Grossetto by Alaric DeArment

Grossetto
Alaric DeArment

The light from outside illuminated the stained-glass windows of St. James Cathedral, concealing Seattle’s dense autumnal fog and misty dampness, and adding a bit of color to the funeral.

My father, Thomas O’Donnell, had died on October 9th, 1995 from acute myeloid leukemia, aged 85. This was his church, one he had taken me to many times in my childhood, but I could never find the time to visit it as an adult. It was filled almost to capacity with his family, friends, Boeing officemates, and fellow parishioners, who listened silently or wept softly as the priest read his eulogy.

The mortuary had restored his olive complexion and black hair with makeup and a wig, enough to hide the hair loss and pallor the cancer had inflicted on him, but not so much that it looked fake. I didn’t cry for some reason, even though he and I had always been close.

#

A couple of days after we had committed my father to the earth at Calvary Cemetery, it was time for me and my mother to see his lawyer to go over his will and find out who would get what of his possessions and wealth. The attorney, Don Vlahovich, was also a parishioner at St. James and had agreed to take down his will as he died.

Father had divided his estate between me and my mother despite their being divorced, but left his prized coin collection to me. While I was free to keep or sell anything, he specifically requested that I not sell any of the coins, kept in an album, multiple cigar boxes, and coffee cans in a bankers box that Don had in his office.   

My father had turned me on to coin collecting at a young age, but I had foolishly sold my collection in order to buy the candy and other items that tend to be more valuable to 10-year-olds than pieces of history. I had no intention of making that same mistake again.

But although he and my mother were on friendly terms, and I had no objection, I could not understand why he had left half of his estate to her.

“He and I divorced because of something that he wanted to keep secret from us both, but he still wanted a relationship with you, so kept things cordial with me,” she said in the car driving home.

“What was that secret? Was he in the mafia? Was he gay? What was it?”

Mother kept her eyes on the road, but shrugged. “He never told me the whole story either. Something to do with the circumstances of his early life.”

#

I started going through dad’s collection when I got home. One coffee can was packed with Walking Liberty and Benjamin Franklin half dollars, with a few Kennedy halves mixed in. All but one of the rest were filled with quarters and dimes he had stocked up on at the bank in 1964, the last year they were made with 90 percent silver. And the last wooden cigar box was full of cardboard holders, each containing a gold coin – dozens of St. Gaudens double eagles and quarter eagles.

I looked the coins over, remembering him telling me about them, then picked up the album. It was a binder like I’d had as a child in school, but with the cover wrapped in threadbare fabric and worn off at the corners. The four-by-five pages inside were of yellowing plastic that sometimes partially obscured the coins in the cardboard holders inside the sleeves, the staples holding the sleeves closed so rusted that they created streaks of reddish brown dust. The rings of the album were likewise rusted.

But despite its relative decrepitude and lower overall market value, the album was his favorite part of the collection, where he kept his ancient Greek, Roman, Chinese, Umayyad, and medieval European pieces. These were most precious to him as they represented thousands of years of world history. “Alexander the Great actually used this to buy his first cup of wine,” he told me when I was 8 as he pointed to a silver obol of Philip II of Macedon, knowing I would believe it.

Turning to a page toward the end, I saw four large, silver coins that barely fit in their 40-millimeter cardboard holders: a 1770 Bavarian Thaler, a 1643 Dutch daalder, a 1796 Mexican 8 reales – a.k.a. Spanish dollar – and a 1730 French écu aux branches d’olivier – meant to illustrate that they had influenced the creation and name of the U.S. dollar. Others on the page included a Taiping Tongbao, cast in bronze under the 10th century Emperor Taizong of China’s Northern Song Dynasty, and a late-15th century quattrino from the Duchy of Urbino.

As I turned the last page, I noticed a slit cut into the cloth of the binder and something bulging underneath. I pulled the cloth back to find a coin in a cardboard holder that slid out with ease. Whereas the others were all meticulously labeled by country, denomination and time period, this coin’s holder only had “Stagno” written on the back in tiny letters. I turned it over in my hands and peered at it.

It was a silver coin, fairly worn, but I could still read the year – 1623 – and the lettering. On the obverse was a depiction of a bearded man in a bishop’s mitre with “S. BLASIVS STAGNII,” while the reverse read “III GROS. ARGE. TRIP. CIVI. STAG.”

Perhaps out of a fastidiousness I had inherited from my father that made me want to ensure everything in the album was properly labeled, I decided to take the coin to his favorite shop, First Hill Coins, whose owner was also present at the funeral. I took the small holder out of the album and placed it on the nightstand, on top of my wallet so that I wouldn’t forget it, returning the rest of the collection to the bankers box.

#

My cat, Marzipan, sprang up, arched his back and hissed at the open bedroom door, jolting me out of sleep. As I opened my eyes, I spotted a human form standing outside the door, but he had no features and was completely black, a void in which light could not exist. He had no eyes. No shape beyond the outline of a human figure, yet I could feel him glaring at me, like the cougar I encountered in the woods near Mt. Rainier, barely escaping certain death before it could pounce. I sat up and peered at him, but he vanished, and a few moments later, Marzipan relaxed, curled up and began to purr. I couldn’t fall asleep again for another two hours.

#

The next day was Saturday, and I slept in, figuring what I had seen the night before was a waking dream. But even as Marzipan was his usual self, nuzzling me and meowing for breakfast, I couldn’t stop thinking about the human-shaped void, something so vivid I could see it clearly even without my glasses. Darkness had its eye on me.

After breakfast, I drove to First Hill Coins. The shop was dark and smelled of old cardboard and wood, with cheap paintings on the wall and items for collectors like albums and cardboard holders cluttering the tables. Vern, the owner, had a stable enough customer base that he didn’t have to care about décor. He himself stood out from the clutter, dressed in an impeccably crisp brown shirt and form-fitted black blazer, gray hair combed neatly back, and his short beard and inquisitive eyes giving him a professorial air.

“Good morning, you don’t know me, but I believe you knew my father, Thomas.”

“Yes, of course, and I’m very sorry for your loss,” he said, his brows furrowing in sympathy as he reached across the display case to put his aged hand on my shoulder. “He was a longtime customer here and a dear friend as well.”

“Thank you, I appreciate your condolences. I understand he purchased most of his collection from you.”

“Yes, that’s right. I reckon he helped keep me afloat when things got rough. Even when it burdened him to do so. Says a lot about the guy.”

“He was certainly generous. He left me his entire collection.”

“Please tell me you’re not here to sell it. I know he would never want that. He collected for the same reason as me – the history, not the money.”

“Oh no, of course not. Actually, I’m here because there was one piece in particular that he apparently forgot to label. I figured he must have bought it from you and was hoping you could identify it.”

“Of course. Do you have it with you?” he said with a relieved smile.

I took the coin out of my pocket and handed it over as Vern pulled out his loupe.

He hunched over and squinted through the loupe as if he expected to examine the coin at the subatomic level. After a minute or two, he put it down and looked up at me, taking the loupe out of his eye, letting out a sigh like he had just climbed a hill. “I don’t think I sold this one to him. He must have bought it elsewhere. It’s a little odd, though. It looks like it came from the Republic of Ragusa, but with some differences.”

“Ragza?” I asked, a little bewildered.

“Ragusa,” he corrected my pronunciation, lengthening the “u.” “It was an aristocratic merchant republic centered on the modern-day city of Dubrovnik, in Croatia,” he continued. “Lovely place, actually – I went there back in the 80s when it was still Yugoslavia, and before the Yugoslav military shelled it during the war. You see, on the obverse, that’s St. Blaise, their patron saint – that’s who ‘S. BLASIVS’ refers to. And on the back, this means it’s 3 grossetti. But then it gets strange.”

“How so?”

“Well, take look,” he said, leaning forward and holding the coin in front of me. “Where it says ‘STAGNII’ and ‘CIVI. STAG.,’ it should say ‘RAGVSII’ and ‘CIVI. RAGV,’ as in ‘Ragusa.’ I presume that has something to do with the ‘Stagno’ written on the back of the holder. Maybe some other place, but I’ve never heard of it.”

“So what does that mean? Maybe it’s an error coin or a fake? My dad used to tell me to look out for double-die pennies.”

“It could be, but seems unlikely. And this doesn’t look like a fake.”

#

I drove home, knowing less about the strange coin than I had. After staring at it for a few minutes in bed that night, I left it on my nightstand again before falling asleep.

#

I dreamed that I was standing in front of a baroque-era church, on a street as wide as a boulevard and paved with polished limestone or marble, in what might have been one of the cities in the Mediterranean part of Europe. The buildings were constructed of tan-colored stone with red roof tiles, and even the broad street was scarcely able to accommodate all the tourists. I walked, passing outdoor cafes, doorways carved with elaborate religious iconography and souvenir shops, one with a sandwich board sign outside that read “Doi aure cenk grossetti, tra aure guapto grossetti” – a language that looked vaguely Latin-based but which I didn’t recognize. At the end of the street was a large domed drinking fountain from which people filled water bottles.

I glanced toward the hill towering over the city and back down to the street and found that all of the people had stopped moving and slowly began turning toward me, staring with blank expressions, like their souls had been taken. Where eyes had been, there were now holes as black as night. They held up their right hands, holding coins identical to the Stagno piece in my father’s collection while pointing toward me with their left hands. But they weren’t pointing at me… I turned and saw my father, who stood expressionless, staring toward the baroque church.

When I blinked my eyes, I found myself in front of the church again, day having become night. The tourists and locals had disappeared, replaced by a row of people tied to stakes, screaming as flames licked their bodies. I thought I was witnessing the Spanish Inquisition, but across from them were men in police uniforms, and smiling onlookers wearing modern dress. My alarm clock went off.

I took the coin downstairs and returned it to the slit in the back of the album.

#

I had remembered seeing the Siege of Dubrovnik on the news when it happened in 1991, but that was the only reason the name of the city had rung a bell when Vern mentioned it. Curious to learn more, I went to the Seattle Public Library and found a 1983 travel guide about Yugoslavia. Flipping through to the entry on Dubrovnik, I saw it, a broad street identical to the one in my dream – called the Stradun – and the Church of St. Blaise, like the baroque church where I saw the people being burned. At the end of the Stradun, the guide read, was Onofrio’s Fountain, also the same as in my dream.

I made photocopies of the section on Dubrovnik and a map of Croatia in the appendix and stapled them together, taking them home and leaving them on the end table next to my sofa. I lay in bed that night until 2 a.m. I had to wake up in two hours to take down the blotter at the police station for the arrest report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where I covered the crime beat. But over the next few weeks, my grief and shock gradually faded, and I stopped thinking about the coin collection or the mysterious piece from Stagno.

#

On a Saturday afternoon in February, I was at my friend George’s house on Queen Anne Hill after work. He had a “purely academic” – or “morbid” as I called it – fascination with the occult and paranormal, and a sizable collection of books on it. As we chatted over beers, he went and grabbed one from a shelf on which they were organized by topic, such as ghosts, UFOs, Sasquatch and Aleister Crowley biographies.

“Just picked this up at a library sale,” he said, holding out the coffee table book-sized volume, titled “The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Mysteries.”

“I got it because it has this whole section about weird beings and people – you know, Mothman, stuff like that,” he said, sitting next to me on the sofa and flipping to a chapter about “Strange People.”

“So there’s this bit here about this guy who showed up at the airport in New York in 1962, right?” he said, pointing to one of the entries. “He gets off a flight from Yugoslavia looking like any other passenger.”

I nodded with what I hoped appeared to be a look of fascination. Having a great friend like George came with the trade-off of having to feign interest as one does with kids talking about their Transformers and Barbies.

“He goes to Customs and hands over his passport, but get this – it’s from a country nobody has ever heard of before, some place called the ‘Republic of Stagno.’”

Whatever mask I had on apparently vanished because he paused.

“Want to read the section about ghosts? Because you look like you’ve seen one.”

I motioned for him to hand me the book.

The entry stated that the man called himself Tuone Darsa and, when asked to point on a map where Stagno was, pointed to Yugoslavia’s Socialist Republic of Croatia. Yet he couldn’t speak or understand Croatian and didn’t recognize Yugoslavia. He spoke an unknown language initially thought to be Romanian, but later determined to be Dalmatian – a Romance language extinct since 1898. When Customs agents found knives and poisons in his suitcase, they thought it was a botched attempt at espionage. But when he claimed to have traveled on the orders of his sorcerer uncle who was also his country’s ‘rettore’ or ‘rector’ to find and kill escaped members of a “family of tyrants” and subsequently commit ritual suicide to ‘restore his honor’ and complete a ‘national salvation’ that began in 1623, officials determined he was dangerously mentally ill and had him committed at Creedmoor Psychiatric Institute in Queens, where he died in 1990.

“How did a man from a nonexistent country and speaking a dead language end up in New York in 1962? We may never know,” the entry concluded.

George gazed at me with a concerned expression as I read intently.

“Crazy stuff, huh? Do you know something about this?” he asked, relaxing into his sofa and sipping his beer.

“My dad left me his coin collection. One of them was a coin from there. From Stagno. Dated 1623.” I stared blankly at the wall as I spoke.

I borrowed the book and took it home after we laughed at comedy skits on Almost Live!, which he insisted we do as we finished off the beers.   

When I got home, I checked the book’s bibliography. The main sources were a March 13, 1990 New York Times obituary and a 1962 arrest report in the New-York Tribune, which I jotted down amid a jumble of illegible scribbles on the first page in my reporter’s notebook.

On Monday, I had to do the police reports again at 5 a.m., which meant my shift finished at 1. I immediately ripped out the page from the notebook and ran out of the newsroom, driving to the Seattle Public Library. The archives had the March 13, 1990 New York Times on microfiche, which included Tuone Darsa’s obituary. Most of the information was identical to the encyclopedia entry, but also included a quote from the Creedmoor psychiatrist who treated him, Dr. Dominic Washington, commenting on the strangeness of the case, which the obit mentioned was the subject of a case study he published in The American Journal of Psychiatry.

Through a recently launched online database of medical journal articles, I found Dr. Washington’s paper, “Nonspecific Dissociative and Psychiatric Disorder In a Male Patient.” It mainly described Darsa’s mental state, including the fantastical claim about his sorcerer uncle who was also the “Rector of Stagno.” It also named a member of the “family of tyrants” he was looking for, Biagio de Proculo, whom he insisted lived in New York. Nonetheless, efforts to find de Proculo, at the very least to protect him from a murder-suicide plot, were fruitless. In fact, nobody with that surname – Biagio or the other dozen people listed in Darsa’s address book – lived anywhere in the country.

I reached Dr. Washington by phone the next day.

After a few minutes of him telling me he couldn’t talk about patients when I mentioned Tuone Darsa, I blurted out, “Doctor, I have a coin from Stagno that may be connected to him.”

There was a long pause, and I thought maybe he’d hung up.

“It’s pronounced ‘STAWN-yo,’ not ‘STAG-no.’ Where did you get it?” he finally asked.

“It was in my father’s coin collection.”

“Do you know where he got it?”

“I have no idea. I figured he bought it somewhere.”

“Unlikely. Where did you say you were calling from?”

“Seattle.”

A long pause, with breathing that had become heavier, slightly labored. “Is there any possibility you could come to New York? There are some things I can discuss with you, but I can’t do it over the phone. Make a photocopy of the coin, but don’t bring the coin itself with you. Put it somewhere out of view, like a closet, a basement, an attic. Just do not leave it out.” His voice sounded anxious, and I assured him the coin would be kept hidden away.

After convincing my editor to give me a few days off on short notice, I took the coin to Kinko’s to have a color photocopy made.

A few days later, the coin safety stashed in a box on a shelf in the basement and a spare key in the hands of my neighbor who had agreed to look after Marzipan, I took off from SeaTac, landing at JFK in the evening, and immediately getting a cab to Creedmoor after checking in at the hotel.

#

“The doctor went to the bodega to get a hero but will be back soon. You can wait in his office if you’d like,” Dr. Washington’s assistant said with a friendly smile unlike the gruffness Hollywood New Yorkers always have. The padded wooden chair in front of his mahogany desk felt more comfortable than it looked.

In comparison with the cold, sterile look of the rest of the hospital, Dr. Washington’s office was cozy, with wood paneling on the walls, decorated with his credentials: a 1968 MD from Howard University College of Medicine, and certificates for his residency and fellowship training at Johns Hopkins. I got up and turned around to meet him and extended my hand when he opened the heavy door and stepped in after 15 minutes, sandwich bag in hand, looking older than the certificates suggested. “So, did you bring a photocopy of the coin? May I see it?” he said, as he sat in his big leather chair.

I handed it to him, and he shook his head.

“Unbelievable,” he shook his head again, peered at the photocopy, and shook his head once more. “Unbelievable.” He swiveled his chair to the left, toward where his certificates were hanging, and then back toward me. “Unbelievable.” He shook his head again, peered at the coin once more, then looked up at me.

“Do you mind if I take some notes?” I pulled a notebook and pen out of my pocket. “This is for my own interest, but I’m also a reporter with one of the papers back home and may do a story about this. If possible, I’d like to use your name too, assuming you don’t mind.” A little redundant modesty can go a long way when you’re a reporter. He gave me the go-ahead. “So what’s the meaning of all this?”

“That paper of mine that you read, about Mr. Darsa – you know, when I wrote it, I had to stick to the science,” he said, struggling to put words together. “But after he died, I happened to have a copy of the journal I kept, and I read it again. And I have to tell you, I never thought I would ever say this, but I believe him.”

I struggled to keep my hand steady as I scribbled his comments in my notepad, which he must have noticed because he joked that with my typical reporter’s penmanship I should consider a career in medicine. I steeled myself.

“What made you believe him?”

He leaned back in his chair and let out a deep breath, staring toward the ceiling before his eyes came back down to meet mine. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on the desk.

“I’ve been a psychiatrist at this hospital for 22 years. I’ve seen a lot of people with psychotic and dissociative disorders. But he’s the first person I’ve ever met whose delusions were backed up by hard evidence. It just never occurred to me that maybe he was telling the truth. I mean, this man was a fluent speaker of Dalmatian and had a book written in it, and I had a linguist from NYU laugh in my face when I told him that because Dalmatian was a language that nobody had spoken since the 1800s. But then he saw the book.”

I shifted a bit in my chair, pinching my chin. My eyes rolled to the side and then rolled back toward him.

“What’s so special about the coin?” I gestured inquisitively with my hands. Somehow, my mind was able to pretend this was a normal interview about a normal topic. “You looked at it and said ‘unbelievable.’”

“Well, Mr. Darsa often spoke in very vague terms, like he told me he had to come here, kill some de Proculo guy and then commit ritual suicide as a penance for some crime back home, but he didn’t know what the crime was, just that his uncle the rector’s accusation made him guilty. But he did tell me a really significant year in Stagno’s history – I think ‘auspicious’ was the word he used – was 1623, and that’s the date that’s on your coin. It’s also the year of the first report of a person from Stagno appearing in our world.”

With the mention of 1623, I went silent for a few seconds, but long enough to prompt him to look at me if about to ask if I was all right. “Six…teen…twen…ty-three?” Each syllable felt like it took an eternity to come out.

“This has been going on for centuries.” He got up and walked to a metal filing cabinet, rifling through one of the drawers and pulling out a folder that he laid on his desk, opening it up to reveal several pages of lined yellow paper with handwritten notes and stapled together. He turned to the third page and went over it with his finger before stopping halfway down. He said a professor at Northwestern University in Chicago who specialized in folklore of the paranormal had told him at least a dozen people from Stagno had turned up around the world, mostly in the 1600s, along with France in the 1730s, Hong Kong in the 1880s and the US in the 1960s. They showed up at ports of entry and in many cases were soon found dead from suicide, sometimes with strange occult objects lying around.

He called for his assistant to grab a box from the closet outside his office door. “You know which one.”

He exhaled, shook his head then looked toward the window before looking back at me.

“You know, there’s a reason I keep it in the closet – same as why I told you not to bring the coin over. Stuff started happening when I kept it in here. Weird stuff.”

I lowered my notebook to my lap and put my pen down, my lips closed and begging me not to follow up that comment and the rest of my body telling me to run.  “Like what?”

“Sometimes, when I was here overnight on inpatient service, I’d see…shadows walking around. I thought I was hallucinating, but one of my nurses saw them too. Anyway, it all stopped once I put the box in the closet. Poor Melinda will be digging through a few things to get it, but she’ll corroborate what I’m saying.”

An ashen expression had replaced Melinda’s prior friendliness as she brought the box in several minutes later. Dr. Washington patted his desk for her to place it there and thanked her. She couldn’t get out of the office fast enough.

“I’ll have to put it back when we’re done – no way I’m making her do it,” he said, standing up to open it and motioning for me to stand as well. A layer of dust slid off the lid and dispersed into the air, causing me to sneeze and the doctor to apologize.

In the box were Darsa’s clothes – typical 1960s menswear – and personal effects: a wallet with paper money from the Republic of Stagno and a book written in what I assumed to be Dalmatian. Then there was the address book – a small, pocket-sized paper-bound book, blank except for four pages listing the dozen names of members of the de Proculo family alluded to in the doctor’s journal article. The address book listed most of the people as living on the Eastern Seaboard, but one entry on the last page jumped out at me: “Marino de Proculo, Seattle, lavora per Boeing, età 52.”

My eyes moved over to a yellow Post-It note attached to the back of the preceding page reading: ‘Transl from Ital: Marino de Proculo, Seattle, works for Boeing, age 52.’

Age 52 in 1962 and working for Boeing. My breathing became ragged.

The bills in the wallet looked like the ones you’d see in many European countries: The front sides displayed pictures of historical figures on the left, a coat of arms on the right and the numeral of the denomination in ornate type in the upper-right corner and spelled out beneath the coat of arms. I examined one more closely, a blue note with a beautifully ornamented ‘5’ in the corner. The coat of arms consisted of a crown atop a shield with a bearded man in a mitre, an ‘S’ to his left and a ‘B’ to his right, just like the emblem of Dubrovnik with Saint Blaise, and “Cenk Grossetti” – like the sign in my dream – below. The bust to the left was a man in early 19th century dress with ‘Angelo Darsa, Rettore de Stagno’ underneath. The back depicted a row of people being burned at the stake in front the church I saw in my dream, with the inscription below reading “Vittoria sulla tirannia della famiglia de Proculo, 20 ag. 1623.”

“1623,” I said, looking up at Dr. Washington, who raised his eyebrows knowingly.

The book’s title page had the Roman numerals for 1923. It had a leather-bound cover and well-worn lettering on the spine. Inside, the text on several pages was painted over with strange and complex symbols consisting of interlocking lines. On the title page was a neatly handwritten note in an odd language:

Mín Därest Tuone – Dhes bók ys jybletzyn to farmotyn thín ferdhwagh. Igh hüght thu kan findyn seè föndè dhet thu sék. Ecligh livyn se grátz land Stagno, an ecligh racyn se grátz hús Darsa! – Evyr dhín frönd, Örcenbald IV Thrÿtagrén, Hertug Kwást.

As I flipped through the pages, I felt it might be some sort of novel or philosophical work, the type of mundane volume one might find in an antique bookstore. The symbols painted on several pages were strange and complex geometric designs that did not appear to follow any particular pattern, but were all made in a particular style and quite graceful. Lines terminated by small circles intersected with lines terminated by triangles on one side while branching into s-shaped lines on the other. They were brown in color, apparently drawn over the pages in blood.

“Pretty odd, huh? I faxed a photocopy of the note on the title page to that linguist at NYU, and he said it appears to be a Germanic language, maybe some kind of old-fashioned Frisian, but he’d never seen it before,” the doctor said, thumbing through his notes. “Per the linguist’s comments, it apparently says something like ‘My dearest Tuone, This book is blessed to enable your journey (question mark). I hope you can find the enemy – or enemies – you seek. Long live the great nation of Stagno, and long reign the great family Darsa. Always your friend, Örcenbald the fourth Thrÿtagrén, Duke of Kwást’ – yet another nonexistent place.”

I handed the book back to him, and he put it in the box. Another item was a copy of the Bible in English, but with numerous books I didn’t recognize, including The Prayer of the Apostle Paul, The Hypostasis of the Archons, and The Gospel of Philip.

“Not like any Bible you or I saw in church, is it? Apparently, these are non-canon books associated with Gnosticism. But that’s not the weirdest thing he had.” Dr. Washington lifted Darsa’s shirt out of the way to reveal a glass vial containing pea-sized spherical black pills. “He was especially adamant about keeping these with him and threw a fit when we took them away, but never told us what they were. I had a chemist look at one of them, but he couldn’t identify them as any known compound.”

I asked Dr. Washington if he remembered the name of the professor at Northwestern whom he spoke to. “Conley was her last name. Her first name escapes me, but I’m sure you could find her in the history department. It was only a couple of years ago that I spoke with her.”

I photocopied the banknotes, the “Duke of Kwást’s” note along with pages from the book that bore the symbols, as well as the list of names, before thanking Dr. Washington and leaving. However, the photocopies of the pages with symbols showed only the text of the book, without any trace of the symbols.

“You can try color photocopies as well. They won’t show there either,” Dr. Washington said.

After leaving Creedmoor, I checked out of the hotel and then headed to JFK. It was on the plane ride home that I realized this Conley might be the one to finally crack the case.

#

I called Northwestern University the next morning from the newsroom, so groggy I could barely keep my eyes open and running purely on caffeine from the hours-old coffee in the break room. I left a message on Conley’s voice mail with my office and home numbers.

She called me at home later that night. “Hi, I’m sorry I couldn’t speak with you earlier, but I was at my son’s school for a function all day. I understand you’re a reporter looking at the Stagno Phenomenon?”

“Yeah, you might remember Dr. Washington in New York. I had spoken to him about a coin from Stagno that I inherited, and he gave me your contact info.” Another long pause, this one even more awkward than the one when I spoke with Dr. Washington.

Finally, she spoke. “First of all, professionally, I only deal with what has been documented and what can be inferred from what is documented. If you’re using any of this for a story, I don’t want my name to appear. Understood?”

“Of course,” I said, my voice becoming meek and barely audible even to me.

“What sort of coin?”

“A coin. A… um, a grossetto coin from…” my mind went blank for a second. “1623. Inherited from my father as part of his collection.” The words tumbled out in a rush as if I were a kid confessing something he’d done wrong to his teacher, expecting dire consequences in return.

“Do you know where he got it?”

“I have no idea. It was part of his collection.”

“What do you know of his early life?”

Her tone was starting to sound like a police officer interrogating a suspect. I wondered if I was the one being interviewed.

“Very little.” Same meek voice as before.

“Are you familiar with the concept of parallel universes?”

“Vaguely. I remember there was that episode from ‘Star Trek.’”

“I was thinking that show ‘Sliders.’ But I guess you’ve got the idea.”

I heard her rustling through some papers and mumbling to give her a second.

“Okay, so this is part of why I didn’t want to be quoted. In my research of the Stagno Phenomenon, I have come to believe that the Republic of Stagno is a real place, in another universe, that corresponds with a former state in our universe, the Republic of Ragusa, centered around Dubrovnik. Actually, Stagno itself is a real place – it’s just called Ston in Croatian, though for Ragusa it was sort of Chicago to Dubrovnik’s New York.”

I took the photocopied pages of the Yugoslavia travel guide off the end table and opened to the map of Croatia. Sure enough, there was Ston, on the Adriatic Sea, north of Dubrovnik, about a third of the way to Split. “So why are people coming here from there?”

“First of all, tell me, what do you remember of your father? What was his name?”

“Thomas O’Donnell.”

“If he’s from Stagno, then it was probably a false identity. Did he look or sound Irish?”

Come to think of it, he didn’t. I sat back on my sofa, my eyes darting from one corner of the ceiling to the next.

“Dark hair, olive complexion. I always assumed he was what we used to call ‘black Irish.’ He had an American accent, but it always sounded kind of forced.”

Dr. Conley began breathing heavily. It took me a moment to realize I was also, and she could probably hear it in my voice.

“Mr. O’Donnell, I don’t mean to alarm you, but I think your father was from Stagno. As to your question about why Stagnese come here, they’re either predator or prey, you follow?”

“No.”

Or I hoped she didn’t mean what I thought she did.

I heard her inhale and exhale a few times, as if dreading what she was about to lay on me.

“My research in this area has involved going through historical accounts of visitors from Stagno, records of statements they’ve made to government officials and psychiatrists and items they’ve had with them. From what I gather there was some kind of political shakeup in 1623, where the ruling family was overthrown, and its members were hunted down and basically exterminated. From the way it sounds, with your father trying to conceal his identity even from his own son, I think he may have been the prey.”

“De Proculo,”

“Right. Members of that family have used various objects, charged with certain powers, to come to our universe, but agents from the Darsa family have pursued them. It’s not possible to return, so they always show up here not knowing anything about our universe, which is why several have been caught.”

I sat up. “Several…meaning…there may be others?”

“Maybe, maybe not, though Tuone Darsa was the most recent on record.”

What felt like a ball of air stuck in my lungs for years relaxedly flowed out. Perhaps there was nothing for me to worry about.

“Now, tell me about this coin of yours. Where do you keep it?”

“In a closet. I had it next to me in bed for a couple of nights, and weird things started happening.”

“Strange dreams and shadow figures?”

I stopped breathing.

“Exactly.”

I could hear her chair creaking as she stood up.

“That means they know of you. Get rid of it, if you can. If you can’t, hide it somewhere, and don’t let any living thing near it. And that includes you.”

I couldn’t do anything except stammer. “Marino de Proculo. His name was in Tuone Darsa’s address book.”

I felt a flash of indignation.

“I wonder why my father never got rid of it.”

I heard her take a deep breath and sit back down and rustle through some papers some more.

“I came across a journal in the archives from an Antonio de Proculo living in Hong Kong in the late 1800s. He wrote of being unable to get rid of ‘my little coin,’ which somehow always found its way back to him. Weeks later, a local English newspaper reported that he was found stabbed to death in his bed, while one Luca Darsa was found that same night hanging from his hotel room chandelier with stones, bowls of blood and parts of animals killed in some ritualistic manner arranged in a circle around him. But Antonio was living under his real name and was apparently quite prominent – not undercover like your father.”

I nearly dropped the phone receiver on the floor as I hung up.

The next morning, I nervously went to my editor to inform him that my story had not panned out, feeling too shaken by my conversation to worry how he would react. That I had used my own money to travel to New York and not asked for a reimbursement mitigated his disappointment. At any rate, writing the story would make me sound like a crazy person, and make the newspaper sound like it had drifted away from hard news and into crackpot territory.

After work, I stopped at a bar, hoping a few whiskey-gingers might help me forget my conversation with Dr. Conley, but they didn’t.

When I got home, I went to the basement and took the Stagno coin out of the box. I drove to the Fremont Bridge, walked onto it and tossed the coin over the side, watching as it disappeared into the black of the water.

When I got home and climbed into bed, Marzipan climbed in with me, and slept soundly, while I couldn’t fall asleep, my eyes searching the dark room looking for human-like shadows. But none arrived. For the next several days, I looked in the album every day, feeling assured as the coin never reappeared in its slot.

#

On a Saturday four weeks later, I awoke to the doorbell. Rushing downstairs, I yanked open the door, expecting the exterminator. Instead, there stood a man, expressionless, wearing a form-fitted blazer over khakis with polished brown wingtips – all soaking wet – his black hair slicked back and dark sunglasses obscuring his eyes.

“Buna dai, Sinaur de Proculo.” He extended his right hand as if to shake mine, but instead the sun caught a silver coin in a wet cardboard holder. “Mi naum sant Amadeo Darsa,” he said, pointing to himself with his other hand. “I believe this belongs to you.”

Grossetto by Alaric DeArment 1

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