The Head Collector by Kotzwinkle

We were walking in the Jardin du Palais Royal, along the avenue of lime trees. The smell of the blossoms was provocative, taking me back centuries.
“I appreciate that you’ve brought it to us,” said Renéee Pompadour, a bit condescendingly for she thought of me as little more than a tombaroli – a tomb robber. We were discussing a partial New Testament Papyri which I had offered to her.  “But as to its provenance,” she added, “you’re out of your depth. It’s not an original. It’s a copy. We’ve established that very clearly. We still wish to acquire it, of course, but not at the price you’ve set.”
Employed by the Bibliothèque Nationale, she was unquestionably an expert and was enjoying her little triumph, as she explained, “I’ve used the scanning laser microscope and I date the fragment around 500 A.D.”
“I see,” I said, my mind wandering. It was because of the garden we were in. I was remembering when Cardinal Richelieu and I walked here 400 years ago. The palace adjoining it was his at the time and I had been advising him on how to set up a network of spies. He was my sort of cleric, understanding the necessity of censoring the press and executing his enemies. It was a pity that, following his death and internment, someone stole his head. I certainly understand the fascination the mummified head of Cardinal Richelieu might have. One might gaze at it in the evening, reflecting on the ends of power. But it wasn’t used for that, which troubled me. Nicholas Armez of Brittany wound up with the head and passed it on to his nephew, a flighty fellow who exhibited the item for public viewing at a fee. This was going too far and I acquired it from the nephew after removing his own head. (I have it in my private collection.) Then I reunited Richelieu with his torso. One has after all certain obligations to old friends. But I digress.
“You have connections, I grant you,” continued Renée, “but we can’t really expect antiquity pirates to correctly date a late copy of the Epistle of Barnabas. Can we?”
I had received the epistle, in the original, at the Council of Jerusalem, just 16 years after Jesus, cursed be his name, was crucified. My lord and master felt that one of us should be present at the Council. Barnabas sniffed me out — they were better at identifying demons in those days. He called me a “false believer secretly brought in to spy on freedom.” Well, he was right. And here is this pompous woman lecturing me on provenance. “Why do you puff yourself up this way, Alaric? It’s a childish trait.”
“Puff myself up?”
“It’s prestige you crave. But that can only be gotten in one way.”
“And what way is that? Instruct me.”
“Do you know how long it’s taken me to get where I am? How much work has gone into it? You need bona fide credentials, Alaric, not underworld friends.”
Ah, if she only knew my underworld friends — Azazel the goat, Tezazit of delirious fever, Shedim the dazzling fiend, to name a few.
“Hard work and humility, Alaric, that’s my recommendation. I speak to you as a colleague.” She gazed at me as if expecting my full appreciation for her straight talk. She was one of those no-nonsense women, accustomed to being right. I pointed to a bench beneath the lime trees.
“Renée, I’m going to give you a little surprise.”
“Another glorious discovery you’ve made? Seasoned scholars accept the fact that they will encounter few originals in their career.”
“But I’m one of them, Renéee. I’m an original.”
“Copies are more numerous.” She wasn’t listening. “Copies are what we deal with everyday. And it’s all right. It’s all right that you’ve brought us a fine copy. Copies have their value.”
“Renéee, you are the copy. I am Alaric Prince Hector, the Baleful Lodestar of Gradon and Demon of the Infernal Hierarchy, Lower Gallery of Hell.” I performed a courtly bow worthy of the occasion.
“Alaric, are you drunk?”
“Alcohol has no effect on me.”
“I haven’t time for this.” She attempted to get up but I restrained her with a look, then said, “You are, as you so charmingly put it, out of your depth.”
At first, she thought it was simply the criminal in me, a vicious streak of brutality surfacing. An ugly moment, but one she was capable of dealing with. But as I completely withdrew the veil of humanity I generally wear, she shrank back. The recognition dawning on her face was delicious. She had just realized that the dark stories of her childhood were true. There were devils about. And her supreme misfortune was to have encountered one.
“I live from age to age by magic formula, which I am going to demonstrate for you. Or I should say, on you.”
I watched her perspective shifting radically. Her smug world in which she was chief bottle washer had collapsed. She couldn’t move a muscle, she was staring into the eyes of a monster, and she rightly suspected her hour had come.
I extracted her according to the accepted method, by manifesting a vibration she could not endure. Speeded her up, you see. Humming like the blades of an infernal machine, which in fact is what I am, I forced her to match my vibration, and she lost the calibrations of her species. She sped into another zone of being entirely, and there, following a single instant of devastating clarity, she croaked. Her vital force was ejected. I licked up that luscious bit of high-octane energy. Quite a treat.
However, I had just burned down one of my buyers, a rash act surely. At times, one obeys the lower urge without thinking. This is what it is to be a demon. I cursed myself for my stupidity. But I’ve always been rash which is why I’ll never get past the Lower Gallery of Hell, no matter how I supplicate.
I left her there, slumped on the bench beneath the lime trees. But not before taking from her briefcase the epistle of Barnabas.
Her death will appear to have been natural, a result of being overweight, perhaps, or some such nonsense. I would have liked to have cut off her head. The market for shrunken human heads is a lively one. The homes they hang in would surprise you.