Melbourne’s modern high-rises and glossy shop frontages can’t altogether block the view of Victorian-era buildings. They were secreted deep within the city blocks, gloomily greyed and blackened by decades of city grime. They loomed on unsuspecting pedestrians wandering into the numerous one-way streets and lanes. The narrow avenues that weren’t taken over by the outdoor cafes and covered annexes were strangely anachronistic, dark and forbidding. The kind of places where, even during the day, if there was no soul in sight, a visitor would sense from all directions, a low-level, yet tangible, malignance and threat.
Geoff Shaw turned into Little Bourke Street from Exhibition, instantly locating Parapet Lane. The three-story sandstone buildings lining the narrow avenue lurked like sleeping giants: darkened or dirty windows—many barred—were evidence of their slumber; their heavy wooden and iron doors hid teeth that bit and tore.
He found No. 3b quickly enough as it was the only shop front on the lane—an old, decrepit sign surrounded by dark-stained sandstone of the neglected building, read: ‘Dom & Gio’s Barber Shop’. Its narrow frontage had a single filthy window, protected by rust-stained iron bars, and on the right was an open door. He saw two empty barber’s chairs in front of a large mirror.
Geoff warily entered, and as he crossed the shop’s threshold he felt a cold sensation run down his spine, an icy rivulet of sweat. The room reeked of sandalwood soap and electric razor lubricant oil.
A tall, skinny, balding man in his fifties sat on a chair against the far wall, near a narrow exit to the rear of the shop. His bony legs stuck up like a dead spider’s. He was reading the Il Globo newspaper. As soon as he saw Geoff he climbed out of his chair and presented a forced smile.
“Good afternoon, sir. What would you like today?” The barber’s Italian accent was light but distinct, giving away that he was a second generation Australian, or at least came by boat as a child.
Geoff hesitantly pulled a beige leaflet from his shirt pocket. “This might sound crazy, but I got this note handed to me out of the blue on Bourke Street, and it contains your address. Do you understand why this happened to me?”
The gangly barber inspected the leaflet with the aid of reading glasses. “Hmm. I do not know this. Who give it to you?”
“A young boy, wearing strange clothing—old-fashioned. He didn’t speak English. I think he may have been Italian.”
The barber laughed. “Many Italians have their hair cut here. Maybe one or two are drumming up business for me, heh?” He offered his hand. “I am Dominic Bertamini. I own this business with my partner Gianni.”
Geoff shook it, noticing a thick gold ring on the middle finger of the barber’s right hand, supporting an oval onyx stone, with an exquisite gold inset carving of a bat. “Geoff Shaw. I’m a sports journalist at the Herald-Sun. This shop looks a hundred years old—yet the name seems to indicate you two founded the business.”
Dominic laughed again; less genuine this time. “I am named after my papa—who liked to be called Dom. Gianni’s father was called Giovanni, or Gio. Both have passed, God bless their souls. The business has been running since the early fifties.”
A flash of light reflected off a gilded picture frame on the wall opposite the barbers’ mirror, and Geoff, distracted by the glare, noticed it contained a photograph. It was a yard square, and looked old—at least taken in the mid-twentieth century, by evidence of its sepia hue. It contained a precipitous rocky mountain overlooking a small town, and atop the vertical cliff was a castle complex. The fortress was medieval in construction and formidable in defense. On closer inspection he noticed some of the buildings and cars were contemporary—this was an oddly disquieting discovery, given the photographic style, and the ornate, expensive frame.
“You like my ancestral home?” Dominic asked.
“Interesting. Old photo but modern setting.”
The barber’s teeth flashed when he smiled, this time revealing a gold tooth. “It was made to look old on purpose. This is the town of Arco in Trentino, in northern Italy. The castle is very old, the town much older still.”
Geoff felt a compulsion to further inspect the photograph. A real compulsion, not just a journalist’s gut feeling. His hands began to shake.
Despite being a large photographic print, it had incredible resolution—every element in the image was crystal clear. If it wasn’t for the monochromy and the static scene, the frame could have been a window overlooking Arco. There were a few cars parked on the streets of the periphery of the town, and several people going about their business, frozen in time. A dog was chasing a Vespa, caught with its paws in mid-air, tongue hanging out the side of its mouth. Several water fowl were flying high overhead the tightly packed buildings.
He felt Dominic’s eyes scrutinizing him from behind, and rapidly turned, catching the barber staring intently. It was as if he were harboring a secret and gloating at Geoff’s ignorance.
Geoff shivered down his spine again. He didn’t want to stay, and the mystery of why the boy handed him the scrap of paper with the shop’s address could wait for another time. Why me? Are these events really random? “Well, perhaps I should go now. It has been good meeting you.”
Dominic grabbed a barber’s cape that was draping over one of his chairs. “Mr. Shaw, let me cut your hair. On the house. If you like, you can be a regular, heh?”
Geoff pondered the offer. It was tempting, an opportunity to collect more information and sort out why he was led by fate—or whatever—to the ramshackle barber shop.
“Can I have a rain check on your kind offer? Next week perhaps?”
That fake smile again. “Sure thing, Mr. Shaw. You come over next week, same day and time, and I will give you the best haircut in Melbourne!”
For a few days Geoff was preoccupied with a large story for his paper, concerning a football sex scandal. Melbournians lived and breathed their brand of football and there was a lot of pressure to get the story right, both in term of gathering as much verifiable dirt as possible, and to spin it the right way. And yet he couldn’t let go of that strange afternoon with the boy on Bourke Street, and the obsolescent barber shop. Most of his thoughts were preoccupied with the photograph of Arco. There was something odd about it, other than its amazing clarity, and it disturbed him. He even dreamt about it, where the frozen vehicles, people, dog and birds came to life and drove, jumped, and flew through the frame into his apartment. On reflection, the scene was surreal and almost humorous, but waking with his body soaked in sweat, and his heart beating so fast he momentarily feared he was dying, was no laughing matter.
Geoff finally got to carry out some research. He figured it didn’t hurt to find more about Arco, the Barber Shop, and the Bertamini family. What he uncovered only made his investigation more mysterious.
Arco was an ancient village, occupied, according to archaeologists, since the Stone Age. The sheer-faced mountain that contained the fortress complex had been an important religious site for the locals for millennia, until it was Christianised in the first millennium AD. ‘Bertamini’ was the most common surname in Arco, and presumably that meant Dominic’s family had old roots in the town. Gianni’s surname was Bertamini as well, and Geoff presumed they were distantly related to each other.
A check of the online Australian Immigration Records found that the two families came to Australia in the early 1950s. They were going to work on the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectricity and Irrigation Scheme but for reasons unrecorded, they moved to Melbourne instead and opened their Barber Shop.
Geoff picked up nothing of real value, nothing that indicates a dark secret, despite his journalist’s intuition crying out day and night. He still didn’t know why he was picked on by that strange child, who disappeared into the lunchtime crowded streets of Melbourne as quickly as he had appeared. His gut told him the boy had known who he was—a journalist—and the note was pointing him to a story.
He entered Dom & Gio’s Barber Shop a few minutes late. Dominic flashed his gold tooth, exuding satisfaction that he had correctly predicted Geoff’s return, and at the same time his eyes exuded a predatory light. Dom introduced Gianni, who had just finished cutting the hair of a regular. Gianni was short and stocky, with thick, farmer’s hands, and yet he was deft with his scissors and a shaving razor—Geoff noticed they were strong and supremely controlled—with an identical ring to Dominic’s on the middle finger of his left hand.
Geoff was quickly seated in one of the barber’s chairs and Gianni did his magic. He cut his hair with scissors that snipped like hummingbird’s wings. He trimmed Geoff’s eyebrows, nasal hairs, ears. He fine-tuned hairlines with the shaving razor.
“I now shave your neck and sideburns, sir,” Gianni said.
He pulled an ivory-handled cutthroat out of a blue-solution jar. It looked old, the ivory stained by years of handling, the blade was worn but sharpened to surgical precision. The cutthroat seemed an extension of Gianni’s hand, perfectly balanced and deadly in aspect. There was something cold about his hand movements, much like Dom’s piercing eyes.
Gianni held Geoff’s head statue-still with his left hand, left the cutthroat on the bench out of sight, and lathered beneath his shortened sideburns and the back of his neck. The cutthroat came into view. For an agonizingly slow few seconds he thought Gianni was going to slice his neck, feeling the steel pop his windpipe and scrape his vertebrae. Geoff knew the deadly scene playing in his imagination was stupid but he couldn’t get it out of his head.
He held his breath as the blade scraped loudly, like radio static. Smooth action, quick flick of lather into a towel, perfection of shave.
Geoff breathed again, finally settling comfortably in his chair. He focused on the reflection of the opposite wall in his mirror. The framed photograph. Despite its distance away and the inverted image, he could still make out the details.
The car on the street. It wasn’t there.
How can this be?
“Something wrong, Mr. Shaw?” Gianni asked, holding his cutthroat high.
“No, nothing. Just remembered that I forgot to do something this morning.”
“Ah, yes, a terrible feeling. It happens to me all the time.”
Geoff managed to feign his previous relaxed state, but he definitely wasn’t. He kept staring at the curb side in the sepia photograph, trying to will the car that once was, to reappear.
Gianni wiped the remnants of the leatherwood soap from Geoff’s face and neck, making a few additional corrections to his work with his scissors, and tidied up. “Good, no?” he asked, in a tone that could only warrant a single response.
“Great,” Geoff said, genuinely, and slipped out of the chair. He realized he couldn’t stare at the photograph in front of the two barbers. If there was something sinister going on and it wouldn’t be smart to be too forward about it. He pulled his wallet out of his back pocket, and faced the frame. He pretended to search for the right note while quickly studying the details in the photograph.
The dog was gone. So was the Vespa. The sky was overcast instead of clear. A boy was on the street instead of the group of businessmen. A different car was parked much further down the avenue.
“Mr. Shaw, don’t you remember?” Dom asked, patting him on the shoulder.
“Huh? What?” Geoff remarked, startled.
“The cut is on the house. You are goin’ to come back, heh?”
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” Geoff absentmindedly replied, remembering the boy in the photograph was the same that handed him the barber shop’s address on Bourke Street.
The photograph was now an obsession. Geoff found sleeping difficult. The dreams returned. Three nights after his haircut he woke up in the middle of the night, shivering, and yet it wasn’t cold.
The rings. He hadn’t followed that investigation path.
He was certain they were 24 carat gold, and the onyx stones, while not precious gems, were large and had been inlaid by a master craftsman. The bat design was what intrigued him the most. Ignoring the late hour he scoured as many jewel and art sites on the Web he could manage, and in desperation, tried Italian sites with the aid of software translation apps.
He invested the remainder of the night on this project and was about to give up when an obscure site hit pay dirt. On a whim he searched for art and symbols associated with the archaeological finds around Arco. An Italian occult page popped up with a link to a pseudo-academic research article on Stone Age Religion in the region surrounding the Città di Arco. It was boring, ultra-specialized, but Geoff’s eyebrows rose when he found a small photograph of a stylized bat—very similar to the barbers’ rings’—carved into a rock. He hurriedly translated the work and found the paragraph that discussed the carving, which stated, as best as he could make out with the poor transcription, the theory that the bat-creature was an ancient god that the locals had worshipped. Apparently the deity had little association with humanity, an invader from another existence, one of the ‘Grandi Antichi’, ‘great Old Ones’. He thought it odd that Dominic, a second generation Italian immigrant in Melbourne Australia, would have an interest in a religion that was thousands of years dead.
For the next few weeks Geoff found nothing of additional value, particularly on the unnamed, alien god.
Another disruptive awakening, shivering, undefined terror. It took an hour to get over it.
Geoff checked the time: 2.15am.
They’re getting worse. Something has to be done.
Fifteen minutes of sleeplessness passed.
I need to see it again.
He slipped into casual clothing and drove to Little Bourke Street. He was alone, although he heard the sparse night owl traffic from the larger streets, and the faint thumping bass of music from nearby clubs. It was overcast and Parapet Lane felt more forbidding than usual.
Geoff saw a subdued blue light coming through the Barber Shop’s window. He stepped closer and noticed that several instruments were on recharge and the combined light washed the small shop in a sapphire haze. It was enough, with eyes adjusting to the low light, for Geoff to see the framed photograph.
He sharply drew in air and held his breath. His vision turned red-rimmed at the sight of the photograph. Arco was displayed before him but not the same as before. Dear God! The mountain was in the same position but it was devoid of buildings and the fortress. The town was replaced by a scattering of wooden and animal skin huts, and the surrounding terrain was desolate and alien. There were no trees, only gigantic, strange-shaped cacti, and far off mountains were spewing magma and ash—animated, played out as if it was a window to another world.
Geoff saw the figure of a man walk out of one of the huts, dressed in skins. The figure lifted a small staff and pointed it at the mountain, falling to his knees in supplication. Geoff strained to see the details, impeded by the soot and smudges on the window, and the iron bars. He was drawn to the photograph but his sense of horror was almost overwhelming.
A volcano exploded in the far distance within the photograph, shedding eldritch light on the mountain and small village. Geoff saw the face of the supplicating man and gasped. The face, the body shape, was Dominic’s.
Dominic turned his face slowly, insane eyes burning—through the framed photograph, across the small space of the shop, through the grimy windows, past the bars—inexplicably, directly, at Geoff.
He stepped hurriedly back to avoid the malignant gaze of the barber, but not before he briefly glimpsed the tip of a coal-black, leathery wing emerge from behind the mountain, three hundred feet above the ground. Just its tip was the size of a boat’s sail. He whimpered as the photograph disappeared from view but it turned to a stifled scream when a hand clasped his mouth.
A large, meaty hand.
Geoff was unceremoniously dumped into one of the barber’s chairs. Gianni strapped his arms to the armrests, and his legs were tied tightly to the base of the chair.
Dominic walked in from the back room, lowering a yellow-stained shutter to block any view in from outside the shop, and turned on the shop’s lighting. He faced Geoff and provided the fake, fanatic smile with its golden glint. “Mr. Shaw, we knew you would come. Rewards come to the patient, heh?”
Geoff’s chair faced the front door, making it hard for him to avoid looking at the painting. He had seen enough, but the sight of two men in barber’s clothing in the middle of the night was almost as sinister in effect. “How did you know I would come?” he croaked.
Dominic chuckled. “Because you were chosen. You were singled out. When you visited us the first time, we knew you would come back. Always.” He stabbed his thumb in the direction of the photograph.
“Chosen? What use am I to…who chose me?”
“Gli striduli. The One Who Is Shrill. Our god.”
“I don’t understand. Why am I tied up?”
“Let me explain, Mr. Shaw. First of all, we do not choose who is to be blessed, our god does. We do not know what he has planned for you but it is a great honor.”
“And the photograph?” Geoff shakily asked.
Dominic laughed. “It is our doorway to home, to our god.”
“But Arco has changed. It looks different.”
“It is Arco, but a part of Arco that only a few have the blessing to visit. During our daylight hours what you see through the picture is the Arco most people know, the place you visit with the plane and train. But at night the other part of Arco is strong, where our god wishes to rule his priests and priestesses, and sometimes feed.”
“I don’t understand,” Geoff said despondently, fighting back sobs. He knew where this was headed.
“Do not be troubled, Mr. Shaw, as I said you are blessed, heh?”
“And…and what about you? What are you doing here?”
“I am the Guardian of the Portal and Gianni is my Enforcer. That simple.”
He nodded to Gianni, who twisted Geoff’s chair to face the painting head on. Dominic fell to his knees and mumbled in a language that was totally foreign, unlike any he heard before.
“Please tell me, what are you going to do to me?” Geoff pleaded.
His head was grasped by a hand in an iron grip. Gianni’s. The barber’s other hand—wielding a cutthroat blade—appeared before him, hovering high, poised to strike.
“No!” Geoff cried.
Dominic ceased his ritualistic chanting.
Gianni swiftly, expertly sliced Geoff’s neck.
Geoff only faintly sensed the blade cut his skin and flesh, but agonizingly felt his larynx and upper esophagus penetrated, and the scoring of his neck bone. He couldn’t cry out as he saw blood spray ahead. He heard and felt his heart pound in stress, like the pulsing surge of the sea. His eyes were drawn to the photograph.
The gigantic leather wing appeared again from behind the mountain, but Geoff was no longer afraid. He was numb, beyond the mundane state of knowing or comprehending terror. Insane. The body of the god, bloated and black as pitch, appeared, and then Gli striduli stepped into the clearing between the village and the mountain, in its full horror. Geoff hardly registered the god’s face, as it was so distorted, so alien, it was like looking at living scribbles. The creature talked, but the sounds were like a deafening, high-pitch shriek.
The blood spraying from his neck subsided like a garden sprinkler suddenly starved of water, and the pulsing sounds in his ears ceased. He was weak beyond comprehension, his eyes could barely remain open. Head flopping to one side, he vaguely saw his lifeblood floating in streams through the photograph into the maw of the god-horror. He also felt his soul taking the same journey.
Dominic’s faint voice was heard a million miles away, just as Geoff passed into another world. “Welcome brother! Welcome!”
Gerry lives with his wife and young daughter in Melbourne, Australia. He is a father, husband, speculative fiction writer, publisher and IT Consultant. He writes equally between horror, fantasy and science fiction, and publishes regularly in various mags, ezines and anthologies. His most recent publications have appeared in Stupefying Stories, Ticon4, and SQ Mag. He has also published a young teen fantasy novel, Guardian of the Sky Realms (IFWG, 2010). He his currently one of the long fiction judges for the 2012 Australian Shadows Awards.
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Story illustration by Leslie Herzfeld.