Italy, 21st century
Tina Kocmut tore her gaze away from the patch of clear, summer sky above her and looked around the large Plaza framed by two-story buildings that decorated with columns and refined ledges and with a Basilica at its end. The patterned ground was flooded by pigeons and group upon group of tourists, their guides pointing out things with metal sticks with brightly coloured kerchiefs tied to the end, the kerchiefs the same colour as the gimme caps on the heads of the people in their group.
Tina sighed, her fingers going into her brown shoulder-length hair and for the thousandth time today she asked herself what she was doing in Venice. She had already been here before, once, with her beloved grandmother, who had for six months now lain as ashes in an urn in the local cemetery. They’d had fun then and seeing the floating city had been a memorable experience, and maybe she somehow wanted to relive that day.
She stood up, dusted from her jeans any dirt that might have lingered on the stone step, and walked in the direction of the Rialto Bridge.
She could have become part of the people who like a wide river poured over the well-worn stone blocks toward the Rialto Bridge’s shops selling colourful glass objects, jewellery, laces, small gondolas, masks and other dust collectors so distinctive to Venice, but instead she pushed her way into narrow streets shadowed by the tall buildings.
She had three hours to kill before the boat which had carried her to Italy would head back home and since she had already seen all the well-known sights, she decided to spend the time exploring the twists and turns of the city.
She could hear people around, caught glimpses of silhouettes, many of them with cameras around their necks, a sight that became rarer and rarer as she moved away from the busiest streets. She came to a dead end, a large wooden door. She turned around, the sun reflecting in one of the second-floor windows on her right blinding her for a moment. She stepped forward and then froze.
There, two steps away, stood a man staring at her. With his square face, short black hair with three long braids falling over his shoulder and large sunglasses that covered almost half his face, he looked youthful and harmless. Tina bit her lip. But there was something -- maybe because she hadn’t heard his approach and because he just stood there, not uttering a word -- that gave him an unearthly feel, like he was a part of the shadows that lingered at the edge of dreams.
Tina’s eyelids fluttered closed, she thought that the image before her could only be a product of her imagination, but when she opened them again, the man was still there looking like a still, silent threat, seeming twice as big as before.
She stretched her lips in a forced smile. Don’t show any fear! And don’t panic. Just because he’s quiet, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s a weirdo. “Hello, there. You scared me.”
“I’m sorry.” His voice, smooth like a fine chocolate, put some of Tina’s fears at ease. He stepped forward. “This is a rarely visited part of the city, are you lost?”
Tina knew which way to turn to get out into the open, but she nodded anyway.
The man introduced himself as Damon Blackdart and led her back out onto the Plaza San Marco, then invited her for coffee. Tina, because she still had hours to fill and because she didn’t see anything dangerous about having drinks in one of the busiest coffee shops at the brink of Plaza, accepted the invitation. After half a white coffee, she wondered how she could have seen him as threatening.
She found herself laughing at his stories about tourists, her body relaxing under his charm, and as minutes ticked away she also found herself talking about her grandmother, about the sudden disease that had taken away a person who meant the world to her.
At nineteen years old, she was old enough to take care of herself, and she still had her dad, even though with his wife and his two children there wasn’t room for her by his side, but she hadn’t told that to the stranger sitting across from her. She lifted her gaze from the light-brown liquid in her cup to the almond shaped eyes that could be seen through the blue glasses. He seemed like he would understand the extent of her loneliness, of the isolation in which she hid herself. He might even understand if she told him the urge that had become stronger and stronger with each day that had passed since she had been left on her own, to have her own family -- not necessarily a lover and kids, just people she could call her own and whom she could love unconditionally as she had loved her grandmother, knowing that they loved her in the same way.
“It’s something the matter?”
“No,” She gave him a soft curve of lips before she took a sip of coffee, absently wondering why she felt so relaxed around him. It was almost like she was under a spell.
“You seem sad.” He leaned back in the chair, crossed his dark jeans-clad legs, and played with the handle of his untouched cappuccino. “I shouldn’t ask you about your personal life, I apologize.”
“No, it’s okay.”
They continued their chitchat; Damon took over the thread of the conversation, talking about Venice’s history, about the time when Venice became a main military and trade force in the Mediterranean, and with their fleet helped the Crusaders take over Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade. He offered to show Tina some of the sightseeing treasures hidden to the average tourist.
Since Tina agreed, after she finished her coffee, he paid, and they stood up. She followed him, listening to his stories while he pointed out various buildings and led her through history and the events that were either made up by him or neglected by the historians.
They ended up at the same dead end where they had met. He pointed at the house perpendicular to the large wooden door. “This is my house. It was built especially for me.”
She frowned, scrutinizing the building. It looked old, worn-out, and at least a hundred years old, while he was probably in his mid-twenties. “You mean renovated.”
“No, I mean built.” He stepped toward the door and opened it. “Do you want a tour?”
She looked inside at the small hall with marble stairs that wound upward in a half-circle. She could see a shiny, carved-out low cabinet that stood under the heavy oval, golden mirror, displaying a glimpse of wealth. She was tempted to go inside, to let him guide her through what seemed to be an authentic bourgeois house.
He stepped inside, pulled his sunglasses on top of his head, then half-turned and extended his arm to her. “Come.”
She stared at his eyes, they were emerald green, so intense in his face. She took the hand, even though her mouth said that it was going to be five o'clock soon and she would have to go to do docks.
He pulled her inside. The door slammed closed behind her.
She looked over his shoulder, instinctively hauled her hand out of Damon’s and turned around. She pulled on the door knob, but the door didn’t want to open.
“It’s just a security mechanism, don’t worry.”
“I want to leave. My tour group meets at the dock at five and it’s four-thirty now.” She still tugged on the door knob. “Just open the door.”
He stepped toward her and put his hand on her shoulder. “You want to stay here.”
“No, I don’t!” Ire slowly started to boil inside her. “Open --”
“You want to see the interior.”
No, she didn’t. She didn’t! She just said that she didn’t. She opened her mouth to tell him that, but nothing came out. She closed it and opened it again. “Okay.” What? She hadn’t meant to say that. A cold dread prickled her hairline for a second, before the warmth of Damon’s hand seeped through her cardigan, enveloping her, soothing her.
“Great.” With his arm he hugged Tina’s shoulder and turned her around; he led her up the stairs to the second floor.
What was going on? Something really weird, but she couldn’t even freak out about it as she wanted -- no, needed -- to do.
Damon led her down the long, narrow and dark hallway. They passed two doors and stopped at the third, which he opened. The large room with barricaded windows housed a cage formed of orange rays of light, with a ruby-red tent in the middle of the cage. From his pocket he pulled out a bracelet with white and black stones. He pressed the largest of the white stones; the light from the stones flashed for a moment. He went forward, passing the rays of light, and holding Tina’s hand, he pulled her alongside with him.
They slipped into a tent furnished with two armchairs, a table and a low cabinet with a TV on it.
Tina’s attention went to the TV, then slid on to the occupied armchair.
But it didn’t help. A half-meter high robot with a round greenish head in a ball-like jar still sat in that armchair looking at them and she couldn't take her eyes off him. She could feel a faint whisper in her head before the silver pupils turned back to the TV screen. She was probably dreaming. Yes, that was it. She was just having a weird, bizarre dream.
Damon’s hand cupped her nape. “Don’t be afraid. He can’t hurt you.”
Who was he? No, the better question would be, what was that thing? She would have asked, but somehow she had been reduced to a spectator, watching her body being used like a puppet on strings. She couldn’t even feel the panic; she could only hear the loud beat of her heart in her ears.
Damon stepped toward the thing. He pushed something on the base of the glass ball. A small click sounded before Damon pulled the jar off and put it on the table beside the chair.
He took Tina’s hand, pulled her closer to the chair and put her hand on the creature’s head, his fingers between hers.
Her hand became warmer and warmer, a tingling sensation travelled up her arm, spreading through her body until she could feel it in her brain. Warm and red, it poked around, tickling her. She giggled. Another tickle before it pressed in. It hurt.
And she couldn’t even scream. Her body shook from strain and when the pain exploded in her head the darkness was kind enough to take her in its embrace.
Whispers; in one moment sounds so near that she could almost distinguish the words and in the next so far away that she could barely hear them. Whispering, telling her something, but she couldn’t understand. What did they want? What was the word that had been whispered so urgently? She listened, strained her ears; it was coming again, the sound louder and louder.
Tina’s eyes flew open and she sprang up, her fingers digging into the soft blanket. She stared into the darkness, into the outline of the half-opened door ten feet away from her, the translucent fabric of the bed canopy fluttering in the draft.
Where was she? She kicked the cover away and climbed off the large bed, drawn toward the soft light that flickered somewhere beyond the door. Her bare feet padded over a soft rug toward the door and through it to the hallway lighted with scattered candles.
She had been kidnapped. Her step became faster as she went toward the end of the hallway, where she could see the stairway.
And there was a monster hidden behind one of the doors along the hallway’s walls. The sound of her feet against the stone floor became faster and faster until she was running, the hem of long nightgown tangling between her legs.
Down the stairs, then down the hallway, and down the stairs again.
The breath rushed in and out of her lungs and the first drops of perspiration slid down her temples and down her spine. She ran along the cold chessboard floor in what it seemed a never-ending circle.
What was with this house?
Her pace became slower. And slower.
It didn’t end.
It didn't end.
Another stair. This time she descended slowly, catching her breath, her hands wrinkling the collar of the nightgown. What should she do? A soft sound drew her gaze to the foot of the stairs. She stopped, frowning at the obstacle that casually leaned his hip on the iron-banister. It's all his fault.
“Have you finished?” Damon pulled his hands from the pockets of his black linen pants.
“Finished what?” she couldn’t resist asking.
“Your morning exercise.” He looked at his watch. “Even though it’s kind of late for that.” He went up the stairs and stopped three stairs beneath her. “You better get back to your room and put on some slippers. You are going to get a cold running around barefoot.”
Was he joking or being serious? Not that she cared. The only thing she cared about was getting out of this house, away from him and from that creature.
“I know what you must be thinking.” He stepped up.
She stepped back.
“What is he going to do?” He advanced on her.
She maintained the distance of three stairs between them.
“Is he going to hurt me?” Damon took another step up. “Is he going to rape or even kill me?”
She had run out of stairs. She turned on her heel and was about to run down the hallway, when she bumped into something. She looked up and there he was, standing before her. “How did you --”
He grabbed her arm, holding her in place. “But you see, if I intended to do any of that, I would have done it already.”
“Then what do you want with me?” She tried to wiggle her arm out of his grasp.
“You have something that I want.” His fingers crawled up her arm. “Something very special.”
He smiled down on her, a soft, friendly smile that made him look like an innocent young boy. “Stay here, you have nothing to return to.” He gently caressed her shoulder. “I have been in your mind, I have seen how you live. Looking for a job, worrying about when the money your grandmother left you runs out and in the meantime trying to live as modestly as you can. I even felt your loneliness. Is this life?”
She had just started to live on her own, things would change. She would get a job and might even start to study while working. And who said that she would always be alone? She might find a boyfriend or something soon. She had all of her life before her, didn’t she? Even though it sometimes seemed like her will had died along with her grandmother, like there was nothing to live for anymore, and she still hadn’t learned how to live for herself, she had her all life before her, didn’t she?
Tina looked at those green eyes that knowingly waited for her reply. A beautiful face, such an innocent smile, but there was cruelty behind it, she could feel it, but she could also feel that that cruelty wasn’t directed at her, that if he conveyed any feeling at all toward her, it was... fondness.
“Will you let me go, if I ask you to?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”
Why had she even asked? She bit her lip, chewing on it, before she spoke. “But what do you want? What is so special that I have and you want?”
“A fragment of your soul.”