Nadia Lewison awoke to the warmth of the morning sun on her face. She moaned softly and pressed her face against her pillow. Not yet. When she felt a pair of fingers playfully walk across her bare shoulder, she gave a groan of annoyance.
“Time to get up,” a voice purred against her hair.
“Don’t want to.” Groggily, she reached around behind her and took his hand. “Stay here,” she begged, as she pulled his arm snug about her waist.
His warm breath teased at the nape of her neck. “But I have to go.”
She felt him slowly disengage his hand from hers. She rolled over to stop him before he could rise. “Walter…” she mumbled, hearing the childish whine in her voice and hating herself for it. After ten years of gentle rebukes, her only excuse was that she would never be a morning person.
He was. He was made for the mornings. The same sunbeams that burned her eyes and set the dust motes dancing seemed to electrify him. The light turned his dark blond hair golden; his skin took on a youthful flush, the fine lines under his blue eyes seemed to melt away. He was handsome in all lights, her Walter, but never so radiant as at dawn.
She was seized by a need to tell him so, an irrational fear that this would be her last chance. But sleep had drugged her tongue, and she was only able to manage a slurred string of sounds she hoped he could decipher as “You’re beautiful.”
He grinned, wide enough to crinkle his eyes, and flash his crooked right incisor. For some reason she thought back to their early courtship, when he had been so reluctant to smile.
“Sleepyhead.” He bent his head to kiss her brow.
She snuggled against him gratefully, closing her eyes against a rain of feather kisses as he tried to coax her out of sleep. Their old morning ritual, from half-forgotten newlywed days.
She felt his touch withdraw. “Don’t go….”
“But Naddy, it’s time to wake up.”
When she lifted her head from the pillow, Walter was gone. His side of the bed was still warm, the linens untucked. She stretched out across the bed, trying to find some imprint of his body in the mattress. A small hand knocked on the door. “Ma?”
“I’m here,” she called back. Reluctantly she sat up and righted her nightgown. “I’m coming. Help Henry to wash and I’ll be down in the kitchen in a few minutes.”
She quickly made the bed, a much more haphazard affair these days: as long as the sheets didn’t trail on the floor, she was happy. She washed at her bedside stand, then began to dress. She noted with some annoyance that her corset seemed a little loose of late. She had always prided herself on maintaining an exact figure.
She stared at the skirts hanging in the wardrobe. Every morning, the same choice: which one of the four variants of gray would it be? The smoky broadcloth? The pewter trumpet skirt? The slate walking suit? Some days it seemed she spent hours contemplating her options.
She finally settled on the black-and-white pinstripe with the lavender trim. Then she sat down at her vanity to scrutinize her reflection. Had any new lines of weariness etched their way under her eyes? She was losing the war against time, morning by morning. Her fair skin was slowly hardening in the dry climate, the bloom of youth had to be mimicked with carmine. It was a defect of her character, she knew, to worry about such things when she had a business and a family to tend to. It made no difference to her customers nor her children if she was a fresh beauty or a faded matron.
I’m only thirty-two, she mouthed to the mirror. But she felt so much older.
She brushed out her hair until it fell heavy as winter silk against her shoulders, and she took some consolation from its healthy sheen, the color of oiled teak. She gathered it into a long braid and pinned it up. The green glass bottle labeled Dr. Harper’s Female Nerve Tonic lay just beside her box of hairpins. She waited until she had finished with her toilette before filling the teaspoon and swallowing the bitter concoction. Only one spoonful for now. There was no need to be a glutton, even with one’s medicine.
She still looked too pale. With a tut of irritation she withdrew her little tin of rouge from the middle drawer and dabbed some color to her lips and cheeks. Satisfied she was at last ready to face the world, she slipped into her shoes and made her way downstairs.
The kitchen already smelled of breakfast. Freshly buttered toast was sitting on the table in front of little Henry, who ate greedily with his fingers. Eight-year-old Rose was kneeling in front of the wood stove, stoking a miniature fire.
“Rose!” Naddy scolded. “Come away from there. You know you’re not to play with the matches.”
Rose shot her a sullen glare. “I only wanted to help.”
Naddy shooed her away. “Just go fill up the kettle.”
“Kettle’s already filled and on the stove. Aunt Vicky lets her girls light the stove!”
“Bully for Aunt Vicky.” Naddy knelt to inspect the fire: Rose had built it well, she had to admit. “I suppose you were planning on going to see your cousins this morning.”
“Ma, I already told you. I’m going up to Gemma’s to work on our clubhouse.”
“Well, take Henry with you.”
The four-year-old looked up at the sound of his name. His sister was far less pleased.
“Ma! Can’t you just keep him with you?”
“Lovey, I have to work.”
“You always have to work!”
Naddy sighed. “Yes, Rose. I always have to work. Just like you always have to eat. Can’t do one without the other.”
“Can’t Aunt Vicky watch him?”
She probably could. And then whisper around her tea circle how her brother’s lazy wife couldn’t be bothered to raise her own children. Naddy could hear Victoria’s scornful voice even now. And she only has the pair of them. Honestly, a decent woman considers children a blessing.
“I am not going to impose on your aunt just because you are feeling selfish. I indulge you horribly during the school year, but it’s high time you started to pull your own weight come the summer.” She tied on her apron and set to work making the oatmeal. Her daughter watched the process with barely concealed distaste.
“Can’t we have bacon?” Rose asked.
“Not today. I’ll see if we can get some at the end of the week.”
“We always used to have bacon.”
She tried to keep her voice cheerful. “Well, today we’re having some nice porridge with brown sugar and dried bananas. You like bananas, don’t you, Henry?”
Henry grinned and clapped his hands. “Bana-na-nas!”
“You’re saying it wrong. Dummy.”
“I know that! Mumma thinks it’s funny!”
“No, she doesn’t.”
“Enough!” Naddy snapped. “Rose, sit down and hush up, or there’ll be no clubhouse today.”
Rebellion flashed in the girl’s eyes. She had Walter’s eyes, pale and prone to hardness. “You promised!” she stamped her foot. “You can’t take back a promise.”
“One more word, and you’re housebound for the week.”
Rose crossed her arms defiantly and sat down with as much vehemence as her sixty-pound frame could muster. She could pass for a tiny adolescent with her hellcat temper. Naddy tried to think when this vicious, defiant streak had first begun to surface. Certainly when she started walking to school with Gemma and the other girls, all a grade ahead of Rose and full of false sophistication. Nothing good ever came of children trying to act older than they were.
No, truth be told, her fits of temper dated back at least two years.
Had it been two years already? Naddy did not like to think of the passage of time.
They ate in silence, but for Henry’s noisy lipsmacking. More than once Rose shot him a look that said she longed to smack him. Naddy wondered what sort of complaints Rose unburdened on her friends. Or her aunt.
Her head was beginning to ache by the time she sent her children off for the day. But she resisted the temptation to slip upstairs and fortify herself with another spoonful of tonic. She couldn’t afford to be light-headed. It was time for work.
Lewison Photography had been a bustling little enterprise when she had first joined her husband in Virginia City. But ten years of dwindling returns had emptied out the mining town. Anyone with foresight had fled for the coast long ago. And the few who were stuck on the Comstock, either out of habit or poverty, seldom wanted their pictures taken.
Still, she made sure to be ready at ten o’clock sharp, to unlock the front door and turn the sign to read OPEN. Though a week could easily go by without a morning customer, she refused to shorten her workday, or sneak in chores at the back of the house when she was meant to be minding the shop. To fill the hours, she dusted the many props Walter had collected over the years, or reorganized her supply of postcards in the display racks. Most were generic shots of the city: the bustle on C Street in better days; dirty-faced miners posing around one of the mine hoists; St. Mary of the Mountains and Piper’s Opera House. Her favorite was a picture of little Henry, struggling to sit upright atop their stuffed buffalo, with the caption Home on the Range, Virginia City, Nevada.
Nevermind that the elusive buffalo was a prairie beast, or that the “range” originally referred to the sprawling fields of Kansas. The tourists who came to Virginia City in hopes of glimpsing the Wild West did not care about the particulars.
When the boredom grew oppressive, but a sense of duty kept her from brewing fresh coffee, she would sort through the family snapshots. A decade of memories were meticulously organized in old shoeboxes, protected by carefully cut squares of paper. She found moments as solemn as births and deaths, and as trivial as a Sunday picnic. There was Henry in his first pair of short pants, and there Rose perched on a swing over the creek, eyes crinkled shut, mouth agape with laughter. Half the shots were blurry, or poorly framed, and Naddy wondered how much money they had burned through each month. Perhaps their finances now would not be so precarious, if they had showed more thrift in those times of plenty.
But Walter would never hear of economy where his trade was concerned. She could hear him now, reciting his personal creed.
“A photograph is a moment pulled out of time. It never lies. Tt takes what we give it, and it reproduces it faithfully, the good and the bad. A man’s memory may fail him, but a photograph never will. These are true memories; we have to hold onto them.”
She flipped backwards through the years, watching the children grow younger and disappear from the record. Eventually the family portraits gave way to stiffer, faded compositions of a childless couple, until Naddy and Walter themselves parted ways, to occupy their own pocket-sized prints, taken on opposite sides of the continent.
At the very front of the box marked 1887-1890 was a small newspaper clipping, yellowing at the edges.
A bachelor photographer, aged 26, seeks a partner in life and business. She must be an amiable and industrious lady of some education, under the age of 30, preferably with a basic understanding of the photographic arts. Initial financial investment not required.
A bittersweet smile tugged at her lips. He was no poet, her Walter. Still, she would have framed the clipping and hung it proudly in their parlor, had he not been so embarrassed by it. She had read hundreds of classifieds in her quest to properly dispose of herself, and though there had been men aplenty seeking trophies and accessories, only Walter had been bold enough to ask for a partner.
She had never so much as seen a working camera before, but she had found a fairground vendor willing to explain the fundamentals. With a cribbed vocabulary and one poorly developed snapshot, she had won a husband. Later, Walter would tell she was the only one of his correspondents who had thought to send a photograph.
She plucked the faded portrait out of the box and examined her younger self: the worn dress and stubborn mouth, the hair imperfectly curled into fashionable ringlets. She remembered how the smell of burnt hair had dogged her all day.
A moment pulled out of time… she thought, and she had to swallow a sudden flood of emotion. She longed to pull her whole world out of time.
The doorbell rang. Naddy replaced the photograph and went to answer it.
She betrayed her surprise with only the briefest raise of the eyebrows. When a man and woman came to her studio just shy of the noon hour, it was a pleasant novelty. When the man was the marshal of neighbouring Gold Hill, and the woman a dainty tart reeking of lemon water, it was a sure sign of trouble.
“Marshal Crawford,” she made her voice courteous. “I trust all is well.” Inwardly her mind was reeling. She would never crossed paths with the lawman, had it not been for the unnatural killer who had stalked the twin mining towns. Now that the creature lay destroyed, she expected to have seen the last of Marshal Crawford.
Not two weeks ago, he had assured her that her troubles were over. Was he back to tell her that he’d botched the case somehow, and that she had to once again mount her crucifixes and rub garlic about her windows?
“The case… has there been some new development?”
Bill Crawford gave a nervous bob of the hand. “No, ma’am. Actually, I’m here to close it once and for all.” He glanced at the girl on his arm. “This–uh–this is Miss Sissy Hobbes. She was wondering if she might have the photograph of Miss Wu. If you still have it.”
The girl looked up hopefully. She had a child’s face under all the paint. “I can pay for it. Please, ma’am. It’s all I got left of hers. Landlord already took all of Lily’s things–said it was owed him. It’d mean the world to me.”
Naddy felt herself smiling. It was over. She was safe. Her children were safe. The upir was dead and buried in a shallow grave, and Marshal Crawford was here to bring some comfort to the victim’s only friend.
“Of course. Please, come in.”
She led the pair into the study, and gestured for them to sit as she sorted through her file of unclaimed prints. Neither took the invitation. The girl stared at the walls, and the framed photographs that decorated them, in a sort of dazed wonder. The marshal rocked on the balls of his feet, his hands rummaging in his pockets.
Naddy found the eight-by-ten: a full-length portrait of a Chinese woman. She wore the simple dress favored by her people, and she stared into the camera with wide, haunted eyes. It was the gaze of a woman who knew she was living on borrowed time. A killer more immediate than the syphilis bubbling in her blood was hunting her.
The upir had already fed on her once, before she came to the studio. Bundled in a greatcoat and posing as a drifter, he had ambushed Lily Wu in some dark corner. She had escaped once, but she had known the vampire would return for her. Why else had she come to pose for a picture, if not to ensure that some part of herself would survive the coming night?
She had been right. By the time Naddy had developed the picture, the Gold Hill lawmen had found Lily Wu exsanguinated on a hillside.
“Were you… colleagues?” Naddy asked the girl gently.
Sissy giggled. “Yes ma’am. Colleagues: what a genteel way to put it. She looked out for me, you might say. Helped me out with my share of the rent when I couldn’t manage. She was a good woman, ma’am. She didn’t deserve what happened to her.”
“No one deserves that,” Bill Crawford put in gruffly.
“She never even told me someone was following her. I never knew. But Marshal Crawford came to find me, and said they killed the bastard–excuse my language, ma’am. Said the law has you to thank, for reporting Lily missing, telling them what happened. Thank you. Don’t know many folk who would bother to get involved…for girls like us.”
“Mrs. Lewison’s one of the good ones,” Bill Crawford added approvingly.
Nadia handed over the picture. Sissy took it gratefully, then began to fuss with her reticule. “How much do I owe you?”
“No need. Miss Wu already paid for it.”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you, ma’am.” She gave an awkward little curtsy, then began to retreat from the room, like a subject taking leave of a queen.
“I’ll walk you out,” Bill Crawford began, but the words were barely out before Sissy cut him off.
“No need, no need,” she simpered. “Thank you again.” And with a darting smile at the marshal, she was gone. Bill shrugged awkwardly to his hostess.
“Jumpy critter, ain’t she?”
“Mm. And if I didn’t know better, I’d suspect you slipped her a dollar to make herself scarce.”
Bill bristled. “Don’t rightly know what you’re implying there, ma’am.”
“Prim doesn’t suit you, Marshal.”
He hung his head. “All right. I made a gol-derned mess of things when you first came with your report. I should have listened to you, followed up on your lead. But in a place like this, you get so used to hearing ghost stories and tell tales…though yours was the first mention o’ vampires I ever heard. But I shouldn’t have laughed. It wasn’t professional of me.”
“No, it wasn’t. But as I recall, you already apologized.”
“Well, reckon I did. But I wanted to make proper amends, like. Do right by China Doll–Miss Wu, I mean. I wanted to find her kin, or the closest to it. Give them some peace.”
“That was very commendable of you.”
“Miss Wu hadn’t paid for the photo, had she?”
Naddy smiled and shook her head. “Do you play poker often, Marshal?”
“Often enough. So, how much do I owe you?”
“That’s not necessary.”
“Naw, come on, now. I insist. You’re trying to run a business here. You don’t need customers running up bills and getting killed.”
“Twenty cents,” Naddy lied, and he seemed to accept it. He fished out a handful of change and laboriously counted out the amount in pennies and nickels. When he placed the change in her outstretched hand, his fingers lingered against her palm a moment longer than was proper.
She cleared her throat. “Marshal–”
Bill looked away quickly. “Quite the collection you got. You take all of these?”
She recognized the change of subject for what it was: a hasty about-face to spare them both the awkwardness of her frosty rejection. The effort touched her, somewhat to her surprise.
She smiled, to show him the impropriety was already forgotten. “No, most of these were taken by my husband and his family. His father founded the shop back in the late sixties.”
“Must have seen some famous faces come through these doors.” He indicated a profile of a man with graying mutton chops. “Is that Sutro?”
“Actually, that is my father-in-law, Frederick Lewison. But Sutro is…right over there.” She pointed out a smaller photograph, of a burlier man wearing similarly bushy whiskers. “Taken in ’seventy-seven, I believe. Before my time. The fabled Comstock Kings were already migrating to greener pastures when I arrived here. Even then, the vast majority of our customers were ordinary citizens. Your own Deputy Franklin came to my shop for a wedding portrait last month.”
Bill raised an eyebrow at that. “Did he?”
“Why don’t you bring your missus by? I offer a special on paired portraits.”
“Missus?” He laughed uncomfortably. “Aw, there ain’t been a missus for a long time.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Never mind. Ancient history. Got no need for a photograph anyway. Ain’t got anyone who don’t know what I look like already.”
“And you do not think you will value it, one day? A memory snatched out of time?”
He grimaced. “I don’t know how I feel about that. Memory-snatching and all. There’s something queer about photography. No offense. I guess I just don’t trust it.”
“How can you not? A camera will capture nothing but the truth.”
“Well now, I don’t know about that. I remember seeing a picture in a magazine: a photo of a man taking a photo of himself. And it sure looked like there were two of him in the shot, but I doubt he had a twin brother.”
“Oh that! It’s simply a parlor trick – a multiple exposure of the plate.”
“And that Fiji mermaid. I’m pretty sure that ain’t true, but I’ve seen a photo of it.”
Now he was being deliberately obtuse. “Well, yes, but that’s only because a man took the time to make a model. You can capture flights of fancy in words or in drawings, Marshal Crawford, but even the greatest optical illusion is made up of pieces of truth.”
“It’s…confounding, is all. I’ve seen what light does to posters in the sun, fading out the inks, burning away the pictures. And then you show me light working to make a picture–it’s gol-derned chemical witchcraft if you ask me.”
She laughed at that. This was the man who had refused to believe in vampires? “Witchcraft? Don’t tell me you believe it will steal your soul?”
“Well now,” he muttered. She had pricked his pride, and she couldn’t decide how she felt about that. She found herself reaching for the ugly box camera on the desktop.
“No charge. I’m almost at the end of the roll.”
“This uses Kodak. You don’t think I could fit plates in here, do you? Chin up, please.”
Bill swallowed, then pushed back his shoulders, and puffed out his chest. He was picture of dutiful misery. Naddy bit her lip against the slightest twinge of guilt. She was tormenting him, and enjoying herself far too much. But he had slighted her at their first meeting, and for all his apologies she was too proud to forgive and forget without making him work for it. No, if he wanted to redeem himself, he’d have to endure a little more humiliation.
“There we are,” she said, as she took the exposure. Bill blinked in surprise.
“Far less painful than a tooth extraction, wouldn’t you agree? I will develop the film tonight. It won’t be a plate-quality portrait, but you can proudly display it as proof of your brush with sorcery.”
“Suppose I deserved that.”
“Yes, you did.”
He nodded; he was a man who knew how to cut his losses. “You have a good day, Mrs. Lewison.”
She insisted on walking him to the door. “Thank you for coming by, truly. Please give my regards to Deputy Franklin as well.”
“I’ll do that. Could take a while, though. He and the wife have run off to Tahoe for their bridal tour.”
“I do hope they enjoy themselves. They certainly deserve a holiday, considering what they had to endure so soon after their wedding.”
Bill shook his head ruefully, and she heard the disapproval in his voice as he muttered, “Oh, you have no idea.”
After the shop was closed and the children sent to bed, Naddy went down to the dark room to develop the roll of film. Witchcraft, Bill Crawford called it, and indeed the bottles of chemicals and the trays and tongs did look like they belonged in some alchemist’s shop. She remembered she had been just as wary of the whole process once. Now the procedure was so familiar as to be commonplace. She could recite the chemical formula of every solution, and describe the transformation from plate or negative to print in mundane detail. It was refreshing to hear a skeptic’s misgivings: it reminded her what a miracle she worked.
One by one, the snapshots came to life in their chemical baths. The roll had been started back at Christmas: there was Henry in his best suit, posing with his rocking horse. And there were the snowdrifts blocking the front door, during that terrible storm in February. Some of the negatives were of poor quality, and she did not bother to print them. As she moved the film under her lens, she came to the final image. Even in negative, the marshal’s discomfort was evident. He looked nothing so much like a man in desperate need of an enema.
Strange that he was unmarried. It had to be by his own choice, for a lawman was a prime catch. To be sure, he was dull as a brick and he had the manners of a cattle rancher. But he seemed to have a good heart, and she could find no fault in his tall frame and square-featured face.
The negative appeared stained: something hovered the background, pale and watery. Naddy adjusted the lens, enlarging the projection. She turned on the light and her heart promptly sank.
Bill Crawford appeared, stiff and bug-eyed, against a wall of framed portraits. And directly behind him stood the hazy image of a second man: slender, fair-haired, his handsome Nordic features knit in a disapproving glare.
“Walter…” she sighed miserably. “Don’t do this. I don’t even like him!”
The ghost’s frown seemed to grow the longer the light burned through the negative. Frustration got the best of her then, and she slapped her hands down on the table, sloshing the chemicals in their trays, knocking the projection out of focus.
“You’re the one who left me! I can’t go on like this, Walter. I can’t keep living half a life.”
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© Jane Senese 2020