Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Little Friends

by George Morrow



The party began as a soiree late on a rainy afternoon in 1934. Ladies in evening dresses and their escorts in tuxedos arrived at the apartment of Adolf Scipio. A butler and maid assisted the guests with their garments and showed them into the salon where the servants provided hors d 'oeuvres and liquor. The guests amused themselves for an hour before their host's arrival.

Adolf Scipio, a self-made man who mined for diamonds in south Africa, gold in Brazil and managed various other enterprises around the world, had returned recently to America after five years abroad. The sleek, dark haired man with the pencil-thin moustache served his guests cigarettes from a case made of solid gold gleaned from his Brazilian mine. Although sociable and a gracious party host, Scipio, nevertheless, remained a man of mystery. He conducted his personal affairs in strictest privacy, and rumors circulated about him being involved in illegal financial dealings. He had many acquaintances and associates, but no friends. People in wealthy circles wondered where he had lived for the last five years, having received no word about his whereabouts. Rumors abounded about his having eloped with a Romanian princess.

Scipio circulated among the guests and gave them tours of his apartment which he had decorated with souvenirs of his visits to distant countries. He invited two acquaintances, Grace Rathwell and Basil Harrington, into his study for a private talk. Scipio's maid, Lita, and his butler, Merriman, escorted the two friends into the study.

A two-foot long machete with a curved blade and red handle hung on the study wall. . Grace, a slender blonde who wore a white silk evening studded with diamonds, asked Scipio, "What type of wood is the handle made of, Adolf? It's blood red."

"That's precisely what it is, my dear Grace. Blood. Blood mixed with bones -- human bones."

Grace blanched pale. "You don't actually mean people were slain with it?"

"I do."

"Where ever in the world did you get it, old chap?" said Harrington, a heavy-set British tea importer.

"I found it quite by accident. I was searching for a gold site in the most remote region of the Amazon. In fact, I don't think it's even on the map. I found the vein of ore on a coffee plantation that had long been deserted. Incidentally, I found a few human bones around and the clothing they wore indicating the dead had been European."

"How fascinating," Gloria said, as the butler served her another martini.

"I made friends with a few of the local people, the Zetis, a tribe about which almost nothing is known and who have had few contacts with the outside world. I communicated by signs and an interpreter who had accompanied me. I asked them to show me where I could find gold, and guess what I saw?"

"Come on, old boy, delight us with your exploits," said Harrington who had his plate loaded with sweet meats.

"I found gold pots and knives. Pegs for their lodgings. Shovels. Common items made of gold. It would knock out your false teeth, Harrington, to see such everyday items made of solid gold."

Harrington stopped eating and scowled at Scipio.

"Needless to say, I was shocked out of my boots, but a short time later I encountered something that made even this pale. It is called 'tava tava'. "

"Never heard of it," said Harrington.

"Of course you haven't," said Gloria. "You don't read anything except the funny papers."

Scipio clarified his statement. "'Tava tava' means head hunting."

"You mean hunting for heads of lettuce?" asked Gloria.

"No, you silly woman," said Harrington. "It's cutting off a man's head and using it for a prize."

"Are you serious, Adolf? You mixed with those types of people? Really?"

"That's only one part of 'tava tava'," said Scipio. "I got a pretty good view of how it works. Sit down and I'll tell you about it." Scipio narrated the events which lead him to his discovery.

"E.C. Gilbert, a British citizen, owned a coffee plantation in the Zeti valley. About one hundred Zetis worked for him. One day, Gilbert got lost in the jungle. Sweat saturated his khaki suit and stung his eyes to the point at which he could not see. The humid air made it almost impossible for him to breathe and he teetered on the verge of collapse when fortunately he reached a Zeti thatched house deep in the undergrowth, and which he did not know existed.

"The Zeti revived him with some food of bananas, rice and cassava beer, and Gilbert appeared to regain his strength. The Zeti's appearance intrigued Gilbert. The Zeti had a pleasant expression on his face; but Gilbert felt that some hidden evil lurked behind the placidity. The Zeti's long, dark hair was cut away in front to form bangs and was decorated with red and yellow toucan bird feathers. Slender bamboo tubes protruded from the lobes of his ears, and he wore a brown cloth loin dress.

"Gilbert began to feel ill at ease when he heard a flute playing from somewhere in the dark jungle. Without warning, the Zeti brandished this machete which hangs on my wall above Gilbert's head, and before the poor devil had a chance to move, the Zeti swung down on Gilbert's head and lopped it off. A real tragedy because Gilbert had begun to make an enormous amount of money from his plantation. However, Gilbert did not know that the river that ran through his plantation was loaded with gold, and I sought that gold."

Scipio's servants refreshed the martini glasses of his guests, and he continued his narration.

"I arrived in the village the next morning, just in time to witness the head shrinking ritual, and the Zeti graciously allowed me to watch.

"The Zeti made an incision at the back of Gilbert's cranium and removed all the skin and flesh from the skull. He placed red seeds underneath the eyelids and sewed the eyes shut. The craftsman scraped the fat from the head flesh and put a wooden ball inside the flesh to keep its form. He then boiled the flesh in water for thirty minutes and steeped it with herbs. He dried it with rocks and sand while molding the head to retain its human features. He repeated this entire process for seven days. After that, he rubbed the dried skin with charcoal ash and decorated the head with beads to endow it with beauty. Within one week, the Zeti told me, Gilbert's head would be shrunk to the size of a man's fist."

Gloria complained of feeling lightheaded, and Scipio had his female servant take her into the bathroom. Harrington finished his martini and lit a cigar. He leaned up against a divan and blew large smoke circles into the air, and Scipio lit a cigarette and leaned against the fireplace.

"I say, a jolly good story, Scipio. How do you know what happened? Were you there?"

"I heard it from a reliable source."

"Ha! A likely story. Do you have the head in your possession?"

"Yes, it's here, in the apartment."

"You honestly expect us to believe your story. I've heard of head shrinking before and how it was done. My dear fellow, I've nothing against alcohol or hallucinogenic drugs, but really..."

"I assure you, Harrington, I am perfectly sober, and it is the whole truth and nothing but. I'd like to have Gloria in the room when I finish my story." Scipio turned to his maid. "Fetch her for us, Lita." The maid went for Gloria. Harrington cast an admiring glance at Lita's shapely figure. "How did you get a swerve curvy like that, Scipio? You look more like an undertaker than a movie idol."

"She is a Zeti, and I brought her back from Brazil. Her father is my butler. I am concerned only with her performance as a maid."

"Humph! You must have lost your marbles down in the jungle."

Scipio proceeded when the group reassembled. "I told you that the head was shrunk, but that's not all. Harrington knows about shrinking heads, but I wonder if he knows that the process can be done to the entire body."

"Balderdash! You are shooting the bull at us, Scipio, but I wonder why."

"I'm telling you the absolute truth, Harrington. May I be struck dead if I'm not!" Scipio continued with his story.

"I asked the Zeti what happened to the rest of the body, thinking that it might be served as part of a cannibal feast. Needless to say, I had my revolver ready as I did not relish becoming part of the meal. The Zeti took me to the women's house, where the females disemboweled Gilbert's corpse and performed basically the same procedures on the rest of the body as done to the head. The Zeti told me to return in eight days and he would see the result."

Harrington snorted, but said nothing. Gloria seemed to be fighting the urge to flee the room.

"Eight days later, I went back, and to my amazement, I saw E.C. Gilbert waving to greet me. Naturally I felt the Zetis had pulled a ruse on me about killing Gilbert, because here sat Gilbert alive. However, as I came nearer to Gilbert, I sensed something wrong, and I discovered the truth. The person waving to me was the size of a small child, being no more than thirty inches tall, but I had no doubt that it was E.C. Gilbert in diminutive form.

"The creature said nothing to me, but kept waving without the slightest bit of intelligence about him. I decided that I faced a toy rather than a man, a puppet fashioned in Gilbert's likeness -- albeit one made from Gilbert's remains.

"After about an hour spent drinking cassava wine and examining the miniature Gilbert, I decided to test my theory.

"'Gilbert, my friend, you look a lot different than the last time I saw you,' I said. 'Haven't you something to say to an old friend?' I laughed to myself, expecting no reply -- but then Gilbert responded.

"Gilbert started joking and talking about the good old days in France in 1917 when he fought in the war, in a British-accented voice that was recognizably that of the man I had met before. But as he spoke, I stood and began to pace so that I could examine him from a different angle.

"I noticed that his bodily movements had an abnormal rigidity, and that he had a slit in his clothing running the entire length of his back. Strings ran into his back and arms and head. Without a warning, Gilbert ceased moving and stood as if frozen stiff, with his eyes and mouth agape. I followed the strings and found them in the hands of the Zeti who had shrunk Gilbert's head. The Zeti operated the Gilbert puppet and mimicked his voice. The Zetis possess a remarkable talent at mimicking sounds from their surroundings and often talked in the language of their enemies to lure them into ambushes."

Scipio's servants provided Gloria and Harrington with cassava wine sweetened with honey. Harrington puffed on his cigar and drank the wine, asking for a second glass; however, Scipio refused the request.

Scipio continued with his story. "The Zeti showed me at least a hundred such puppet creatures, gleaned from centuries of the Zeti "tava tava" rituals. The ritual did, of course, involve the murder of innocent persons, but the victims came from neighboring tribes and formed part of an inter-tribal rivalry-revenge feud accepted by all as a normal part of life. As far as I could determine, Brazilian authorities knew nothing of the practice, making me the only outsider aware of its existence. I found no Europeans corpses among the puppets, except for poor Gilbert."

Scipio signaled Merriman and the servant opened a door and emerged with the puppet.

"This, my friends, is E.C. Gilbert, late of his majesty's army, but now, a creation of the master Zeti puppeteer, Mati." The late Mr. E.C. Gilbert danced around the room clad in a brown loin cloth dress. The maid, Lita, played the flute as Gilbert shook hands with everybody.

"This is amazing, Scipio," said Harrington. Harrington reached out to shake the puppet's hand, but received a bite on his finger instead.

"Damn, you little swine!" snorted Harrington. "I should thrash you!"

The puppet sneered at Harrington.

"Why doesn't he say something?" asked Gloria.

"He's waiting for you to say something to him."

"Hogwash!" said Harrington. "This whole thing is party joke. You're working some fancy puppetry on us, Scipio, and I've had enough. I'm going." The ponderous Harrington moved toward the door, but the puppet moved quicker and ran out it and locked the door.

"Let me out, you ruddy beggar!" yelled Harrington.

"What! Harrington? Sit down and let's talk business," said Scipio. "I won't let you out until you've heard what I have to say. That goes for you too, Gloria."

"When I saw what the Zetis did to Gilbert, I started thinking. People would pay money to see something like this. A puppet who acts like a human being. Souvenir hunters and show business managers would pay thousands to have a prize like this. So, why not start up a business to exploit this most unique talent? Great! But I need backers."

"Why don't you finance it yourself, Adolf? You've got the money," said Gloria.

"Come, darling. An enterprise like this isn't like U. S. Steel. Dealing in murdered people isn't what the authorities call free enterprise. They'd trace it back to me and start asking some very embarrassing questions. They've got me in their sights, anyway. I need people with clean records who can provide the cash without the police knowing who did it. Like you two, Gloria and Harrington. You both got plenty of money stashed in Swiss accounts. "

"That's the most absurd thing I've ever heard," said Gloria. "I would never countenance such a dastardly thing."

"I've done my homework, Gloria. You've lost two husbands within five years. I bet if someone told the cops to dig up their bodies they'd find arsenic in their stomachs. Basil, your partner died when his Ford tri motor plane exploded in mid air. If the cops did some probing of the wreckage, they find traces of TNT in it. Let's cut our cards. I need half a million to get this off the ground. You two can provide it. Do I count you in or count you out?"

Gloria and Harrington looked at each other in bewilderment, and then surrendered to his blackmail.

"Seems like you've got us -- or at least me -- by the ballocks," said Harrington as he lifted his glass in a mock toast of Scipio.

"Don't look so downtrodden," said Scipio. "You aren't doing this for free. You'll get a share in the profits. Just write me out a check for two hundred fifty thousand each and I'll see they get cashed."

As Harrington wrote out his check, he grabbed his chest. "I'm having trouble breathing. It's a heart attack!"

Gloria doubled over after she handed her check to Scipio. "I feel like there is a coil unwinding in my stomach. The cramps are terrible!"

Scipio took Harrington's check out of his hand as he collapsed to the floor.

"Now that wasn't so hard was it, Basil? Relax, Gloria you'll be having chest pain in a few moments. That wine I gave you was loaded with honey from bees that pollinated the oleander plant, the world deadliest flower. You'll both be dead soon."

Gloria reached up at Scipio to beg him for mercy, but he brushed away her hand. Scipio went to the fireplace and stood motionless in front of it -- in a trance-like state. Gloria saw the butler Merriman go over to Scipio and unloosen strings attached to his body. These strings had been invisible in the dim light of the library.

"What in the world is happening?" she gasped.

"It's my creation, madam," said Merriman. "I am the Zeti magician, Mati, who created the puppets. When Mr. Scipio found out what I was doing, I could not allow him to escape and tell the world about me. I crept up on him while he slept and removed his head from his shoulders, and then sewed it back on when I made him into a puppet. During the last five years I have posed as his butler; lived in house; learned to speak his tongue. My daughter Lita and I will use your money to create more puppets from people just like you."

"Oh, help me," Gloria pleaded as she closed her eyes.

"Yes, Mrs. Rathwell, go to sleep and you shall awake as a different person. You will be able to think and feel and hear, and remember what life was like before, but you will not be able to move unless I pull the strings. I will be your voice. You will have no worries, unless I decide to throw you into a fire or destroy you with the machete. You will feel that. I will visit the other guests out in the other room, and with the money you have provided me, I shall make puppets out of them, and sell them to a circus. Otherwise, enjoy the carefree life I shall give you as one of my little friends."

THE END


© 2011 George Morrow

Bio: George Morrow's horror fiction has appeared in Dark Moon Digest, Necrology Shorts, Danse Macabre, Macabre Cadaver magazine, Pill Hill Press, and Chatterbrew. He has also written news and feature articles for several Oregon newspapers.

E-mail: George Morrow

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