, he heard whispers. Voices, soft, angelic voices speaking to him and him alone. Difficult to discern without supreme concentration, he could only truly focus on the whispers here, kneeling on the hard stones, his bowed head towards the cross. The voices guided him, told him what he must do, for the glory of God. They had, thus far, not led him astray. He would not deny the angels, for to do so would summon the wrath of God and he would be smote.
The whispers pulled him from the floor and guided him back to his observation chamber. Monitors covered the walls, pulling in feeds from his various cameras. The detective was back. He strolled across the aquarium, not far from his efforts at the Great Work. The whispers continued, unusually clear…
He turned on the speakers. As he listened, a rapturous grin spread across his face. The angels guided him still.
Szczepanski slammed his apartment door closed. The skies had burst open, soaking him to the bone in the last twenty yards of his way to the building’s double doors. He sighed, annoyed and depressed, and hung his wet coat on the coat hook on the back of the door. He would have to get a towel for the floor before Tracy saw the growing puddle and got angry.
He cursed as he remembered that she was not here. She was still at her sister, Sophie’s place, despite his pleading on the phone. She had promised him that maybe tomorrow she would come home. That “maybe” had seemed so hopeless, but at the moment it was all he could hang onto.
He slumped down at the kitchen table, not bothering to turn on the lights. The yellow glow of the street light came through the window, providing enough illumination for him to see by. Beyond that, he was not in the mood to see much, anyway.
His phone vibrated in his pocket. He glanced at it and felt his heart leap in his chest as he saw the ID. Tracy. He answered, possibly too quickly but he was not in the mood to care. “Tracy! Baby, I am so sorry! I miss you, and I am so very excited to be having a baby with you and I can’t wait for you to—”
“Alan.” He stopped cold, his husband-instincts warning him to shut up and listen. “I need you to tell me the truth.”
He worked his mouth a few times, confused. As best he knew, there was nothing he had lied about to her, not in years, since they were first together. And even that was trivial to the point of irrelevancy now. “Of course, just tell me what about.”
“I got a… There was a message here. It was left on Kiana’s door. It was addressed to me, Alan. Somebody knew I was here, they addressed it to me!”
“What was it? What kind of message?”
She sobbed into the phone. “Tonight, you get to be part of your husband’s case.”
Szczepanski felt his stomach drop to his feet. “Lock the doors, now. I’m on my way.”
He heard her asking another question even as he hung up the phone. Standing up, he shot the chair back. As he turned to move around the table, he noticed something he had missed before, distracted as he was by rain and misfortune. Something dark lay on the table.
Dread crawled up his spine as he blindly reached for the light switch, his eyes never leaving the dark object. His fingers felt around on the smooth wall, eventually finding the plastic light-switch cover and flicking on the light.
A pair of prairie dogs lay, eviscerated, on his kitchen table, placed near the center where it blended in with Tracy’s flower arrangement. For a long moment he stood there, staring at the dead animals, debating what he should do. At last, he cursed and turned for the door. He ran out, not bothering to reach for his coat despite the rain continuing to pour down outside his window.
He mashed the elevator’s button, stared at it for a moment as nothing happened, then opened the door to the stairs. He flew down them, taking four, even five at a time, hoping that nobody else was in the stairwell. Nobody was. He quickly ran out on the first floor and headed for his car.
As he approached it, parked in the tiny lot behind the building, his foot slipped on the wet pavement and he crashed down, landing on his tailbone and skinning his elbows. He cursed again and struggled to get up. With shaking hands, he fished his keys out of his pocket.
Minutes or hours later, Szczepanski pulled up in front of Sophie’s house on the outskirts of town. He could not remember driving over, nor did he much care. He had made it, that was all that mattered. His years of policework kicked in and he studied the street. Nothing suspicious. No cars parked on the street other than his own, which was fairly normal for this area.
Fairly assured, he quickly jogged up to Sophie’s front door, knocking with a quiet urgency. Sophie answered the door, her expression a mixture of uncertainty and distaste. While she had always been friendly with him, she always had and always would stick up for Tracy. Ever the older sister, she was still protective of the girl she had helped raise after their mother had, as they always put it, gone on vacation. The woman was still “on vacation” at the Haven Psychiatric Institute.
Szczepanski pushed past her, pausing only to pull her inside and shut the door. “Where is she?”
“Now just a damn minute, Alan. What the hell is going on here?”
He held her by the shoulders. “There isn’t time for that. Now, where is she?”
Sophie looked down at his hands, one by one. “Boy, get your damn hands off me before I break your nose.” As he blushed and complied, she folded her arms. “Now, we aren’t helpless women in some fifties flick where the big manly cop has to save them from whatever bad guy. Like I asked, what is going on?”
“There really isn’t time—”
She punched him in the nose. He bent over, holding his face as blood started dripping. Over his groans, she spoke calmly. “Make the time.”
Tracy’s scream turned Szczepanski around. “Hi, Tracy.”
“Sophie! What the hell did you do?”
Sophie snorted and smirked at her sister. “He was being a misogynist.”
“He does that. You ok, Alan?”
He shrugged, one hand holding pressure on his nose. “Fits with the rest of my night. You win, Sophie. Short version is this… Some lunatic is out there killing animals, two by two. Female animals.” He gazed at them as they stared at him. “Pregnant, female animals.”
Slowly they both looked at one another. “Fuck.”
“Sophie, I know.”
She cursed. “Tracy, I told you not to tell anyone, girl!”
“You were on speakerphone! Besides, he doesn’t count.”
“Like fuck he doesn’t, he’s gonna get us killed.” She turned to Szczepanski. “What’s this dude got against pregnant people and animals? And why us? We’re not animals. Shut up in advance, Tracy, you know what I mean.”
“I don’t know why he’s doing it. But obviously, he knows that I’m investigating him. He’s probably got bugs at the zoo and aquarium now… He must have seen me there. Hell, he might have here. Of course, if he was good at his job he’d know we don’t have any fucking leads!” He glared at the walls around them.
Tracy barely had a quake to her voice. “So, he wants to kill us and our babies…”
“Ah, actually… He takes the fetuses. Always very early stages, or seems so at least.”
Tracy sighed. “Fuck me sideways. Ok. He wants to kill us and steal our babies.” She paused as she shivered against her will. “What do we do now?”
“We get out of here. No, don’t ask me where. Like I said, he might have the place bugged.” The lights went out. “And of course the power’s out. Shit.” He reached to call for backup, pausing to look at Sophie. “Are the doors all locked?”
“Damn straight, they always are. Have you seen my neighbor? The creep.”
A thud rang out in the dark, quiet house. The three of them jumped, spinning to face the door just feet away from them. Szczepanski held his hand up, motioning for Tracy and Sophie to stay still and silent. He drew his gun from under his soaked shirt as he eased up to the peephole. As he was about to get his eye in place, the door jumped as something else slammed into it.
Szczepanski quickly moved to the peephole, finding nothing but darkness on the other side. After a tense moment, he tossed his phone to Tracy. “Call the department, get backup out here now. You remember my badge number?”
“I got it. Calling now…”
The detective eased the door open only to have it pushed wide open as something heavy slid down it. He gazed down at the bodies of two women, soaked and lifeless. Their abdomens were sliced open, and he knew all too well what else he would find there. Affixed to one of the women’s chests was a note.
He quickly touched their necks, checking for a pulse despite their cold flesh. Not finding anything he quickly moved off of the porch, his gun raised, looking up and down the street. Nobody was to be seen, no cars were moving on the street. He cursed, holstering his gun once more.
As the rain came to a stop, he stood, staring at the bodies of the women in the doorway, even as Sophie and Tracy slowly made their way forward. A glance at the door itself told him why he had been unable to see anything; a wad of mud, likely from Sophie’s flower bed, was smeared over the peephole. He bent down, reading the note on the first woman’s shirt. It said, simply, “Genesis 6:20.”
In the distance, Detective Alan Szczepanski heard sirens approaching.
Jerome bent to his Great Work in the basement. It was hard, exacting work, but he loved it. The whispers of the angels grew both more intense and more rapturous as he went about the Will of God. He had not expected to move so quickly with his task, not this early. Not when there was so much more to do. But the angels had yet to guide him wrong thus far.
Carefully he sealed the mold, filling it the rest of the way with resin. He would polish it as smooth as glass when it was done. The only visible flaw being the hair-thin hole through which he would thread the string.
Turning, he prepared the bottom half of the second mold. Carefully, he used forceps to exactly place the tiny thing, itself the size of a sunflower seed. So small. So much potential. It deserved to be preserved, just as it was. Innocent, perfect, and ready to be re-created when God and His angels deemed it appropriate. That task, he knew, would not be his.
As he worked, he chanted prayers, scarcely aware he did so. He focused on the task before him, ignoring all else, even the fire which provided the Light of God to shine into the darkness as He always did. The light of the fire highlighted dozens of other, amber colored spheres. Beads, threaded upon a simple string, each containing a similar but unique small, seed-sized object. Two perfect, preserved specimens of the very beginning of every type of animal and every type of bird, each as he came to them through the whispers of the angels and the Will of God, Amen.
– Comments by the Judges –
“It was very gory and descriptive, and certainly had a lot of originality to it. I did enjoy it and was very surprised by the ending.”
“I really really enjoyed reading “Jerome,” and could also see it being turned into a full-length novel! Jerome’s victims and the reasons for his killing them intrigued me a lot. I also found that I had no idea how this story was going to end, and the last half of “Jerome” definitely had me on the edge of my seat.”
“I thought this was a very interesting, entertaining story overall. Very creative. I have never read anything with so much detail describing the murder of animals as a serial killer works up to human victims. Extremely unique.”