by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
[Continued from Part 1]
She started down the Steps. They were slightly worn from nearly three centuries of constant use. She stopped just above the landing. The air felt chillier here. It always did, at least to her, and she knew that had nothing to do with the actual air itself, but her own frame of mind.
Just like the little shiver that ran through her the three times she had actually walked across the steps where the figure would eventually appear had nothing to do with the figure, and everything to do with her own irrational fear of what she might find.
"You know when it will appear."
He stopped behind her, too close like Italian men always were. She didn't move away. She didn't worry about him picking her pocket -- she only had a few Euros on her. Her credit card and identification were tucked into a money belt hidden beneath the waistband of her pants, practically invisible, or so her hotel mirror told her every morning.
She had to tilt her head to see his face. He stood one step above her. The light from below reflected off his skin. He was older than she had thought, with fine lines beneath his eyes and around his mouth. Laugh lines, her mother would have called them.
But he wasn't smiling now.
He was looking down on her like an avenging angel, the Church of Trinità dei Monti shadowing him from behind.
"Are you speaking to me?" she asked in her haughtiest Italian.
"You know that I am," he said. "Just like you know I have been watching you since you first came to the Steps."
She could have denied it, she supposed, although she saw no point. Just like she saw no point in backing away from him. That would only let him know he had power over her, power to startle her, power to unnerve her, power to make her worry for her own safety.
"You are waiting for it," he said, "just like I am."
She realized that anyone else listening to the conversation would hear that last comment as vaguely threatening, maybe even as something with sexual overtones.
But she knew there weren't any sexual overtones -- at least, not intentional ones. She wondered briefly if he was one of those men who knew how handsome he was and used that knowledge subconsciously to control the people around him.
She had a hunch he did.
"Who do you work for?" she asked.
His eyes half closed, shielding their expression from her. She felt a surge of adrenaline. He didn't want her to know that piece of information.
"Are you one of those -- what do you call it in English? Psychic investigators?" He used the English words for that last part, and he didn't try to hide his contempt.
"I'm not psychic," she said, "but I am hungry. Join me?"
She went around him, climbing back up the steps to the little restaurant on the Piazza. She didn't wait to see if he followed; she knew he would eventually.
She flagged down a waiter, let him seat her at a table near the flowers, and watched as the man crossed the Piazza.
He handed the waiter a credit card, then gestured toward the table. The waiter smiled as if they had shared some kind of secret, then he disappeared into the restaurant itself.
The man sat down across from her. "I have ordered wine and bread. The waiter shall bring menus in a moment."
She knew better than to refuse the wine, even though she really didn't want any. The figure was scheduled to reappear shortly after six a.m., and she wanted to be clearheaded.
She had planned on only making a short visit to the Steps this night, hoping to return to her hotel room for a few hours of sleep so that she wouldn't be too drowsy come morning.
The bread arrived quickly, still warm from the oven, smelling divine. The waiter made a fuss of opening the wine, and spent nearly five minutes explaining to her its derivation, not that she cared.
The man studied her. When the waiter left, he leaned back in his chair. "You are not a typical American."
She shrugged. "I don't think there are typical Americans."
"You are not rude," he said.
"Thank you," she said. "I think."
He smiled. His teeth were even and very, very white. He had the look of a retired model, not of a thug. Which made him even more suspect in her opinion.
She sipped her wine. Red, rich, full-bodied, dark with a hint of pepper. She liked it more than she had expected.
"You said you were following me," she said.
"Do not play coy," he said. "You know that I was."
She shrugged again. "I thought you were too shy to say hello."
He laughed. "I am not shy."
"Clearly," she said.
"I was simply trying to be certain if you had a true interest or if you simply enjoyed the Steps themselves."
She hadn't thought of enjoyment. She knew that a lot of tourists did enjoy the Steps, spending hours here, chatting, eating, resting. But she had seen the entire area as something to be discovered, not as something to be enjoyed.
She wondered if her surprise at his comment showed on her face.
"True interest in what?" she asked.
"Now you are being coy," he said.
"I don't like elliptical conversations," she said. "Tell me what you're about."
The waiter chose that moment to bring the menus. She didn't even look at hers, ordering a cheese plate. Her companion didn't order at all, saying the bread would be enough.
After the waiter left, the man extended his hand. "I am Giuseppe."
"Condi," she said, taking his hand to shake it. Instead, he held tightly, then turned her hand upward, kissing the center of her palm.
It was an oddly intimate gesture and it sent an involuntary shiver through her.
"Condi," he said. "Like your secretary of state."
"Former secretary of state," Condi said, "and no, not like that at all. It's a nickname that stuck early that has no real relation to my given name."
Which she wasn't about to tell him. Condi was short for Constance D. Platte, which was, she always contended, a stupid name. Her family called her Connie D., which her friends mercifully shortened to Condi nearly three decades before anyone had heard of Condoleezza Rice.
Condi didn't take her hand back. She let him continue to hold it. She figured as long as he touched her, she had the right to ask him rude questions.
"So tell me, Giuseppe, what I should have a true interest in."
"Tomorrow morning," he said. "Six a.m., you will be one of the few people on the Steps. We will all cluster around the same spot, waiting for him to return."
She suppressed a sigh. He suddenly sounded like a religious nutball. "Him?"
"We do not know his name. We call him the Dark Man."
The Dark Man -- L'uomo Scuro. She liked how that sounded in Italian. It was a much better name than the figure, as she had been calling him.
"We?" she asked.
"Ah." Giuseppe let go of her hand, giving it a tender pat before setting it on the table as if her skin were made of glass. "Not until I know who you are working for."
"I'm a reporter." One of the few conditions she had was that she couldn't reveal the name of the Organization. Her boss told her the reason for that was simple: whenever anyone mentioned the Organization of Strange Phenomenon Ancient and Modern, everyone assumed that it had bankrolled the specific result -- which, her boss had reminded her, it had not.
"For whom do you report?" he asked.
"I got laid off from a Colorado paper, the Rocky Mountain News," she said. "Like so many of my colleagues, I am going to write a book. Unlike most of them, I am not going to write about politics or America or some environmental disaster."
"You're going to write about the Dark Man."
"Why not," she said. "No one has published a definitive work in English."
"No one has published a definitive work," he said.
She slid her hand back as the waiter set the cheese plate down. It was large, on heavy bone china, with a dozen different cheeses. He set smaller plates in front of her and Giuseppe, then topped off their wine glasses, and flitted away, like a man who assumed people on a date needed privacy.
She took some cheese and some bread, making a small sandwich for herself. She never bothered to learn the names of the European cheeses, but she had come to recognize several, including some tart enough to go with the wine.
Giuseppe took some cheese as well.
"What's your interest?" she asked.
"I protect him," Giuseppe said simply.
"Against what?" she asked.
He smiled, only this time there was no warmth in his face. "Against people like you," he said.
She left shortly after that. Even though he said he would pay for the food, she left some Euros on the table, ignoring his protests.
He made her uncomfortable; she didn't want to be beholden to him.
She took the long route back to her hotel, taking the Via Sistina to the Via Barberini because there would be more people and more light.
The wine she drank settled uneasily in her stomach, leaving a sharp aftertaste. When she reached the Piazza Barberini, she paused beneath an awning over a closed shop. The traffic -- usually awful here -- had virtually disappeared. The only sound was the water pouring through Bernini's famous fountain of Triton in the very center of the road.
Her heart was pounding. She waited ten minutes, stepping back into the shadows, but Giuseppe hadn't shown up.
Apparently he had stopped following her, now that he knew who she was and what she was about.
She hurried the long block to the Via Purificazione, then walked up the narrow street. Everything had shut down. She had to use her key to get into the hotel. The interior lights were on low. The night man had stepped away from the desk. She walked to the elevator, which seemed to take forever to reach the main floor.
As she rode upwards, she pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. She found the number for the Organization, but she didn't activate the call until she got inside her room and turned the tiny television to CNN International.
It was the middle of the afternoon in Colorado. Her boss answered, sounding surprised to hear from her.
"I had a strange experience," she said.
Then she told him all about Giuseppe, the way the man followed her, the way he had talked about the figure, and the fact that he had known exactly what time the "Dark Man" would appear.
"I need someone to look up the term L'uomo Scuro," she said. "And see if there are any notes about protectors. And I need it immediately."
Her boss didn't question her. He promised to have someone call her in fifteen minutes.
Unfortunately, fifteen minutes later, the person who called her was Ross.
She had never learned Ross's last name. She had worked with him before and he was, hands down, the best researcher on staff at the Organization. Unfortunately, he knew it, and made everyone else feel stupid.
"Haven't read your Dan Brown, huh?" Ross said by way of introduction.
Already irritation threatened to overwhelm her. "I read the source material long before Dan Brown ever thought of writing The Da Vinci Code." Listening to her own tone, she wondered who was trying to make whom feel stupid here. "I didn't meet a flagellant monk tonight."
"Not saying you did," Ross said, his tone dry and amused. "But you should have expected a secret society. You are in Rome, after all."
"Just tell me what you found," she said.
"The Dark Man has been part of Italian mythology about that spot since the Spanish Steps were built," he said. "I thought you knew Italian. You should've found this stuff on your own."
"I never heard it called the Dark Man before tonight," she said.
"Hmm," he said in a tone that completely condemned her for a lack of intellectual rigor. She tensed, then made herself breathe out slowly.
She was hot, she was tired, and she had to get up early.
"What else?" she asked.
"He has his own society," Ross said.
"What's the society called?"
"That's a question," he said. "Some kind of protectorate, the Order of Something or Other. Very Dan Brown-like."
"It would help if I knew," she said.
"No one knows," he said. "It could be this order or that order. What everyone does know --"
And he emphasized "everyone," as if she were the only person on the planet lacking this knowledge.
"-- is that if you try to hurt the Dark Man, someone will hurt you."
"Great," she said.
"You're not trying to damage it, are you?" he asked.
"No," she said. "I don't suppose this Order has put its vast knowledge about the Dark Man on the internet."
"It hasn't, but a bunch of conspiracy theorists have," he said. "They all have different theories."
"I'm sure I've found most of those," she said.
"Probably not," Ross said. "But I don't think it matters. It's all the expected stuff anyway."
She wasn't sure what he meant by expected stuff, but she was sure she could find out. "Which one do you believe?"
"It doesn't matter which one I believe," he said. "It's which one do they believe."
She suppressed a sigh, but she did roll her eyes, catching her reflection in the mirror across the room. She looked as exasperated as she felt.
"Which one do they believe?" she asked.
"Aliens," he said. "They think this is an alien invader, left behind."
"Just one?" she asked.
"Just one," he said.
"Who tries to attack all by his little lonesome every ten years?"
"I didn't make up the theory," Ross said, sounding defensive for the first time. "They're your nutcases."
"They're not mine either," she said, frowning. She hadn't expected that. This was Italy after all. Catholic, superstitious, filled with saints and relics and dark magic, not filled with little green men and misunderstood weather balloons like Roswell, New Mexico.
This time, she did sigh out loud.
"Will they hurt me?" she asked.
"Hurt you?" Ross repeated as if the sentence did not compute. "Maybe if you try to shoot the thing with your raygun. How the hell should I know?"
"You're the researcher," she snapped. "You should've found out if they're a threat."
"I'm good on short notice," he said. "I'm just not perfect."
"Oh, I never doubted that," she said, and hung up.
Aliens. UFOs. That fit into Strange Phenomenon, Ancient and Modern. She almost wished it was a ghost, though, or a trick of the light, some kind of natural predictable familiar phenomenon.
She set the alarm on her phone. Five a.m. didn't seem that far from now.
She closed the curtains in her room, cranked up the air conditioning, and fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.
[Continued in Part 3]
"The Dark Man," reprinted here with the kind permission of the author, is one of fifteen original stories included in the anthology Is Anybody Out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern, and published by Daw Books on June 1. For more information on this anthology, start here.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a best-selling, award-winning writer of genre fiction, whose latest book, Diving into the Wreck (Pyr), has garnered excellent reviews. She also writes mystery as Kris Nelscott and funny paranormal romances as Kristine Grayson. Kris was the first writer to have a science fiction crime story in the prestigious Best American Mystery Stories and The Year's Best Science Fiction anthology. That same year, she won the Asimov's Readers Choice Award and The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Choice Award. Her short story collection, Recovering Apollo 8: And Other Stories has just appeared from Golden Gryphon Press. She is a former editor of the prestigious The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, for which she won a Hugo Award in 1994. Kristine Kathryn Rusch lives and works on the Oregon Coast. Find out more about Kris's work (and those of her pen names) at her official website. You can also follow her on Twitter: kristinerusch