Monday, June 7, 2010

"The Dark Man" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Part 1 of 3)

Continuing my celebration -- and promotion -- of the publication of Is Anybody Out There? (Daw Books), my co-edited anthology with Nick Gevers, another story from the book follows -- after this non-commercial interruption:

As an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy short stories (I'm referring to the 1980s at this point), I subscribed to/purchased regularly a number of periodicals: Aboriginal SF, Amazing Stories, Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, OMNI, Weird Tales, and probably one or two others. So when I learned that a new publisher, Pulphouse Publishing, would begin publishing a "hardback magazine" entitled Pulphouse, well, I was ready to sign up. Each issue was genre themed, and the first issue, published in 1988, was all Horror.

The two people behind Pulphouse Publishing -- Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith -- won the 1989 World Fantasy Award / Non-Professional for their work on the magazine, and it was at that World Fantasy Convention in Seattle that I first met Kris and Dean.  I recall that convention vividly because it was held shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake (October 17, 5:04 PM), which rocked my San Jose home more than I ever care to remember. And 10 days later, in a plane over San Francisco on my way to Seattle, I saw a site that I hope to never see again -- nothing! All the lights on the two major San Francisco bridges -- the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge -- were out. Very say the least.

Then, later that year, during Christmas break, my wife and daughter and I made a trip to Eugene, Oregon. Diane and I had met in Eugene, and we decided that at age 7, Lindsi was old enough to appreciate the sites and sounds as we visited some of our old haunts, and where Diane and I had lived and worked.1 During our few days in Eugene, we visited with Kris and Dean at the Pulphouse Publishing office, and the following day we all met for lunch at an eatery across the street from the Eugene post office. (K&D had to check their mail!) Also joining us for lunch were Kevin J. Anderson and Nina Kiriki Hoffman. A good -- and noisy -- time was had by all.

Stories for an Enchanted AfternoonI would see Kris and Dean at many a convention in the intervening years, and I kept track of their writings and recognitions. So it was only natural that, shortly after joining Golden Gryphon Press, I contacted Kris in early 2000 about publishing her first short story collection. Entitled Stories for an Enchanted Afternoon2, the book contained all of Kris's award-winning and award-nominated fiction (at that time), including two of my favorite stories: "Skin Deep" and "The Gallery of His Dreams." The book's dust jacket featured stunning wraparound art by Thomas Canty, in which scenes from some of the stories were depicted in the quilt squares that lay across the woman's lap.

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that whenever I'm involved in an anthology project, Kristine Kathryn Rusch is always on my list of invitees.

About her story "The Dark Man," in Is Anybody Out There? Kris writes: "In 2007, I went to Rome with the writer Adrian Nikolas Phoenix. She was researching a book on Keats. I was along for the ride. We spent a lot of time near the Spanish Steps (Keats died near there), and I was struck by how old Rome really is. The Spanish Steps are 'new' -- only a few hundred years old. For years, I've been thinking about that -- what's old to some cultures is new to others -- and also about our perception of the world around us. After all, creatures in our world have a different way of perceiving life -- dogs, for example, with their amazing sense of smell. What if they perceive time differently too?"

The Dark Man

by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Condi stepped out of the internet café, an ice-cold bottle of Coke in her hand. The street was dark except for the light spewing out of the café's door. Motorcycles were parked to her left, squeezed between Smart Cars that had slid bumper-first into slots too small for a regular car.

In America, this would be called an alley, if someone deigned to dignify it with a designation at all. Crooked, covered with uneven cobblestone, winding uphill between darkened and graffiti-covered buildings, the street felt more like a path between main roads.

The internet café didn't help. It was the only business still open at 11 o'clock at night, still open and still doing business. The hotel across the way locked its doors promptly at nine, something she thought unfair in Rome, which like most Mediterranean cities, remained awake and active long past midnight.

Fortunately, Condi was staying in a slightly more upscale place on the Via Purificazione, another alley-like side street in a slightly more desirable neighborhood near the Via Veneto. She wasn't there for the shopping; she wanted to be as close to the American Embassy as possible without paying Westin Excelsior prices.

Not that money was an object. The Organization of Strange Phenomenon Ancient and Modern was paying for everything, including the tiny, expensive bottle of Coke resting damply in her right hand. She had an unlimited expense account, and a salary fifty times higher than her going rate as one of the Rocky Mountain News's best reporters -- back when there had been a Rocky Mountain News.

Condi glanced over her shoulder. Inside the café, which wasn't really a café at all -- just three narrow rooms of computers and two vending machines -- the waif who ran the place was surreptitiously checking the information Condi had left on her computer screen.

The waif, with her big brown eyes, round cheeks, black-black hair, looked like a cute Italian kid straight out of La Dolce Vita, or at least she did until you factored in the piercings, the tattoos, and the leather bustier, which seemed just too hot to wear in this strange 100-degree Roman autumn. Condi had already clocked out, leaving the screen on a UFO social networking site filled with wackos.

The waif always captured that last screen, missing the important stuff -- or so Condi hoped. She tried to check her e-mail several times per day on her iPhone, but the AT&T connection in Rome was spotty at best -- hell, all wireless connections were spotty here -- and she was afraid she lost a lot of information.

She waited until the waif stopped checking the screen capture. Then Condi sighed and stepped onto the cobblestone street, heading up hill to the Via Sistina. Ahead, she could hear music and laughter. Behind her, she heard the whisper of shoes against cobblestone.

She didn't have to turn around to know he was following her again.

# # #

She didn't know his name or even what he wanted, but she did know what he looked like. Black hair, high cheekbones, traditional Roman features, all assembled into a classically handsome face, one that could've been stamped on a coin a thousand years before, he was taller than the average Roman and had broader shoulders.

He'd shown up on her first morning in Rome, sitting behind one of the flower vendors on the Spanish Steps, and he'd been around ever since. He had watched her with an avid interest that would have unnerved her anywhere else.

But this was Italy, and Italian men were famously forward. In her first week here, she'd had her butt pinched several times. She'd had her breasts brushed -- oh, scusi, signora -- and one man had caught her in a wild 1940s V-E Day style kiss.

She had shoved him away, threatening in her excellent Italian to cut off his privates, cook them in olive oil, and serve them to the pigs. That had gotten her applause and a bit of distance. The vendors nearby, and there were dozens, called her the Untouchable American, and had even started to consider her as something other than a tourist.

She knew better than to expect to be treated like an Italian. It handicapped her, but she had accepted that when she accepted the assignment, silently cursing the location of the phenomenon.

Anywhere but Rome, famous for its hatred of tourists, with its centuries-old secrets and its thousand-year-long lies.

That she had picked up one tail didn't surprise her.

That she had picked up only one did.

# # #

Tavernas and (weirdly) gelato shops were open on the Via Sistina, sandwiched between shuttered clothing stores and restaurants. From the top of one of Rome's famed Seven Hills, light flowed down, bringing with it the music and laughter she had heard on the side street.

The walk up the hill was steep, the sidewalk narrow. The walk at night best -- fewer pedestrians, fewer limousines -- but had its own treacheries. She had learned, in her six weeks in Rome, to beware large groups. Usually they included their fair share of pickpockets and thieves. Most locals looked the other way, figuring tourists got what they deserved.

The man behind her didn't want to attack her. If he did, he would have done so weeks ago. He wanted to observe her, for reasons she didn't want to think about.

She wished he wasn't here tonight. Tonight was crucial to help her plan for tomorrow morning, and she didn't want him to know what she was about.

The lights got brighter around the Intercontinental Hotel near the top of the hill. Two limousines were parked near the doorway, two doormen talking to the drivers as if they were all waiting for some VIPs to show up and show them around.

Just above them, on the Piazza Trinità dei Monti, sat the largest vendor cart Condi had seen in Rome. The cart was really a miniature market which sold everything from Gatorade to a cheap panino with the meat cooked right on the spot. The smell of grilled lamb filtered down to her now, and she wondered how the most expensive restaurant in the area -- on the roof of the Hassler Hotel -- liked the competition.

She stopped at the top of the hill, the city sprawled out before her. In the daylight, she could make out St. Paul's Cathedral, and all the other landmarks. At night, they faded into a series of domed lights at the top of the other hills, with less defined lights leading up to them.

The artists had folded up their carts and the professional beggars were gone. One of the nearby restaurants had illegally moved its tables onto the Piazza so that the patrons could enjoy the warm night. A string quartet played Vivaldi.

The Steps themselves were well lit, the flowers in the pots alongside looking festive in the bright lights.

Below, she could see the Barcaccia Fountain, and the crowd around it, drunk and partying. The restaurants on the Piazza di Spagna were open late, catering to the tourists.

She ignored them. They would be gone in a few days, replaced by other tourists, also bent on drinking their way through the hot Italian nights.

She was more interested in the Steps themselves.

Built between 1723 and 1725 by Francesco de Sanctis, the Steps took their name from the Spanish Embassy, which had moved there in the nineteenth century and had since moved on. Locals sneered on the area because it had long been home to the expatriate English community in Rome, a community that had once included John Keats and several other famous British literary figures.

Condi had learned all she could about the Steps -- how long they had been there, how they were actually paid for by the French who once owned the church at the hill's top, the Church of Trinità dei Monti, which, so far as she could tell, was always closed.

She had walked up and down the travertine steps several times a day, always looking at one landing in particular, a place where none of the professional beggars ever set up shop, where tourists who normally sat down from exhaustion somehow never reclined despite a bit of shade.

She had several hundred photographs of that spot, some taken by tourists as far back as the 1920s, and some by professional photographers that were even older, going back to the invention of the box camera in the mid-nineteenth century.

Some photos were fascinating, some were not. Some were of the steps, glistening in the rain or gleaming in the sunshine, and some were of a dark form sprawled along them, looking like the black painted shadow of a body burned into the stone.

It had taken her months to figure out when the body appeared and when it disappeared. That had been part of her assignment -- a crazy assignment that had come two days after the last paper she'd applied to reminded her that hundreds of reporters (even those with multiple investigative reporting awards) were out of work.

She had no idea how many of her unemployed colleagues had turned down work with the Organization of Strange Phenomenon Ancient and Modern. Some days she liked to think she was the only reporter they had approached. Other days she wondered if she was the only reporter they had approached who had decided to check her integrity at the door.

Not that she had checked it entirely. She had told the Organization that she'd investigate any phenomenon they sent her to, but if she discovered a hoax -- and frankly, she had said, I think they're all going to be hoaxes -- she would let them know. She wouldn't sugarcoat anything, she wouldn't lie about anything, and she wouldn't spin facts just to support some conclusion they were paying her hundreds of thousands to confirm.

In her first six months with the Organization, she'd disproven a dozen so-called unexplainable occurrences. The one thing she'd learned as a reporter was that nothing was unexplainable. She just had to dig until she found the explanation, one that satisfied both her and her bosses.

Although standing at the edge of the Piazza Trinità dei Monti on the top of the Spanish Steps, she had a moment of doubt that she would ever find an explanation for the black form.

It was the first case that fascinated her. Reports of the form's appearance started in the months before John Keats died in the building right next to the Steps. Supposedly, Keats -- ill with the consumption that would eventually kill him -- looked out the house's window and saw the black figure appear.

It is an omen, he told his companion Joseph Severn. I have seen Death. It awaits me, there, on those Steps.

Severn saw the figure as well, and thought it a cruel hoax, a drawing made by someone who wanted to frighten the superstitious English. Hours later, he reported in his journal, the figure was gone, destroyed by one of the many wintery downpours that helped demolish what remained of Keats's health.

From that moment on, sightings of the black figure showed up in the literature and not always from English expatriates. Sometimes, the sightings showed up in the Italian press. Sometimes in travel journals of the very wealthy who had made Rome part of their continental tour.

Several artists -- professionals as well as amateurs -- added the figure into their paintings of the Steps. Sometimes the figure was part of a dark and sinister portrait, and sometimes it was the only black spot in the middle of a perfectly painted sunny day, complete with azaleas and beautiful women.

Even in the paintings, though, the figure was in the same position, sprawled along the steps, looking like nothing more than the shade of a dead man trapped for a moment in bright sunshine.

She had pored over all of the evidence -- and thanks to the internet, there was a lot of it. She had found nearly two hundred years of paintings and photographs, amateur and professional, thousands of pages of diary and journal entries, plus every single mention in books about strange phenomenon published in every single language she could read.

She combined all of her data, and learned that the figure appeared with startling regularity. The average paranormal investigator never noticed because the appearances weren't to the minute. The paranormal investigators found that the figure appeared roughly every ten years within a particular time frame, but none of them had taken the time (or maybe had lacked the ability) to do the math.

The figure appeared ten years, fifteen days, and thirty hours from the previous appearance. It remained visible for thirty minutes. Nothing seemed to change this pattern. In previous sightings, people had grabbed it (it felt like touching pitch, one traveler had written), shaken it, tried to pick it up (it didn't budge, as if it were attached to the very step itself, wrote another traveler), and had poked it with various objects, including knives. Some had tried to light it on fire, and that hadn't worked either.

In 1971, the height of what Condi privately called "the crazies," paranormal investigators tried to slice bits off the figure. They had so-called psychics touch it, trying to get a reading, and they touched the figure with all kinds of things from thermometers to Geiger counters. They got nothing, no readings at all -- and there should have been some kind of reading, even from a static state. The slices failed as well. The figure's black essence broke the knives. Someone left the scene to get a battery-operated meat cutter, but the figure had disappeared before that someone returned.

Ten years later, no one wanted to carve the figure up. Ten years after that, camera crews assembled to record the phenomenon, and they got as much information as the box cameras had a century before. Which was not much at all.

She had watched the footage of all of this, read all of the reports, and had decided that something did appear on the steps. Whether it was some kind of local/natural phenomenon, she didn't know. She really didn't have much of a plan herself, except that she would use some high-end analysis equipment that didn't even exist twenty years before. (It had been twenty years since someone analyzed the figure, since the last appearance had occurred five days after 9/11. No one really cared about a spooky black figure in that week. The entire world had been fearfully focused on the United States, and the "now.")

She had a hunch she wouldn't resolve anything this time either. She would gather enough material for a theory that someone else would have to prove ten years from now. Maybe she'd get a book out of it -- one that featured a lot of lovely sketches, paintings, and photographs from the past 190 years. The Organization didn't care what she did with the information from her reports after she blogged about them and answered questions from commenters on the website.

Then the information belonged to her.

She was going to become known for the wacky and strange instead of the in-depth and insightful. That bothered her sometimes. At other times, she was realistic enough to remind herself that at least she would become known. So many of her colleagues had gone onto writing ad copy or teaching at community colleges.

[Continued in Part 2]

1 Not having visited Eugene in 14 years, we were quite shocked at how the downtown area had been rebuilt. Diane's father had managed an auto parts store for years, where the convention center now stands. Diane and I used to hang out at a coffee shop just off the main town center (Sixth Street?) -- I remember the chairs and tables were all mismatched, and the place had good coffee and a relaxed atmosphere; and if I recall correctly, it was owned and managed by a gay collective. Sadly, all that ambiance is long gone....

2 Kris's collection was originally titled Millennium Babies, after one of the major stories in the book; I even have a graphic file of the cover of the book, with preliminary Canty artwork, bearing that original title. However, Independent Publishers Group, the distributor who handles all of Golden Gryphon's titles, refused to accept the book with the word "millennium" in the title. Evidently the distributor had been overwhelmed with "millennium"-related books for the past two years, and they didn't want to handle another. So, we brainstormed new titles and came up with Stories for an Enchanted Afternoon. The collection was published in March 2001; later that year, at the Millennium Philcon, the 59th World Science Fiction Convention, "Millennium Babies" was awarded the Hugo for Best Novelette of the year. Of course, at that point, we had regretted not standing firm on the original title for the book.

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

Three stories have already been posted in their entirety from the anthology Is Anybody Out There? -- Pat Cadigan's "The Taste of Night," Jay Lake's "Permanent Fatal Errors," and David Langford's "Graffiti in the Library of Babel."

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  1. Nice. I think "She had poured over all of the evidence" should probably be "She had pored over all of the evidence", though. Looking forward to the rest of it.

  2. Right you are, Chuk, on the typo -- "poured" vs. "pored" -- and it's already been corrected. Hope you enjoy the rest of the story once the last two parts are posted -- I hope you don't find any more typos, either!

    - marty