Estimated reading time — 15 minutes
I had managed to find the dark place described in the journals. It was apparent that I was not looking hard enough during my first few perusals of Kathryn’s entries, because all of the clues were there. My greatest mistake was in assuming that the only important sections were those pertaining to her diabolical club. I made a point to shy away from entries that were too personal in some kind of late respect for the deceased girl. In doing so, I missed some of the more important details leading to her death; in particular the location of “The Studio.”
On August 14th, Kathryn described a penultimate meeting with her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend Brian. It was a pleasant day by the James River, but despite this, Kathryn had felt a great amount of discomfort with the meeting. It had been a few months since the two had been separated by a summer intersession. Kathryn had returned to her family home in southern Virginia, whereas Brian remained on campus. Though Kathryn tried to continue communication with the man that she loved, she found it more and more difficult to keep his attention as the weeks wore on. Eventually the two drifted apart. Even when she returned, she felt immense difficulty when re-establishing communication with the boy she had once felt so free and open with.
As Kathryn waited on a park bench overlooking the rambling rapids of the James, she could feel a heavy, sinking discomfort in her stomach. She did not know what would become of this meeting. She did not know whether the boy felt the same way about her, as he did before, or even if she still felt that way. As the minutes wore on, and he finally appeared, she could tell that everything had changed. He was not the same Brian. Although he spoke warmly to her she could tell his mind was adrift somewhere else. Even so, she decided to stick with him through the rest of the evening, under the presumption that trying was the least she could do considering all they had been through together.
The night wore on and though the evening was pleasant, the spark had been gone between the two. Both were very aware of this as they walked back to the place where her bike was chained, near the old civil war exhibit by the river. She fumbled the lock of her bike, her mind reeling over the thought that their once electric relationship would end without a word, aside from the possible wave good bye as she rode her bicycle out into the night. She thought that Brian felt this as well, which is how she rationalized his next, eccentric actions. He begged her to spend some more time with him, coaxed her to follow him to some dark place by the riverside, and convinced her that he had something to show her.
Though Brian had been acting strangely the entire day, Kathryn still hoped that there was some way they could remedy the situation and go back to the brilliant winter and spring they had shared together. She followed him to a dark place beneath a foot bridge. She had been here numerous times with her friends when they adventured to the small island situated in the middle of the James. Although she had been here often, she was surprised when Brian pushed aside some corrugated metal revealing a dark, yawning tunnel leading downward.
Brian looked at her desperately and petitioned that they both explore the creepy forgotten place together, implying that it was something they would have done before. Kathryn took one look at the tunnel and, seeing only darkness, decided she would have none of it. She left him there then, riding up to the city above while he descended alone into the tunnel. The two would officially break-up a few days later through a slew of vicious text messages, and Kathryn would push the memory of the evening off as much as she could.
That would be until a few weeks later, when Kathryn and her friends were spending a day by the river in a bid to make the most of the now dwindling summer heat. This day had been going much smoother for the girl, but she had been trying desperately to close the wounds she had felt from her breakup. She had been trying her best to show her friends she was happy. She laughed at all of their jokes, and even tried flirting with some of the boys, at the suggestion of Trisha. This seemed to work as she was beginning to convince herself that she was getting over it all. These attempts were all but ruined when she noticed a figure moving just in the distance. She could tell that the figure, even if it were just a silhouette, had been Brian. Her stomach lurched. He did not seem to notice her, which only proved to sharpen the blow, but continued his path to the place where they had departed some time before, disappearing behind a sheet of corrugated metal.
This vision haunted her, and she would spend the rest of the outing, and the hours that followed, replaying the image in her head. She could not stop herself from thinking about it. The sight of Brian descending down that dark tunnel had struck something in her. It was like some long grey finger had reached out from the blackest part of her subconscious and scratched that part of her mind that craved the mysterious. It would scratch until she had found answers to some of her most pertinent questions. What had really happened to Brian, and by extension the Pumpkin Patch, while she was gone? Why had Brian insisted they meet by the river for their last meeting? What was Brian dying to show her that night? And why was he going into that dark place again? Why was it important to him? Ultimately this line of thought would poke and prod Kathryn Mason down the path that led to her death.
The day I decided to investigate the area by the river, the weather had been quite unpleasant. The sky was grey from clouds and, although a greater storm had been threatening, there was little but the occasional drizzle. To the south and below me roared the white capped rapids of the James, now reeling from the encroaching storm. Just beyond their cacophony stretched the lonesome island the locals called Belle Ilse, a name that I couldn’t help but notice shared some similarities to the diabolical Belial. I trained my gaze along the foot bridge where it stretched from the lonely island to my side of the water. Above it, the noisy overpass of US 301 loomed. At the end of the foot bridge was a stair way leading down to my level of the street.
Behind me Trisha was leaning on the side of her red Honda accord lighting a cigarette. She had driven me here, and was now determined to wait it out until I returned from my mission. I told her there was nothing to worry about. It was broad daylight and I felt like there was no chance of danger. Even if this place had once been the location of the Pumpkin Patch’s base of operations, “The Studio”, it would be unlikely that they remained here after the murders. Regardless, Trisha remained stubborn. According to her, any friends she knew that entered that place either died or disappeared. She did not want to lose the only other person who was still looking into the murder of her friend Kathryn. Eventually I caved, but I reiterated to her that if I did not return in an hour or two, she should go directly to the police, and not come in after me. She begrudgingly agreed.
The entrance was actually a lot trickier to find than we had assumed. It took a good fifteen minutes to find, although it would have been longer if it weren’t for the help of the lovely Trisha. Once we discovered the place, Trisha and I exchanged one last, apprehensive look. There was no telling what I would find down there, and although I was sure the place would be abandoned there was still a sense of dangerous foreboding in the air. After a brief pause to prepare myself, I fired up my flashlight and began my descent down the long dark corridor before me.
During my time at college, I studied all sorts of literature. Most of my favorite stories were myths and folklore that families historically recited to each other by dancing fire-light. These stories were often similar to each other in many areas. The tales would include some great hero, a monster, and some impossible journey to vanquish evil and return to normal life. One of my favorite stories spoke of a goddess who descended into the underworld to meet with her once forgotten sister, the keeper of the underworld. Often this story was stated to have metaphorical meaning. It was said that the underworld was truly an analogy for the goddesses’ own subconscious, and that she had to travel into this underworld to discover some kind of long forgotten, long suppressed part of herself. Her hero’s journey was only accomplished once she had communed with this part of herself and brought it to the light. She had to journey into the realm of death and return changed.
I thought of this story as I began to maneuver through the expansive tunnel system of the city. I wondered how many other cities had tunnels like these. Long forgotten passages that stretched miles beneath their respective city-scapes, containing crimes and secrets long since shunned by the people who lived above. Like some deep, primal sub-consciousness lurking at the heart of every metropolis, rarely seen or spoken of but always present and felt. It seemed to me, as I waded through the dark passage way about me, ankle deep in sludge, that there was something fermenting in this place. Something was festering down here in the darkness beneath the city, amassing itself and gaining strength before its inevitable return. Perhaps the murder of Kathryn Mason had ignited that return.
In the dead girl’s journal, she had referenced a series of glow in the dark markers which traced her way through the tunnels. At my first large intersection, I followed the dead girl’s path and trained my flashlight to the top right corner of the passageways. I only had to hold my light on the spot for a few short minutes before turning my flashlight completely off. I was both relieved and anxious when, after doing so, a symbol appeared ghostly green over the left most passage. According to my later research, this symbol was the alchemical rune for phosphorus. I continued this process at a couple of other intersections. At one place was the zodiac symbol for the Scorpio, while another was decorated unceremoniously with an upside down pentagram. My favorite had to be the enigmatic “666” scrawled out in wispy green script over a particularly fungus covered passageway.
There was only one time that I felt particularly scared within that system of tunnels. I will not lie, the whole situation was suitably creepy. I found myself fighting to press onward into the unknown place. Often I could hear the scratching of insects around me and the rhythmic drips of water from above. At one intersection, with my flashlight off, I could hear the distinct sound of something large crashing into the water just ahead of me. I quickly jumped to shine my flashlight in the direction of the sound. I probably scared the thing in the process, as all that could be seen was some furry, distinctly four legged creature retreating into the darkness away from me.
Eventually I had reached my destination just beyond an intersection marked by a glowing devil emoticon. While most of the tunnels had been cement constructs the last bit, just past this intersection, had been carefully fashioned from stone bricks. The passage continued around a bend before it opened up to a raised area just past an arched portal way of masonry. At the top right corner of this arch was a sneering glow-in-the-dark jack-o-lantern. The room itself was fairly large and musty smelling. There was still a rather waterlogged, roach infested couch sitting on the left most wall of the room. This was described in the journals. A generator was also there in the right most corner, just by the entrance. I checked to see if the thing had any gas but, unfortunately, it was empty. All in all the place looked abandoned. Although that was what I expected, I still felt the slight jab of disappointment.
There were a couple of easels propped up in random positions around the room, with one laying awkwardly on the ground, looking like some kind of dead thing. The walls were painted very darkly with splotches and patches left bare here and there. For a second I thought that the walls were just lazily covered, like the painting was done by some three year old with a crayon who was used to scribbling in a coloring book. As I got closer I realized that this effect existed because the walls were covered by a script of close together, overlapping words and sentences. This was also described in the girl’s journal, but she never properly described their effect. Perhaps she was un-phased by the design choice because she had a friend with her, or else because she was once a member of the group herself and did not fear them. As I was alone during my visit, I couldn’t help but feel the wicked lunacy evoked from painting a wall in this manner.
Out of the whole, incomprehensible mass, there was only one spot of wall that was left completely bare. It was on the wall straight back from the entranceway, just past the four stone columns in the center of the hold. Here, all of the wall scribbles stopped to form a single rectangle of empty space. I cannot explain why this spot unsettled me so, but to me it was the most unsightly aspect of all I had seen in the “Studio”. Perhaps it was the strangeness of it. In a room where every wall was covered by the noisy scrawl of threatening and damning messages, there was only one part left completely bare, pristine, and blank. The rectangle was about twenty six by twenty eight inches, the correct size for a large painting. Just beneath it was situated a small golden plaque, about four inches long, that was screwed into the wall. The plaque had only one letter engraved on it, and the letter was “E”.
When I emerged from the bowels of the city, I had found that the weather had cleared up considerably. It was about noon and, to my luck, Trisha was still waiting there by her car. Together we drove back toward the college campus, and found a small coffee shop where I explained to her what I had found. She did not seem all that surprised that the place was empty. She assumed that place might have been abandoned when the group went, way underground a few months prior. She also had some insight into the identity of the enigmatic “E” painting.
“It’s Elagabalus!” she said, her green eyes flashing excitedly. I had shown her the journals before, when we first met and this whole journey started. Even then this word “Elagabalus” had been of great interest to her. For a while she seemed obsessed by it. It was only mentioned once in the journals, however, and until now I wasn’t so sure of its importance.
“You think that the painting is called Elagabalus?” I asked her quizzically
“Well why not?” She challenged with a confident smirk. It took me a moment to take in her response. In the entry where Elagabalus was mentioned, it seemed to me that the name referred to a person. As we looked at the journal again in the coffee shop, I was not so sure. This assertion, that Elagabalus was in fact a painting, raised more questions for me. Where did it come from? Why did the group hold it in such high regard?
We decided to journey to the public library in order to research the location of a new Pumpkin Patch den and learn more about the Elagabalus painting. I got busy trying to find whatever I could on the name in question. Trish, the local, set off in search for the next likely place for a murderous art-cult to be hiding. While I spent most of my time on the public computer’s search engine, Trisha spent her hours in the archives reviewing old city surveys and maps. When we reconvened in a few hours, Trisha had amassed an impressive list of possible “Studio” locations that put my few articles of Elagabalus to shame.
“Okay so where should we start?!” She asked enthusiastically with an arm full of books and notes.
“You’re really enjoying this aren’t you,” I teased. To this she only shook her head.
We decided that I would go first. I had the least information to present, and we were afraid that the discussion of Trisha’s findings would get lengthy and get us side tracked. There were only a few hits on the subject of Elagabalus. The first referred to a roman emperor, also known as Heliogabalus. Apparently he had been a rather controversial figure during his reign from 218 to 222. His reign began when he was declared an illegitimate heir to the empire, and fought a rebellion for the throne. He had also overthrown the religious order in Rome, installing his own deity in place of the customary Jupiter. This deity had the extravagant name of Deus Sol Invictus, or “God, the Undefeated Sun”.
A second controversy was started when the Emperor was found to have been sleeping with his chariot driver. The reign ended with an assassination, and much of Elagabalus’ rule was apparently stricken from the public record. Perhaps the painting was of this controversial figure? If the painting was of a person, then it would makes sense why I would confuse the painting for a “who” instead of a “what”. The only issue is that the figure in question seemed quite random. The only thing that had stood out to me was Deus Sol Invictus, but I had yet to see any reference to this in Pumpkin Patch’s archived works, and I had not seen any other themes of the emperor’s life aside from the use of his name. It was a mystery to determine why this particular figure was so important to the group.
The only other article was a strange one regarding an occultist named Eliphas Levi. According to Levi, in his book Dogma et Rituel de la Haute Magie (What a mouthful), Elagabalus refers to a stone which was worshipped for it properties. Apparently the stone could prolong life and served as the font of all wisdoms. This metaphysical “stone” also served as the basis from which all magic could be built upon and was at the cornerstone of human subconscious and conscious of being. Elagabalus, for Levi, was nothing less than the famed philosopher stone, and its power could be found within the human mind. While it seemed to me a stretch, this definition of Elagabalus seemed to be the closest fit to explaining the painting. The group certainly held it in high standing, as though it were the mythical philosopher’s stone. Trisha agreed that this explanation, though imperfect, seemed like the best fit.
Next we turned over to the locations for the Pumpkin Patch’s new studio. The locations in question all catered to the eerier side of the city’s history. Among the locations were an old civil war prison on Belle Isle, the magnificent Hollywood Cemetery, and several locations close to the Poe museum, a place where the Pumpkin Patch was once show cased in their earlier, non-murderous days. I asked about Lumpkin’s Slave Jail and Trisha pointed out to me that it was under a parking lot, and there was no physical place for a killer cult to hide.
Eventually we decided that the old train tunnel, beneath Church Hill, was the likeliest place for the group to be hiding. The Tunnel was subject to a catastrophic collapse in the 1920’s, resulting in the death of four people, and it has been the subject of urban legend ever since. According to one story, a first responder to the disaster arrived at the seen only to discover a strange, deformed, humanoid being crouched over a victim of the crash. This creature reportedly fled the scene and set up shop in Hollywood cemetery, which is one explanation for the Richmond Vampire. Anyways, we decided to leave immediately to investigate the place.
By the time we arrived at the place it was dusk. Not wanting to attract attention, Trisha suggested we park the car and walk to the tunnel entrance. I asked her how we would enter the place, and she said she used to do it all the time; there was a hole in the fence and the lock on the gate was often replaced because of trespassers. She was right, of course. The chain-link fence, which warded the area, was compromised. It was fixed half-hazardly with zip ties and blue wire. The gate itself was held shut by a simple combination lock. Trisha informed me that this entrance was supposed to be for service and maintenance. The actual tunnel opening was apparently sealed sometime after the collapse by cement. We were able to break open the lock and enter the maintenance tunnel with our flashlights at the ready.
“It’s funny,” I said “I thought the gates of hell were supposed to say something like ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here’?”
Trisha did not think my joke was funny and chose to ignore it.
What followed seemed to occur in a dreamlike trance. We passed through the gate and were soon descending down a winding passage way into the dark tunnel. Aside from our echoing footsteps, we could hear the unnerving chatter of rats, which scurried away from us somewhere just outside the reach of our flash lights. As I moved through the tunnel, I became painfully aware of this feeling that I was being watched. I tried to push this anxiety aside and was assured by the sound of Trisha’s footsteps behind me. That was until I turned around and discovered she was not there.
I must have been halfway down the access tunnel by that time. I tried calling her name but got no response. Actually I was quite sure, at one point, that I heard a muffled giggle in response, but perhaps that’s just a detail I added after the fact. Looking back now, I do not know what overtook me as I decided to move further into the tunnel proper. The place was not as large as I thought it would be. I followed the ruined trackway down to the center of the tunnel, altogether too aware that someone, or something was watching me. Eventually I could make out the flicker of candle light in the distance and, I suppose, I was drawn to the light like a moth to a flame.
What was once a small flicker soon became a roaring flame as I trudged down the cramped stone tunnel. There, at the end of my journey, was a circle of red, glowing candles with a lone easel at their center. Upon this easel sat a covered painting. I was so transfixed by the scene that it took me a few minutes to process that there were others in the chamber with me. Just at the outer edge of the glowing candle light, there moved figures and shapes of masked individuals, who seemed to be assessing my every move. Among the masked faces I could see a rabbit, a clown, a skull, an assortment of hand carved tribal-looking masks, and the shriveled husk of a face which I knew belonged to someone called Hungry Preta.
I was eventually approached by one of the figures, undoubtedly female, who wore a handmade crow mask. She seemed to be far too familiar with me, as she stoked my arm indulgently, leading me closer to the painting at the center of the space before stopping to press herself close behind me. She nestled her chin upon my shoulder and stretched her arms, caressingly, across my chest in a gentle but inescapable embrace from behind. I was not altogether unnerved by this experience, I had gone numb to the fact that any of it was really occurring. Had I really wandered into this dark and diabolical den? Had I really lost Trisha in the passageway? Had I so foolishly wandered into my own death, as Kathryn had? Was this the end? I would soon discover that it was not the end but rather some type of beginning, as the other figures slowly removed the covering of the painting, and my captor began to lovingly stroke my hair. There before me was the face of the thing I recently learned had been called Elagabalus. And as I stood there dumbstruck, taking in the thing, I thought it was magnificent.
CREDIT : I.T. Cowcer