Hello, there. Are you a fan of crime fiction?
If so, you have come to the right place. Here’s a little tale of mine for your reading pleasure.
California Cave Dwellers
Anthony David Mitchell
Albert had read about ancient customs since he attended college years before. History could be quite fascinating. And quite brutal.
A drinking vessel or eating bowl made from the top of a human skull is called a skull cup. Numerous times throughout history the skull cup has been used in rituals or as trophies amongst various peoples in Asia and Europe. Albert had vaguely read about these. He found the idea incredibly vulgar. To even consider drinking from a human skull was so barbaric it caused his dark flash to crawl. And when his old professor Nicolas Zaller produced such a thing, he wiped his mouth with his napkin at Zaller’s dining room table. Zaller then took a healthy gulp from the skull cup which sent Albert on a mad dash from the dining table through the living room, past the foyer and out of the house.
Now standing on the professor’s expansive front lawn, he sucked in deep breaths and doubled over. Never in his life had he witnessed anything so ghastly. He thought he would vomit. He remained there doubled over for quite a spell. He could not be sure how much time elapsed before Zaller’s servant, Molly, appeared before him.
“Oh my. What is wrong, dear?”
She placed her soft hand upon his shoulder and petted his hair. Normally her touch would send shock waves through him. She was not the prettiest woman he had ever known, but she was by far the sweetest. He rose up but he did so too soon. She stayed close to him, but his stomach betrayed him. He turned away from her and vomited in a hydrangea bush. He heard her moan at his agony and he hated himself for doing it. But who could blame him? How many civilized people could have withstood watching that?
The next feeling was cool. He opened his eyes to find Molly dabbing his cheek with a damp cloth. The relief was instant and flooded through his entire body. He felt a smile cross his lips. He could swear he heard her giggle at this. Molly giggled often but never at the expense of others. If it had been any other woman he would have assumed they were laughing at him. The women who grew up beside him back in El Paso would do so. They laughed at him every chance they got. He had always been sophisticated ever since he could remember. Much more sophisticated than his three brothers and three sisters. This was why he moved away long ago to attend the University of California at Los Angeles. He thought they would be more civilized and most of them were. Professor Zaller was one of the most sophisticated men he had ever met. And now to see him drinking from the skull of some poor soul just hit him harder than a Mack truck barreling down the highway. But he knew Molly would understand.
He opened his eyes and turned to her although he remained lying on his back on the lawn. Her warm eyes were barely visible on this evening, but his mind’s eye saw them well. He grinned to her.
“Are you better, dear?”
Her accent drifted between west coast and English. Her father was an Englishman but left her American mother when she was only seven. Still she retained certain aspects of the accent. Albert loved it.
“Molly, my dear. I need to tell you something. Can we walk for a bit?”
“As soon as dinner is finished.”
“Oh no. I have to tell you now.”
“Well, there he is!”
Zaller’s voice boomed down hard and squashed their moment of peace. His voice now even sounded barbaric. For the past seven years he had dined at Zaller’s house twice a month. He never missed a meal. And each time, the professor spoke eloquently and softly. And now here he was drinking from a human skull and barking his words instead of politely speaking them. With his button down Ralph Lauren shirt un-buttoned halfway, no belt on and his black pants stained with gravy he truly looked more beast than man. What was wrong with him? What was he drinking from that skull?
Zaller marched down his stone steps in his black leather shoes. Shined and presentable unlike the rest of his outfit.
“Now. Now. Albert, my boy. Where did you get off to? Are you hitting on Molly again?”
Albert glanced at Molly who smiled at the comment. A little gleam in her eyes. He caught sight of that gleam even in the dark of the night draping over them. He turned back to Zaller.
“Of course not, Nicolas.”
He rose to his feet. He stood several inches taller than the professor, but he definitely felt much shorter at this point.
“Well, why not? She is lovely. Is she not?”
“Of course she is.”
Molly said “Now, sir. Stop this. You’re embarrassing Albert.”
“No, Molly. It is fine. Really.”
Zaller whispered in her ear but he did so loud enough for Albert to hear.
“Poor boy. He will never muster up the courage. That Greek fellow will make you his wife yet!!”
Albert now realized that Zaller might not only be mad but drunk as well. Great. A man as civilized as Professor Zaller now stood hammered before his guest. They enjoyed a glass of cabernet sauvignon most times or even a glass of Cristal champagne during December, but never would they drink to such a point of intoxication and of course never would they drink from a skull for God’s sake!
“Sir, I would like to join you at the table again.”
“Splendid! Come! Come, my boy!”
“But might I first have a brief word with Molly?”
Zaller turned toward her and did his loud whispering routine once again.
“Well now. I must have hit a nerve! Do take advantage.”
Molly half-smiled, but Albert could see Zaller’s rude behavior was starting to get to her. Zaller turned to point at Albert before he walked back inside.
“Do NOT take advantage! She is my best servant and my sweetest friend. I warn you, boy.”
Albert found it odd to be called “boy” by Zaller. He may have been his professor but he was actually only four years older than himself. But in this state, the appropriate action is to oblige the intoxicated person so as to allow the alcohol to take over and place them into a relaxed state in the hopes they will soon fall into slumber. So Albert nodded and kept quiet as Zaller returned to his house and slammed the front door causing the lion’s head knocker to clang.
Albert walked close to Molly. He started to speak, but then thought better of it. He turned from her and removed a tin from his pocket. He popped a white breath mint into his mouth and sucked on it for several seconds as he turned back toward her and began to speak.
He caught a look in her eyes. A certain kind of look he rarely received from women. They generally found him to either be snobbish, wimpy or downright cold. But warmth radiated from Molly’s brown eyes in the moonlight. Albert thought he could feel the warmth travel from her eyes to his soul as he stared down into them. He was seven inches taller than the girl. Kissing her would mean both had to stretch a bit. Of course, he was certain it would be worth it. But as much as he did want her, he deduced now was not the time to make any sort of proposal. There was a larger problem looming above their heads like the sword of Damocles.
“Molly. It’s Nicolas. I mean Zaller. I mean your boss.”
“Well he is…well…”
“A bit tipsy?”
“More than a bit.”
“I know. He has been into the bottle a bit lately. Maybe because of his wife.”
“They have been divorced for five years.”
Molly looked away as if searching for the root of Zaller’s unhappiness.
“Maybe it is just now sinking in.”
“Oh, Molly. I doubt it.”
“Me too, I suppose. Maybe it’s his arthritis.”
“Has it grown worse?”
“Not that I know of but it must always be a pest.”
“No. It must be something deeper.”
“You know, it could be his job. He has always said it was stressful. Maybe after all this time it is catching up with him.”
Albert shook his head.
“I really think it is something deep down in his soul and it’s very disturbing. After all it’s not just his drinking.”
Albert took Molly’s hand and led her ten feet from the house.
“He is drinking from a human skull!”
Despite the darkness around them, Albert saw her eyes open to the size of quarters.
“What? It can’t be!”
“Molly. I would never lie to you. I assure you. That is what I saw. He was drinking from some poor fool’s skull! At the dinner table no less!”
“My God. Listen, Albert. I have always known you to be truthful. I have no doubt in your honesty. But you are ill obviously. Maybe you only thought you saw it.”
“Molly, I am not ill! I vomited BECAUSE I saw him drinking from the skull! You know how vulgarity upsets me.”
She searched with her eyes. Hoping for some explanation to present itself out of the night air like a firefly.
“Listen. I will go back in there and dine with him. If I can stomach it. You walk in and serve us in your normal manner and see for yourself.”
“Well. I suppose I could.”
“Please. And then we can decide if we need to get the poor man some sort of help for these fits of madness.”
“Yes. We shall get him better!”
They shook hands on the deal and headed back inside.
Zaller’s house was a four bedroom, three bathroom structure with a guest room, living room, kitchen and dining room. The dining room could swallow any other room in the house with ease. It stretched twenty feet long and fifteen feet in width. While Zaller was not rich by any means, he had done well thanks to his position at the university combined with a sizeable inheritance from his parents and his royalties he received from the sales of his book The Modern Sacrifice: How Ancient Rituals Influence Our Modern World. Albert had read the book when it was first published five years ago. Zaller made several connections between ancient rituals like sacrifice for example. He made a comparison to how in ancient Egypt as well as many other ancient cultures, human sacrifice was often practiced as an offering to the gods and that in modern society many people are sacrificed in tabloids and the media to sacrifice their character and social status and because of this the others in the media seem to rise up. For instance when a politician slips up and makes an offensive or inappropriate remark during an election, his opponent naturally gains an advantage and while the politician is not physically dead, his career is all but dead. His point was the ancient thinking was still there but was being implemented in a different manner. Sacrifice was sacrifice. People still carried the same beastly instincts and would happily carry them out, but would do so more quietly than in ancient times. Ancient times were more honest.
Albert walked back inside to see the professor biting into a slice of ham. He acknowledged Albert without looking up and motioned for him to sit. Albert searched the table, but found no skull cup. He took a seat and placed a napkin in his collar. He looked at the ham on his own plate. He did not want to be rude, but he found the idea of eating anything repulsive at this point. And Zaller noticed.
“You always come to my house with a hardy appetite. Are you ill, Albert?”
He shook his head “No.”
“Then what is the matter? I must know.”
Albert started to respond when Molly entered. He could see she apprehensively brought a bottle of cabernet sauvignon to the table and searched the table for the skull cup. But just as Albert had done, she found no such thing. Zaller thanked her for the wine. She bowed to him and left the room. She gave a disappointed look to Albert. He could see she wanted to believe him. He knew what he had seen.
Albert looked over at his former professor. He opened his mouth to speak. Zaller waited for his words. But none came.
“Oh. I see. It’s Molly. Right? You are infatuated.”
Albert still felt sick and this madness his host displayed called for an investigation into the cause of the man’s mental state, but despite all of this on his mind, Albert felt himself smile.
“Ah. Yes. Yes. She is such a lovely young woman. You must let her know how you feel.”
Albert could not be sure why, but although he had no desire to put anything into his system, he reached over and took the bottle of wine and the bottle opener. In a mad dash, he opened the bottle and poured himself a full glass. Something he never did since the first pour was always to be a small one in order to taste the wine first. He then downed the glass in four swift gulps. He then plopped back into his chair.
“Good lord, man. Take it easy. I feel she will accept your offer.”
Albert waved a hand at him.
“You know what you need?”
Zaller stood up, wiped his lips with his cloth napkin and walked over to him. He held his arm out for Albert to take. Albert felt a force pull him up and found himself placing with his arm inside Zaller’s. They turned the corner and began a walk.
“A walk to clear the mind. Certainly yours is muddled.”
They walked through the kitchen. Molly was tidying up the sink. Zaller nodded to her.
“The poor man is in need of exercise. Do pardon us for our interruption, dear.”
“That is fine, sir. Please do get better, Albert.”
Albert nodded to her with no expression. She must think this was all about him. He was the crazy one in her eyes now. He did appreciate her concern, but the concern should have been focused on the insane man drinking from a human skull. He even wobbled as he led Albert along. He was ten times as drunk and yet here she would think of him as the steady one of the house.
It had been a long time since Albert had actually given the house a walk through. Generally on his visits, they stayed in the dining room before a visit in the living room. Now Zaller walked him along, leading him to the stairs which led into the basement. He had not been to the basement in years. Since the first visit seven years ago maybe.
Zaller’s shoes resounded on the concrete steps.
His stride was unsteady and he groaned a bit as they went. His arthritis was flaring up. It would take a lot more wine to calm it down. And more wine was not something Zaller needed to intake at this point. Albert felt his senses start to come back. Upstairs he had felt a numbness come over him after he downed the wine, but now it was starting to fade. He shook his head a bit and nearly caused Zaller to trip on the final step. He helped to steady him as they reached the basement. Zaller poked around to find the light switch. A damp chill caught Albert’s neck and face. He even shivered a bit.
The light came on.
As if the skull cup weren’t morbid enough, on the wall of the basement was a monument to Zaller’s wife. A stone with her name etched in it and her birthday with a hyphen and no death date. In the center a picture of her face. In the picture, though she was not smiling. Instead she wore a look of fear. The look a person gets when they see the train coming to run over them but are only in the middle of the initial shock. Only the eyes are really indicating what they are experiencing. Total shock and total fear and total realization that their end is soon. Albert fell back against the stairs. Zaller turned to him.
“My boy. It is all right. I just wanted to make a shrine for her.”
“But that look on her face. When did you take that picture?”
“Down here. She became distracted by a statue I’d recently purchased and placed down here. I knew she would which was why I bought the damned thing at that auction. In my one hand I held a camera to take her picture. In the other I held a knife raised in the air. When she turned around I snapped the shot. It was quite perfect. You can see how she is right at that moment of fear. When she believes it’s all over. Belief is so powerful. It’s just perfect.”
“What did she do?”
“Oh. She screamed and after I began laughing, she socked me in the jaw. And then she left. I have not seen her since.”
Zaller giggled. Then he started laughing out loud. Some of it was the wine. Albert could not be sure why but the next thing he knew, he was laughing as well. His friend might be mad, but he still had appeal after all these years. In college he was the most interesting professor he ever had by far and many of the others were not dull. But there was just something about old Nicolas Zaller.
“Say. Who’s this Greek admirer Molly has?”
“Oh. Mr. Robert Demo. Yes. He’s quite in love with her. You must act before he does.”
“I would love to make my move. After all I have been coming here for years and now must be the time, Nicolas.”
“Of course it is. Why, we will return upstairs and set this thing in motion. Now let me run on up and let the little woman know.”
Albert could have let it go right there. He knew what he saw, but courting Molly ranked much higher on his overall priority list. To hell with Zaller if he could have Molly. But Albert knew these were his basic barbaric human instincts taking over. He had to insist on inquiries into the heinous act he had witnessed.
“Why were you drinking from a human skull?”
Zaller stopped his ascent up the stairs. He placed a finger to his lips and considered the question.
“So that is the reason you ran outside. Hhhmmm. I guess I should have known better. Molly has seen it many times and she is so used to it that I guess she doesn’t even notice anymore.”
“She told me she had never seen it.”
“Ah. So the little angel is not always an honest angel. Eh?”
Albert watched as Zaller ambled down to him. He took a seat beside him on the stairs.
“Well, what happened is I came across a man. He was pushing a shopping cart through Echo Park. I go there some times wondering if I might see the novelist Roger L. Simon just for laughs. The homeless man was dressed in rags of course but he had a few items he was trying to hock to the others in the neighborhood. Probably for another fix. You know. But hey. He appeared honest enough and he had no teeth. I have always felt for people who have no teeth. So I approached him and he showed me his items. A few watches and a wedding ring. A necklace. Then I noticed something sticking out at the bottom of the shopping cart beneath some blankets and old rags he had in there.”
“The skull cup.”
“Tsk. Tsk. What have I always taught you about interruptions, Mr. Albert Palamares?”
Calling him by his whole name.
College all over again.
“That they are the wall between knowledge and ignorance.”
“Down with the walls. Now shall I continue?”
Albert leaned back on the wall.
“Ah yes. I eyed an object near the bottom of the shopping cart. I inquired about the object. He gave me no price and moved his filthy hand down to shift the blankets around in order to cover the object up. While it was rather rude for a man to be advertising and then practice such discretion I must say that I was intrigued. It goes back to childhood and the most basic human instincts. Place a hand over it and another hand will try to uncover it. Works every time.
“So to appease my curiosity, I moved my hand down in his cart. The fellow insisted I leave his cart alone, but I told him I was very much interested in what he had to sell in the bottom. He told me that all he had to sell were the other items. So I reached into my wallet and pulled out a hundred dollar bill. I watched him drool over the crisp bill. I just knew he would jump at the chance. But as bad as it hurt him to decline my offer, that is just what he did. My offer rose by one hundred and then two hundred and all the way to a thousand. Yet, he still refused to take my money.”
Zaller stood up and walked to the wall where he used a hand to prop himself up.
“So I let it go. What else could I do? Only I returned to the park a week later. And of course, he was there again, selling the same junk as before. I thought I might tempt him to let me have that item in the bottom. Yet when he saw me and we exchanged a look, I could see a serious dread in his dark eyes. He was in no mood for my advances. So being a gentleman, I let it go.”
Albert watched the professor shift around as he told his story. Almost like he had some internal itch which would not let him rest. When he thought about it, the professor had actually been acting this way since he arrived. Only now did Albert realize it. Maybe the wine got his gears to turning so he could notice. Zaller continued.
“Yet, I made a habit of going there once a week. Helps me to clear my mind of course. And each time I would share a strange stare with the man and each time he would turn the other way. After a while I started to carry books to read while I was there and must have forgotten the man and ignored his glances. And then one day he made his presence known with more than a glance.
“Easing his cart over close to me, the cart suddenly turned over and toppled to the ground. Naturally I was startled and looked up from the book. I noticed that the collections of blankets and a few shirts were among the debris. He gathered it all up, apologized for the inconvenience and kept on moving. Only, there was one item he left behind.”
“The skull top.”
“No my boy. It was an entire human skull.”
“Good lord. Did you go to the police?”
“I started to do so. I watched the man wander off. He turned around at one point to see that I noticed the skull lying on the ground before me. He gave me a strange smile and kept moving. I looked around and saw no one else looking. In a rush of insanity, I closed my book, tucked the skull in my jacket and took off at a feverish pace for home. I arrived and took the skull down here.
“For a long while I kept it down here, but told nobody about it. I knew I should report the finding to the police and that the last thing I should do was to keep it down here like some serial killer keeping trophies from his victims and what not. I cannot tell you why but I just held onto it. And then I was reading about the ancient ritual of skull cups and well, the proposition was too tempting. I blame much of it on my drinking habits as of late and I realize it is a barbaric thing to do, but I believe there is some barbarian in all of us and as indicated by my book as you know, I believe in staying in touch with that side.”
“That is very true.”
“Yes. And so I took a saw and removed the top of the skull. And yes. As you saw I have drank from it.”
“What were you drinking from it?”
“Cabernet sauvignon of course. And I must say, it gives one a sense of power. As if I have conquered an enemy.”
“But you haven’t. You don’t even know who the skull belonged to.”
“I know. But the feeling it gives me. It is hard to deny myself when I know the power it brings to me when I drink from it. Almost like a fountain of youth. I understand why the ancients practiced the ritual. It is amazing. You should try it.”
“No sir. I will not! And I insist you report this to the police immediately or I will! I cannot believe you would engage in such a foul and low down and beastly act as this, Nicolas. Like you are some sort of Neanderthal cave dweller!! You must report it and get yourself some psychological help.”
“My boy, I don’t believe all that is necessary. Perhaps I can drink from it when you are not here and never speak of it again. It will be as if you never saw it.”
“No deal, Nicolas.”
Albert stood up. He began ascending the stairs.
“You call the police or I call them right now.”
“My dear Albert, do not climb those stairs.”
Albert took two more steps.
“You leave me no choice, Nicolas.”
“Albert, no. I beg you not to. As my friend I do not wish you to do this.”
Albert continued on up.
“I will never be friends with a person who conducts himself in this ghastly manner. I am reporting this, Nicolas. And that is the end of it.”
“It’s over, Nicolas.”
Albert turned, made his way up the stairs and opened the door.
Nicolas Zaller stood over his poor friend. Albert lay crumpled at the foot of the stairs. Blood oozed down the left side of his face. A large knot had already risen up on his forehead. His eyes remained open but there could be no question that the blow was lethal. Molly made her way down the stairs. She stepped over Albert, placed the large club on the floor and took Nicolas’s arm.
“My, my. He only required one blow.”
Nicolas nodded as he took her arm and patted her hand.
“Unlike most of the others. Tsk. Tsk. We have to be more careful, Molly.”
“Oh, Nic. You and your drinking will be the ruin of us. You had no intention of even killing this one. You must drink from Albert’s cup because I will not.”
“No. He was my friend.”
“And he was MY friend, too.”
“You would rather drink from Mr. Demo’s skull? He stalked you day and night. He may have even killed you but he did not. I killed him. Makes more sense for me to drink from his skull. I conquered him.”
“I am sorry, Nic. I will not be drinking from Albert’s cup. The boy loved me.”
“So did Mr. Demo.”
She flashed him a condescending look.
“Well. In his own way at least.”
“You know, Nic. He looks just like your ex-wife did. When she caught us down here. That same crazy expression like there on your little shrine to her. She was the first one. Wasn’t she?”
“Yes. The one that started it all. What would we do without our little cave down here? We should be grateful to her.”
Nicolas changed his accent to his best British impersonation.
“And now daddy’s little girl and I can dance away the evening.”
He embraced her and twirled her around.
“Oh, dear. I don’t have that damn father complex you always speak of, you sick bastard.”
“Ah yes. The mating ritual of banter. Talk back to me. I love it!”
She laughed as he embraced her in a long kiss. Then he paused. He made his way over to the shrine to his dead ex-wife. He turned a latch and swung open the stone door. Behind it lay the collection. Ten skulls neatly positioned on metal pegs. He grabbed the skull in the center peg.
“Now you see. Her skull was the smallest.”
“Of course. She had the smallest brain.”
They joined each other in sickening laughter which resonated up the stairs, out into the kitchen and on throughout the house. The moon cast a beaming glow over the property while a man searched the streets of Echo Park, in search for his homeless brother who had been missing for months.