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Authors: Thomas Tessier

Tags: #Horror, #Fiction

Father Panic's Opera Macabre

BOOK: Father Panic's Opera Macabre
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Thomas Tessier

 

Thomas Tessier grew up in Connecticut and attended University College, Dublin. He is the author of several acclaimed novels of terror and suspense, plays, poems, and short stories. His novel 
Fog Heart
 received the International Horror Guild's Award for Best Novel, was a Bram Stoker Award finalist, and was cited by 
Publishers Weekly
 as one of the Best Books of the Year. He lives in Connecticut.

The House of Tiles

 

It was late in the afternoon when the Fiat overheated. Neil had watched with a growing sense of annoyance and anxiety as the temperature gauge edged slowly upward. He still had plenty of gas in the tank, but no coolant or even plain water for the radiator. It was the time of day when, in any event, he would be looking for a town with a small hotel or a guesthouse to stay at for the night, but the last village he'd passed through was nearly an hour behind him. Surely it would be better to continue on in this direction now. He was bound to find help somewhere soon, a town, a farmhouse at least-if his car would just hold up a little while longer.

 

Neil wasn't sure exactly where he was anymore, but he knew that he was probably still in the Marches, most likely in the Monti Sibillini, a range of mountains once thought to be the home of the sibyls of classical myth. The dominant peak in the near distance had to be Monte Vettore. Somewhere in this area was the Lago di Pilato, where according to legend Pontius Pilate was buried, perhaps even in the lake itself.

 

Now and then Neil glimpsed another range farther off, which he assumed to be the Gran Sasso, part of the Apennines. Tomorrow, or as soon as the car was checked out and ready to run, Neil's route would take him in that direction, and eventually back to his apartment in Rome. A breakdown would be a minor nuisance, but he knew approximately where he was, and he wasn't lost.

 

This was Neil's second excursion since he had arrived in Italy, and he now felt quite comfortable driving around the country by himself. A couple of months ago he'd made the same kind of rambling tour of Tuscany. It was predictably beautiful and delightful, but perhaps a bit too familiar. Tuscany has been hosting visitors for centuries, its hill towns and byways have been endlessly written about, painted and photographed. Some of that must have seeped into Neil's mind over the years, via books, magazines, television and Italian films, because there had been moments when he felt the strange sensation of having already been in a certain town or village, though it was in fact his first visit to the region.

 

This time out he wanted to see some part of the country that was less well-traveled and not as heavily visited by outsiders, to avoid the obvious routes and hopefully to find here and there a little of the old Italy-assuming that it was still there to be found. A friend at the Academy had suggested that Neil try Abruzzo and the Marches, which proved to be a good idea.

 

He had driven east from Rome to Pescara, stopping only twice along the way. It was the shortest route to the Adriatic coast. From there he turned north and drove the A14 as far as Ancona, an uninteresting run that took him through one beach resort town after another. But when Neil finally left the autostrada behind and began to circle slowly inland, he soon found himself in exactly the kind of countryside he had been looking for. The land rose up steadily, wrinkling itself into steep hills and mountains.

 

The roads were all narrow, frequently little more than country lanes that snaked along the rims of deep canyons and gorges, plunging, rising, curling unpredictably. The towns and small villages Neil passed through were perched on high cliffs, terraced along rippling hillsides, or nestled in tiny vales.

 

It would be inaccurate to describe the Marches as isolated or out of touch with the rest of the country and the world, but it was somewhat out of the way, and it was definitely a little rougher and wilder than any other part of Italy Neil had experienced so far. It was old, and in some villages almost the only people he saw were elderly, the young having moved elsewhere for college or jobs.

 

In some places there was nothing to see other than a few ramshackle old stone houses clustered around a small central square where old men sat outdoors, drinking wine, playing cards, chatting idly among themselves or dozing in the sun. Neil spoke Italian fairly well but he found it difficult to get a conversation going with these people. They were polite, but their reticence and open but distant stares reminded him-lest he forget for a moment-that he was an outsider among them.

 

The needle was just touching the red band at the far right side of the gauge now. Perhaps the car needed oil, not coolant. It didn't make much difference though, since he didn't have an extra quart of oil with him either. But he had checked both fluid levels before leaving Rome, so there had to be a leak somewhere in the system.

 

Neil had spent nearly a week meandering around the Marches now, from Loreto to San Leo, Gradara, Macerata, Camerino, Visso. He'd taken in some of the obvious sights like the Frasassi Caves and the Infernaccio Gorge, but for the most part what he liked best was simply wandering around the old towns, taking in forts and palazzos that dated back hundreds of years but were still quite impressive, gazing at art and architecture that survived from a time when the world was completely different, but still human, still ours. At such moments Neil could almost taste the past in his mouth and feel it on his skin. The phantom sensations of half-forgotten or lost history-it still amazed him that he was actually making a fairly successful career for himself out of these unlikely and insubstantial impressions.

 

Now he was in the emptier upper reaches of the province, a place of black stony tarns and ragged windswept grasslands, the whole laced through with sharp ridges, rocky outcroppings and narrow dark glens. 

 

The asphalt gave way more often to longer stretches of loose and rutted gravel. 

 

It was easy to suspect that you had strayed off the road and onto a rural path that had fallen into disuse and now led nowhere, but Neil had already learned that it wasn't necessarily so-it was just the way the roads were in this area.

 

Still, it happened to him now. The road dipped down and swung in a long arc around a high stone shelf. When he came out on the far side of it, he saw a large house and several low outbuildings on the hillside a few hundred yards ahead, and he could see that this was not a through road after all, that it ended at the house. No matter. Neil still felt a sense of relief. He would at least be able to get water for his car and directions back to the main road and the nearest town.

 

As Neil drove slowly closer, the road wound down through clumps of trees and stands of tall thick brush before rising again. His angle of view had changed so that when he finally came out into a clearing he was looking up at the house, and it suddenly exploded in dazzling light. It was catching the sun on its descent in the west, Neil realized. The house had looked a kind of dull buff color at first, but now it shimmered like burning gold.

 

The effect was so striking that Neil shifted into neutral and just stared at the house for a few moments. He noticed that the facade was covered with painted yellow tiles, scores of them, each about two feet square. The house was old, many of the tiles were chipped or cracked, but the clever light trick still worked. The person who conceived and built it had probably been dead for decades, but Neil silently said thanks-his pleasure disturbed only when he noticed steam billowing out from beneath the hood of the car.

 

Sticks and Strings

 

Neil turned the key and got out. He put the hood up to help the engine cool off faster. Now that he looked carefully at the radiator, he could see that it was in poor shape. The fins were corroded, and in places had completely rotted away. No real surprise there. He'd known it was an old car when he bought it from the art historian Lydia Margulies, who was just finishing her stay at the Academy when Neil arrived. But the car was a bargain, and it had not given him any trouble until now. Still, this was something he should have anticipated and taken care of before he left Rome.

 

He started walking toward the house. For a moment Neil wondered if it was one of the many abandoned farms that could be found across the Italian countryside. There were no signs of life and the only sound was the loud hiss of the strong breeze in the trees. Three large brick chimneys protruded from the red pantile roof, each containing four separate clay pipes, but no smoke came from any of them. He noticed that several of the individual roof tiles were cracked or had slipped.

 

But it occurred to Neil that if the house had been left derelict, most of the windows would surely be broken by now, and none of them were. It was a large boxy building, three stories high. The windows on the first two floors were tall, wide rectangles, but those at the top level were small and circular, almost like portholes, suggesting an attic with a low ceiling.

 

Neil found traces of a footpath as he approached the house-he could feel and see a bed of tiny white chipped stones beneath the thick coarse grass that had claimed most of the ground. There was a long balustrade marking off a terrace immediately in front of the house. It was made from a purplish-grey stone that Neil had seen elsewhere in the region. The same material had also been used for the weedlined paving stones on the terrace and the broad steps that led up to the front door. A few stone urns graced the balustrade, but they held no ornamental shrubs or flowers.

 

As he passed along in front of the house, Neil hoped to see something through the windows, but the rooms inside were blocked from view by heavy drapes. The glass panes were coated with a thin layer of grime. Up close, he noticed that the impressive tiles covering the house looked merely faded and dull when the sun's rays didn't hit them at the right angle, their gloss muted with dust. Most of them were blank, simply colored yellow, but a few, seemingly placed at random, also contained rust-brown markings or motifs. They were unfamiliar to Neil but made him think of indecipherable runes, clotted Gothic lettering and dead Teutonic languages. He knew that there was still a strong Germanic presence farther north, particularly in the Italian alps, and that in Friulia there were people who spoke something that was neither modern German nor Italian, but a vestigial hybrid of old Low German and Roman Latin. So this house seemed out of place in the Marches, but that only pleased Neil. It was just the kind of unusual thing he'd hoped to find in his meandering explorations.

 

A somewhat larger yellow tile was centered directly above the front door. It contained a dark red sketch of a human head, seen in profile, drawn in a few bold strokes. It was crudely heroic but striking, and it suggested a prince or a warrior. He had a flowing moustache and wore a conical helmet from the Middle Ages. Then Neil noticed the man's eye. It should have been only partly visible on the left side of the head, as seen naturally in profile, but the entire eye had been sketched in. It was not turned forward with the rest of his face, but out, directly at anyone coming to the house. It was an anatomical impossibility that made Neil smile.

 

There was no bell or knocker, so he rapped his fist on the wooden door. After a minute or so, he tried again, longer this time, forcefully enough to hurt his knuckles. Still, no sound came from within. He pounded the door with the fleshy side of his fist, and then with the fat part of the palm of his hand, but again to no result. Finally, he decided he would have to go around to the back of the house and try to find someone there.

 

As Neil turned to walk down the steps, he was startled to see a child sitting on the balustrade, at the farthest end. A little girl, maybe eight or nine years old. Surely he hadn't failed to notice her as he approached the house. She must have come out and hopped up there while he was knocking on the door. Somebody is home, Neil thought gratefully.

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