I met the man named Luis at an extravagant party in an extravagant Tribeca loft. The host’s name doesn’t matter, but I was flattered to be invited.
Yes, I knew I was a long way from Omaha, but I quickly found the party disturbing. The music disturbed me. The people, many of whom I knew from daylight hours in the galleries, disturbed me. The entire atmosphere seemed pretentious and wrong. Alcohol was everywhere and other drugs were openly consumed. The partyers groped one another with enthusiasm. The girls, with far too much makeup and too little clothing, actually repelled me.
I should have left, but I stayed, a spectator to the bacchanalia.
I noticed Luis from across the room, and at first glance, he appeared moderate in his proclivities. Sixtyish, wearing dark slacks and a tweed jacket, he looked like nothing more than a kindly college professor. A pretty girl hung on his left arm, and a pretty boy on his right. It was the dark, shriveled thing that hung on a cord around his neck that caught my attention. I had to walk closer to confirm that his pendant was a shrunken head.
Now I had his attention as well. He kissed his companions in turn, detached them from his arms and stepped toward me.
We shook hands and introduced ourselves; he asked me about myself and my work, all the while his brilliant smile dazzled me. Pretty Girl wandered off into the crowd, but Pretty Boy hovered nearby, looking irritated. Luis lit a thin cigar while we went through the ritual small talk. I knew he was waiting for me to bring up the topic of the thing around his neck.
“I’m not even going to ask you if that’s real,” I finally said.
“Well, thank you,” Luis replied. “I really wouldn’t have been offended, but thank you.”
“I’ve only seen one once before, in a museum out in Washington State.”
“Oh well,” Luis laughed. “That would almost certainly be a counterfeit. I have a very good idea of where the genuine tsantsas are in this country, and I know of none in Washington. Even in the reputable museums, I would guess that only twenty percent of the tsantsas are genuine.”
“You sound like an authority. Tsantsa? Is that the word?”
“Yes, it’s the Shuar word. They’re the people in the western Amazon who practice head shrinking.”
“Is that where you got it, in Peru or someplace?”
“Oh, goodness, no!” he exclaimed pressing his hand to his chest. “Peru and Ecuador both outlawed the export of tsantsas back in the 1940s. And the US outlawed their import at the same time. Really, trade in the heads is banned worldwide.”
“I imagine there’s a black market,” I said. “Smuggling.”
“Well, of course there is,” Luis said, lowering his voice. “Even so, tsantsas are very, very difficult to obtain. The Japanese collectors are buying them all up.”
“God, people will collect anything.”
“That they will, that they will. Do you have any collections?”
“No, nothing. I’m more interested in creating something new.”
“Very worthy! But disappointing to me. I live in something of a museum, and I so love meeting people who can appreciate my collections.”
“Well, I’ve got to say, shrunken heads never really turned me on.”
“There’s a pity. I suppose you wouldn’t be interested in anthropodermic bookbinding, either. But really, most of my interests are not so ghoulish. I’m especially proud of a rare stamp collection.”
I was searching for an inoffensive way to say that I had no interest in stamps, but at this point Pretty Boy put his hand on Luis’s shoulder from behind and whispered something in his ear.
“David, please!” Luis snapped. “Let me talk with this young gentleman.” David backed off, glaring at me.
“Luis, this is boring,” he hissed.
Luis sighed. “I do apologize,” he said to me. “My attendants are getting restless, and I need to get them under control. Here’s my card. I hope to see you again. And if you ever do want to visit my museum, I’ll be delighted.” Luis grabbed David by the elbow and propelled him in the direction of Pretty Girl, who was now at the edge of the room having an amorous encounter with a random beatnik.
I took the opportunity to make for the door. Outside in the rain, waiting to hail a cab, I crumpled Luis’ card and dropped it in the street.
It had been a truly unsettling evening. Could I have possibly been so foolish as to risk repeating the experience? Oh yes, and I did. Two months after that encounter, I saw Luis once more, again from across the room at another decadent party. The same pretty girl adorned his left arm. The pretty boy on his right arm was someone new.
The shrunken head hanging from Luis’ neck was also different from the one I had seen before, but I recognized it, or I thought I did. I wasn’t going to get close enough to make sure.
I left without speaking a word.
Tomorrow I’ll be returning home, to Omaha.
Carl Steiger is a career bureaucrat and an aspiring Bond Villain.