The Dead Man's Photograph
Outside, a photograph snapped in the dark.
“Listen to that,” she whispered.
Half-invisible in the weak moonlight, Matthei lifted an apple from the bowl by the open window. The first one he overshot: it bounced off the side of one of the fishing boats which were moored in the small bay which lay opposite the hotel, on the other side of the narrow street. The boat groaned hollowly, echoing like the final drumbeat of an unattended symphony. The second apple exploded with a great slap on the uneven pavement.
The gauze curtains shivered with excitement.
“Impossible,” Ina said.
The paper dealer nodded in assent, but his blue eyes, cloudy like a child’s marbles, had their own opinions.
Ina stared down at the captured face, so familiar that it was hard to recognize, frozen to the page.
“Where did you get this?” she asked.
“But you’ve been dead before,” Andre said. His little red bird, freed for the moment from its cage, hopped lightly from book to book on the shelves that lined the library walls.
“Twice,” Ina said. “But not to my friends.”
In answer, Andre’s eyes met hers for the first time. After a moment, he averted them, and settled a carefully-cut octagon of newspaper onto the floor of the bird’s cage.
“You never saw his body?”
“The city was in flames.”
Andre turned back from the cage and spun the photograph, which she had laid between them on his glossy desk, toward him. As she had been several times that day, Ina was caught when she glanced at the picture, waiting an instant for the smile she could see was about to break on Matthei’s colorless face.
“I’ll have someone look at it,” he said.
Perched on the binding of some thick old reference, the little bird gazed up at the spine of the book above him, as if trying to decipher the markings on the column of a newfound tomb, in some lost language.
“Who told you he was dead?” Andre asked,
Ina dropped a copy of the photograph on the table between them. Lotta, her arms still bare and red, her face even more like scuffed leather than it had been ten years before, nodded in sympathy and drew it towards her.
“During the war,” she said.
“Last month,” Ina corrected her. “In Antige.”
Lotta had always been a professional. Now she simply raised her eyebrows. “He’s a devil,” she said.
“You told me you saw him die,” Ina said.
Lotta shrugged and lit another blue cigarette. “We’ve all seen things,” she said.
Even ten years ago, Antige hadn’t really deserved the name of city: a shallow bay surrounded by brothels and cheap hotels, where the spicy scent of the heavy, half-wild bushes of white flowers that thrived in the thick air mingled sickeningly with the bay’s faint stench of diesel and dead fish. Antige’s citizens, fishermen’s wives and fatherless children, lived in a dense tangle of makeshift wood and paper houses just beyond this brightly lit-rim, on unnamed streets which, no matter how often Ina and Matthei walked them, never seemed to follow any pattern. A quarter mile from the water’s edge, those tangled neighborhoods dropped away into the swamps that had once surrounded the virgin bay, swamps where water gypsies still lived on unmappable bits of soggy land, shadowed by monstrous silver trees whose great dark leaves clung to their branches for years at a time in the tropical climate, growing so wide that, when they fell at night, even the gypsies sometimes screamed in fear, believing that their own shadows, set loose by the night, had finally come after them. Only one road, ruled by gypsy pirates, led into the city from land: a moody two-lane highway, which, several times a year, without provocation, vanished under the swamp’s unfathomable, glassy surface, sometimes for an afternoon, sometimes for a week.
The vast majority of travelers reached Antige by sea, but tankers and large ships didn’t dare venture into the bay. Nobody knew what lay under the surfacethe footings of forgotten docks, the masts of half-burnt ships, skeletons of monster fishbut even Antige’s haphazard fleet of fishing boats, which had a draft of ten feet at the most, lost vessels every month to whatever lurked below, whether a veteran sailor or a callow boy stood at the prow. Only the black water birds navigated the bay without fear, and even they, the women said, seemed to avoid certain waters. Commercial vessels anchored at a safe distance on the horizon and sent emissaries in outboards, loading all supplies boatside from Antige’s fleet of tugs and barges.
What distinguished Antige was the complete absence of any police force, which meant that absolutely everything flowed through the tiny port: gems, fugitives, opium, secrets, buried under that day’s catch, silver scales still clinging to them; wrapped in delicate palm paper and concealed in false books or wooden legs; exchanged for coins or perfume in rooms with stained wallpaper, by shadows at the ends of docks, by children in the alleys. She and Matthei had waited an entire winter there one year, he for a fugitive, she for a secret. The fugitive had hung himself in his cabin the night before his ship made landfall, or so they said. Matthei had hired a boat and made the hour’s ride to the tanker’s side, seasick the entire time, climbed aboard, plunged into the ship’s freezer, and still been unable to identify the dead man’s face, blue and frozen. He’d always had a horror of the sea, so when he heard the plan to dispose of the man in the waves, he wrestled the livid body into the bobbing outboard himself and shaded the melting face with his own hat until they made it back to Antige, where he paid one of the madams to bury him in her garden. Ina’s secret was passed to her from between the tissue-paper breasts of one of the young men who entertained the sailors at the only brothel whose patio opened, not on the bay, but on the ocean. But by then she had decided to keep it.
Antige was impossible by day: even lifelong natives disappeared from the streets during the punishing hours between ten and three, and Ina and Matthei had lived a life almost entirely in reverse, waking as the sun died like a great madam, in an agony of purple and orange on the bay, roaming the misty streets at night, buying fruit or bread from the stands in the first hours of light, and returning to their rooms to sleep through the unliveable day.
Today, walking through the incredible sunlight in the bleached streets, Ina felt like the only citizen returned to an abandoned city which, for months or even years, no other eye had seen. The woman who took her bills at their old place seemed to have lost a year of age for every year of the decade Ina had been gone from the placeprobably the original matron’s daughter, although there were other explanations.
Nothing else seemed to have changed.
Lucas met her on the roof.
He had been a cryptographer, a great one, but by the time of their first stay in Antige, he had already begun to decode uncontrollably: bus schedules, the morning paper, the rain. The intelligence they gave him was astonishing: huge movements, daily, of invisible troops; great battles joined so deep in the jungle or far in the desert that no journalist or doctor could ever reach them in time; unimaginable treasure ships scuttled just offshore, guarded by submarines that traveled at the speed of light, and always, always, heavy losses on both sides.
When Ina arrived tonight, she caught him decoding the stars.
“Any word?” she said.
Sheepish, he shook his head, then glanced sharply back at one constellation, as if daring it to repeat what it had just said.
She kissed his cheeks and stepped back. “Where is he?” she asked.
His face didn’t flicker.
“Matthei,” she tried again. “He was here.”
Lucas’s gentle features crumbled under the weight of real sorrow.
“Matthei’s dead,” he told her, with the tone of a truth that must be repeated to be believed.
“No,” she said, with far more solemnity than she had ever spoken of his death.
Matthei had only been a name to her for years, a series of familiar aliases signed in the books of the expatriate hotels they all stayed in, the back of a dark head bobbing away above the crowd as she came in, mentioned by acquaintances as mastermind, hero, or villain, but always with affection. He didn’t work for a government, at least that anyone had discovered, and he was known, in their shadow world, for his weakness for beauty, and his talent for vanishing. The story she heard most often before meeting him in person was of a botched robbery in one of the unstable southern states, during which he’d been trapped in a walled garden from which he could only escape by breaking the priceless pair of stained-glass doors which led back into the house from which he’d fled. Loath to destroy them, he had instead lived in the garden for three days, subsisting on rare plums and water from the fountain, until a servant girl found him. By that time, his rumpled clothes and the shadow growing on his lip and chin were enough disguise for him to nod knowingly at the man he’d robbed, when they passed each other in the courtyard as Matthei left the girl’s quarters later that evening. He had laughed and laughed when Ina first told it to him, and several times afterwards, like a favorite child, had made her repeat it.
Tullus was dying.
She remembered him magnificently fat, enough to command a couch or threaten a fragile chair, to drink a dozen gull eggs for a snack, to announce to all who saw him the truth he had always known in his own heart: that he was a mountain, not a man. Today the cancer had eaten away most of the flesh from his limbs, leaving only strange drapings of skin which hung from his bones like melted wings. But the rich gold thread in his garments glittered as brightly as it always had in the light from the black candles.
In other days they might have spent hours sunk in the lush pillows of his receiving room, trading pleasant lies, but his disease seemed to have finally made him a believer in time. “You have a photograph,” he said, as soon as she was seated.
She handed it over the low table.
Tullus glanced at the image briefly, then looked at her with what she could almost have imagined was tenderness.
“I wonder if you will like the truth,” he rasped.
She rose on her knees to kiss his hollow cheek. “I never have.”
Other operatives liked to pretend that Matthei lived without a code, but that was impossible: in their world he could never have lived as long as he did without one. What they meant, but couldn’t admit, was that they couldn’t see it. All of them knew of the special luck of the crazy: how the insane sometimes crossed battlefields or busy streets, by disbelieving in trucks or bullets, unscathed. But that luck, they knew, was only a sort of reprieve: death, like all the rest, curious to see what a madman might do next, before plucking him up on the next corner, with the next bullet.
Matthei was no madman: reasoned, quiet, reliable to a frightening extent. He never made excuses, even ones any client would have taken: in another famous gesture, this one true, he had once contracted to redirect a shipment of weapons, and produced them at the appointed place and time, despite the fact that, alerted to the threat, the government which controlled them had never actually put them on any train, so that the theft changed from a simple flick of a railroad switch, to the robbery of two tons of weapons from a windowless federal building on high security, a feat which he accomplished, as far as anyone could see, single-handedly.
The illusion that he worked alone, Ina realized early, was really only a measure of the loyalty of his associates. Another one of the rumors named him as a member of one of the ruling families that had been deposed in various states in the first half of the century, and his associates did have the air of lifetime servants of the royal class, with a contempt for other operatives that showed itself only in silence. They didn’t need to brag at the bars and parties to amateursand so they were invisible.
But what was he after? It had never mattered much to her: he wasn’t cruel, or corrupt in any sense that mattered to her, and she knew other things: the sound of his voice, the shape of his face, the fact that, in any room, he would always been found just to the side of the largest window he could find. Proximity to a window had clear advantages over having one’s back to the wall: you couldn’t see through a wall, or jump out of it, and, unlike walls, windows could be shattered with minor movement, providing distraction, weapons, or egress with a single blow.
The window she had first met him at was fully twice as tall as either of them: actually a french door, propped open by a young palm in a golden flower pot, to allow the night air to stream into the lurid atmosphere of the embassy ballroom. A week before he had purchased, for reasons known only to him, a set of codes employed by the navy of one of her country’s more aggressive enemies. Back in her small room, she had an entire manuscript of intercepted messages, unreadable without his information. He had been watching the teenaged daughter of the ambassador make her way across the room, as delicate and clumsy as a fawn in what were almost certainly her first high shoes, trying not to fall, moving unconsciously in time with the music.
When Ina stopped at his side, he glanced down at her with amusement.
Annoyed, she smiled.
“I didn’t know you could see the bay from here,” she said, nodding into the night, where the intermittent lights in the hulls of the surrounding mansions gave way to the even sheen of moonlight on black water, broken here and there by vast shadows of ships marked fore and aft by colored bulbs twice as bright as the stars.
She had come to the party, as far as she knew, without his knowledge, with no meeting set.
But without further introduction, he removed the codes, which had been written in ballpoint on the wrong side of a box of cigarettes, from his pocket, and placed them in her hand.
Ina, he always insisted to her, was also famous, for her reserve, her youth, and her somewhat antiquarian sense of justice.
“I pictured a nun,” he told her once. “Young, but with a beard.”
“You didn’t have a photograph?”
He shook his head.
When he had handed her the coded carton of cigarettes, immediately after they first met, she had instantly recognized the series of dots and dashes on the inner flap, covered them with her thumb, and held the box back out to him, as if offering a smoke.
“Not in this weather,” he’d said.
With one deft movement, Ina hid the little box in the folds of her black dress.
Matthei watched her, thoughtfully.
“I thought I’d get a drink,” she said. “Can I get you anything?”
“I’ll let you know,” he said.
The brothels on the bay were for the sailors, but in the mists of the swamp, paper lanterns outlined the gypsy girls’ island, where Antige’s fishermen, spies, and criminals congregated in the middle hours of the night.
Ina thanked the boy whose boat had brought her there, or rather, thanked the whites of his eyes, which disappeared as soon as he received his payment, cast down as he stuffed the coins in his pocket and pushed away from the dock, whose wood was uneven and springy with age under her step.
She had been there only once before, after the kind of secret men tell with relish to girls they have bought for a night, as if to prove to themselves how little power those women could ever hold over them. But Matthei had been known to disappear into the swamps for days on end.
Across the soggy lawn the door of the little office stood open. The handful of other small huts beneath the towering swamp trees were invisible in the darkness. Inside, the old gypsy woman sat beside the same radio. She looked up at Ina without surprise.
Suddenly certain that Matthei was nearby, Ina’s heart pounded for a moment, then ground to a halt. She glanced quickly around the room, to see if everything else had frozen as well. The shadows of the table and chair wavered in the candlelight.
She placed the photograph in the old woman’s hands.
The old woman nodded.
“He was here,” Ina said.
She continued nodding.
“Tonight,” Ina said.
The woman dropped the photograph on the table as if it might be contagious, and looked up, fierce and suspicious. “Once, yes,” she said, then pushed it away. “After you” She shook her head with determination.
“Now,” Ina insisted.
For the first time, the woman looked at her directly, as if gauging a threat. Then her face softened. She stood, handed the photograph back, and pulled her delicate wrap tighter across her bony shoulders. Its diaphonous hem was caked with mud. “No,” she said, with the gentleness of a parent ending an argument.
Outside, Ina turned her face up to catch a glimpse of the few stars visible beyond the trees’ massive leaves, her heart flooded with love, and with gratitude to the old woman, who was a famous liar.
The child came as dawn was breaking, a small, thin girl so pale she seemed to be in danger of disappearing along with the mist that was slowly burning off the bay in the full light of the sun. She handed Ina the letter, then stood in the doorway, lost in thought. Ina offered her a few coins, then dropped them into the pocket of her colorless dress when the girl didn’t move to take them.
Ina had received a hundred such letters on Antige’s only stationery: a thin, translucent, raw-edged paper made from pulp which the gypsy children beat into wide sheets each night at the edge of the swamp, hanging them out to dry in delicate net hammocks strung between the lower branches of the great trees. Even folded and glued into envelopes, the paper never lost its gentle curl, and one side was always gridded by the threads of the net that had once supported it.
Her mind reeled even as her fingers broke the seal.
It was from Tullus. He would see her at midnight, that evening.
Shortly after they met, very much against her better judgement, Ina had agreed to join Matthei at a rickety hotel composed mostly of palm fronds, bamboo, and gauze, which washed down the side of the cliff it was perched on like clockwork every year, during the storm season. She had climbed up the hundreds of stone steps to the hotel, found him wrestling unsuccessfully with the wind for his cocktail napkin at the deserted afternoon bar, and sat down beside him.
He had grinned.
Andre arrived as the sun set. He had come alone.
“You didn’t need to come,” she said sleepily. “If he’s still here, he knows that I am.”
“I have something to show you,” Andre said.
He laid his old leather case on the starched white cloth that covered the small table by the window and pulled a photograph out of it.
The lines were familiar, but it had been reprinted so light that Matthei’s features had vanished. Beyond him, in what had once been darkness, was now a woman’s face.
“It’s you,” Andre said.
It was possible, Tullus said, that the boy who had found the old rolls of film had passed them into the lab without telling anyone where he had gotten them, that Tullus’s men had sold them to the paper dealer in true ignorance, and that the paper dealer, now long since lost to Andre’s inquiries, had presented the photograph to her in all sincerity.
But it was Tullus who had ordered Matthei’s body removed from the street, and, knowing his horror of the sea, had seen that it was buried on one of the remote swamp islands, with his own hands.
A boat was waiting.
In silence, one of his young men rowed over the invisible water, so black and endless that it might as well have been sky.
The stone that marked the grave was half the size of a man, white turned to silver by the moonlight, visible even from where they floated, a few feet from the scrap of land.
Beside her, Andre murmured, “There it is.”
“I know,” she said, believing it for the first time.