“Or-” Supernatural Horror by Grove Koger

"Or-" Supernatural Horror by Grove Kroger

Despite their suspicions, the polizia were eventually forced to accept the woman’s story: that a stranger had been stalking her for several weeks, and that she feared for her life.

# # #

Provoked by the chance comment of a mutual friend, Dan had once asked, “Do you really think there’s anything below the surface? Why agonize over it?”

Paul would never have put it that way himself—it sounded too calculatingly cynical—but he thought he knew what Dan meant. Paul had been a collector all his life: stamps and insects when he was a child, prints and old postcards later. Well, most of those were all surface; he liked their flatness, their order; there were no hidden depths.

Insects were different, of course. Insects had been his first passion, and he had spent endless summer hours with a home-made net scouring the ditches and dusty fields behind his parents’ house for dragonflies and grasshoppers. Evenings and nights meant more hours lurking near the yard light, where he waited patiently for moths and bumbling beetles. Should he have been an entomologist? Perhaps, for he had a good eye and enjoyed the splendid solitariness of it all, the hunting and then, later, back in his room, the spreading and pinning of the specimens while they were still soft. But beneath the iridescent metallic sheen of those dragonflies and beetles, there was nothing that attracted him and more than a little that disgusted him.

Then, too, Dan was clearly a success. He seemed to make money effortlessly, women liked him, he moved though life smoothly, as if on skates. He didn’t seem to give things a second thought. Paul did noticeably less well, and while he had never suffered harshly, he had no illusion of skating. His friend—well, acquaintance—had it right.

# # #

“There’s someone there, you know.” Marti stepped closer, stared intently, raised a finger to point to one of the arches. “I can barely see him—I bet it’s a him—peering out.” She stepped closer still.

“And over here … over here is someone else. Is it a woman? I can’t tell. But it’s wonderful to think so, isn’t it?” She clapped her hands. “An assignation! Or—” She frowned then, hesitated for an instant, turned to him. “Where did you get this?”

Marti was Dan’s current girl, current and likely to remain so for some time. She was small but not petite, had the solid body of a swimmer and short, dark hair. Languid much of the time, she was quick and unpredictable in motion—catlike. Paul had a hard time taking his eyes off her, but he turned his gaze to the photograph.

A wide-angle view of the Colosseum, it was nearly five feet wide and more than two high, taken, surely, in the late nineteenth century. It had been printed on heavy photographic paper, and might well date to within a few decades of the original. (Would that be the negative?) It had been framed behind wavy glass in a plain, heavily varnished frame that had turned almost black with age, and had spent untold years gathering dust in the attic of the library where Paul worked. After rescuing the treasure one day from an overly zealous janitor who had been told to make room, Paul had arranged to have it reframed with conservatory glass. He felt as if he had been destined to own it.

He explained some of this to Marti as he stepped up to take a closer look. Dan had once confided that his girl had second sight, lowering his voice as if commenting on the plumpness of her breasts. Paul suspected that Dan didn’t really know what second sight was. Well, Paul did, and didn’t believe it for an instant, wouldn’t have believed it of anyone. But he played along, leaning forward thoughtfully.

To his eye the scene was remarkably free of figures. A small horse-drawn carriage stood on the dirt track encircling the structure, and on first impression these were the only elements—and they were tiny—that suggested the size of the ruin. An elongated smudge near the carriage might have been a person, but it was impossible to make out anyone else.

Marti pointed again at the arch. “See?”

Frankly he couldn’t, or, rather, if there really were someone standing there within the shadowy archway, there might have been multiple someones lurking within all of them.

American National Standards Institute Inc.

“And she—whoever—is here.” Marti pointed toward a grove of umbrella pines in the background.

“Uh-huh.” Once again he couldn’t be sure that he was seeing anything, although this smudge did seem a bit more, well, person-like. “That’s the Arch of Constantine on the right, by the way.”

But now that he was examining the photograph more closely, Marti’s attention had wandered. She had slipped outside, out the French windows and onto the deck, presumably to admire the view over the valley. The sun had set and the shadows would be creeping stealthily across the city and up the foothills. Paul started to follow but realized at the last minute that Dan already stood beside her, his left hand resting on her buttocks as they leaned against the railing.

# # #

It was the following May that Paul saw the Colosseum for the first time with his own eyes. He fancied himself a traveler, but somehow had never ventured into Italy south of Florence. After a couple of weeks in Rome, he realized, he could display the old photograph as a genuine trophy, not a piece of meaningless exotica that he had happened to pick up somewhere. He would be able to comment knowingly on whatever restorations had taken place.

The morning before he left, he thought to take out his cell phone to snap several close-ups of the sections in which Marti had seen the figures—seen or, more likely, “seen.”

# # #

Reality, as it so often had turned out to be the case in Paul’s experience, was a little disappointing. Rome was shabby and vulgar compared to Paris, much of its architecture banal compared to Barcelona’s. The seemingly constant traffic was daunting, the crowds rude. The weather alternated between rainy days and hot, stuffy ones. Strangely enough, even the pasta was drab.

But lying just beneath the skin of this modern city were far older ones, the remains of which poked up haphazardly here and there. The Colosseum itself—the impetus, after all, for his trip—was immense, far grander in scope than the photograph with its tiny carriage had suggested. You had no idea of its scale until you stood before it, beneath it. The building’s lowest arches, which looked as if they were twenty-five feet high, would have dwarfed him had he been able to stand within one, but each was closed off with a metal barricade.

Paul spent most of a morning—the weather was pleasant for once—circling the vast amphitheatre again and again, thinking that it was surely a finer sight in ruins than it would have been untouched by time. He was aware of its bloody history, but found it difficult to connect that panoply of gladiators and savage beasts with the weathered stones he saw before him. He photographed it from a dozen angles, but the jostling crowds—augmented by several tour groups and their guides—made it impossible to get any unobstructed shots. With time he might be able to edit out the more distracting faces.

# # #

After four nights in an anonymous hotel Paul broke his Roman holiday with a week in Fiesole, the little town nestled in the hills above Florence that he had discovered so many years before. Florence itself was claustrophobic, its narrow streets packed with cars and sightseers, and once again he ended up photographing as many people as monuments. But cool, still Fiesole with its pines and broad vistas was as delightful as ever.

He returned to Rome for the final ten days of his trip, staying in an apartment near the Baths of Diocletian and taking in the city’s sights almost at random. He had no interest in St. Peter’s or the Vatican, but the Forum drew him repeatedly, and he stood for what might have been hours one crisp morning at the Portico Dii Consentes, gazing across the vast open field with its pillars and piles of brick. He knew from his guidebook that the Portico was the city’s last shrine to the old gods, and contemplating that fact he felt a bewildering, almost vertiginous nostalgia for a world he had never known.

Afterward he found that he had been gripping the iron railing so tightly that his palms were stained with rust.

# # #

Comfortable at last with the pulse of the city, and realizing that his time there had grown short, he bought a baguette, a short salame and a half-liter of Montepulciano on impulse late one afternoon in a grocery. He asked the shopkeeper to open the wine for him, but the sausage presented a different problem, so he added a cheap folding knife from a counter display. Then, after enjoying an al fresco meal on a bench in the Parco Oppio, he made his way to the Colosseum once again.

He wondered briefly whether he might have the place to himself in the dusk, but to his surprise he found the vast structure flooded with light. Small groups of people—they looked more like real Romans rather than tourists—strolled here and there, talking and gesticulating lazily. The cool breeze carried a faint earthy smell, and fat moths flitted in and out of sight. A busker played a plaintive melody—could that really be “Walk on the Wild Side”?—on a tenor sax. He felt a little drunk.

The artificial light was disconcerting, yet it struck Paul that it was somehow preferable to the matter-of-fact light of day. Would he, he wondered vaguely, have felt that way three weeks ago? The question reminded him of the photograph that hung on his wall at home, six thousand long miles away, and he remembered the close-ups on his phone. Could he identify which arch Marti had been pointing at? It would be intriguing to have a record of how it looked today, and if nothing else, it might impress the girl the next time he saw her.

Microsoft365 for Business

It was difficult to make out the screen, but it occurred to him that he could stand close to the arcade with his back to one of the floodlights and hold the phone in his shadow. The image was better, yet the differences in scale between the tiny screen and the towering, blinding structure before him made comparison impossible.

He turned, searching for more shadows, and then saw her— Marti, of all people, standing slightly apart from the crowd and dressed in her usual tight jeans and some sort of red top. It couldn’t be, of course, but he recognized her swimmer’s figure immediately. He called her name, but she must not have heard, so he called again, louder, “Marti! Marti!” and started off toward her. What on earth could she be doing here?

When she finally looked up, Paul realized his mistake. Her face was that of a much older woman, wrinkled and strangely distorted. It was not Marti at all, of course, she had simply been on his mind …

But now the woman was gesticulating at him, yelling, almost screaming. People turned to look, first at her and then at him. He was befuddled. What was going on?

“Signora, mi scusi!” He stepped forward. “Mi scusi! I am—” He held up the phone, saying, “photo, fotografia—” He tried to think, tried to remember his Italian, pointing at the phone, that earthy smell was filling his nose, it was all some bizarre misunderstanding, but she really was screaming now and he saw her reach into her purse and—

# # #

Despite their suspicions, the polizia were eventually forced to accept the woman’s story: that a strange man had been stalking her for several weeks, in Rome as well as Florence—where her work as a freelance journalist occasionally took her—and that she had felt threatened. She had complained to the polizia, and her complaints were on file. Indeed, she showed up in a number of the photographs on the dead man’s phone. She had obtained a permit to carry the handgun, and insisted that the man, who was found to be armed with a knife, had approached her in an aggressive manner that night—a fact corroborated by witnesses. She had fired to protect herself. She had no criminal background, or she would not have been able to obtain the permit. After undergoing several intensive interrogations, she was finally released. What might have happened to her afterward is unclear, however, as later efforts to contact her in order to confirm certain details proved fruitless.

Originally published in Danse Macabre Feb. 6, 2015.

Grove Koger is the author of When the Going Was Good: A Guide to the 99 Best Narratives of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure; Assistant Editor of Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Journal; and former Assistant Editor of Art Patron. He blogs about travel and related subjects at https://worldenoughblog.wordpress.com/author/gkoger/.

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