Chapter Three of the Declan and Charlie Cowriting Project, written with Harriet Stuart.
Declan made Charlie wait in the front room of his apartment, a mixture of parlour, kitchen, dining room, and study that could only exist in tight city living quarters. Declan didn’t bother to keep anything clean, which didn’t help matters.
His modeling space was just a corner tucked into the backroom, across from his bed and the desk where he kept his cameras and photography supplies. He hastily put the supplies away—Charlie probably didn’t know anything about photography, but if she did, some of his supplies would be a dead giveaway. He moved his collection of newspapers gently off of the modeling chair and onto the bed. He had a large collection of them after five months, and every time he looked at them, he was reminded of how he should have gone home long before. Months before, probably.
But he couldn’t go back without the photograph. That was his excuse, now—to himself, of course. His mother didn’t get to know about that, because all it would earn him was a lecture on how he had to be more careful, and maybe even a relegation to an easier job. Sorting newspapers, or classifying photographs… something dreadful like that.
Declan stuffed his calendar book under his mattress. He hadn’t done modeling in ages… recently, he’d been mostly taking architectural photographs and films of ordinary people on the streets. His last studio portrait had probably been… Declan had to smile. It had been those street urchins, the ones selling peanuts in the street. They’d been so darling that Declan had wanted portraits of them. That was probably why it was such a mess; street urchins weren’t very suspicious types, so he hadn’t had to clean. At least, not suspicious in the way Charlie would be.
There was a soft knock at the door. “Are you about ready for me yet?” Charlie called in.
“Um…” Declan looked around the room. He didn’t think there was anything anachronistic out in the open—then he cursed, grabbing the orb that was floating next to his bed and extinguishing it. He stuffed it under the mattress next to the calendar book. “Yes.”
Charlie opened the door and entered. Declan looked up. She’d done something to her eyes—they were darker now. Heavier. She was playing up the fake psychic angle—it was a pity she couldn’t pose with the orb. His artistic side knew that that would be absolutely perfect. Pity he had to be pragmatic.
“As a journalist, I thought you might be at least slightly organized…” she said.
“As a journalist?” Declan repeated. “Journalists don’t have to be organized. We just have to be able to write.” Not that Declan could actually write all that well. Another reason he did photography.
Charlie smiled. “So what do you want me to do?”
That was an excellent question. “Sit down.” Declan gestured to the chair. “I like to get one studio portrait before poses. It helps me organize my photographs.”
She awkwardly took a seat, crossing her legs and folding her hands in her lap. “Like so?”
“Very pretty.” Declan set up his tripod camera and made a great show of fiddling with the frame. It wasn’t necessary, of course, but he had to keep up appearances.
“So, Declan,” Charlie said while he fiddled with the lens. “How do you plan on convincing me to give back the photograph?”
“Threats. Dueling, maybe, if you’re up for it. With rapiers, not pistols—so much classier with rapiers… Hold still…” Declan took the photograph, the flash—unnecessary, but entertaining—making Charlie jump just slightly.
“Well, if we resort to a duel, my father has taught me how to use a sword.”
“Did he work in a circus at one point, then? The dueling psychic of County Clare, or something?”
“Or something.” She winked. “But really. What do you intend to do?”
“Hypnotism.” Declan pulled out his pocket watch, waving it before her eyes. “The photograph is not yours… you feel guilty… return it to its rightful owner…”
She raised an eyebrow. “You really have no idea what you’re doing, do you?”
Declan dropped the watch back into his pocket. “I prefer to consider that I’m keeping my options open.”
“Well that’s hardly going to get your photograph back,” she said, fixing her hair slightly. “It is always necessary to have at least some semblance of a plan in these situations, Declan.”
“What about locking you in here until you’re forced to give it back?”
“That would hardly work. I gave it to a friend of mine who was instructed to hide it somewhere incredibly secret and not tell me the location. Try again.”
“Someone else has the photograph?” Declan felt a sudden lurch of dread. The picture was not supposed to be incriminating… but it was strange, nonetheless. It only took showing it to someone who knew more than rudimentary photography, and it would be all over…
“Possibly multiple someones, depending on where she decided to hide it.” She smirked.
“Miss O’Brian,” Declan said, stepping across the room. “How fast can you get that photograph back?”
Charlie rolled her eyes. “Oh, do relax, dear. It’s safe at home. You really are too much fun to mess with…”
Declan relaxed. He shouldn’t have let all his reactions be so visible. His mother would have chided him for it. “Don’t show it to anyone. Or else.”
“Or else what?“
“I’ll tell your father some scandalous story that you won’t be able to prove untrue.”
Charlie looked briefly hesitant, her expression betraying nothing but her eyes darting across his face. “You still need to convince me to give it back.”
“You don’t need it. I do. This is not that complicated.”
“And yet, it is,” she said sweetly.
“I wasn’t going to stoop so low again…” Declan said. “But I’ll pay you. Please.”
“I… will consider the offer,” she said slowly. “Now, what other poses do you want me to do?”
“That’s partially up to you,” Declan said. “I just want to create more art. True art captures who a person is—so who are you, Miss O’Brian?”
“Who am I? Not Miss O’Brian. If I’m calling you Declan, you should call me Charlie.”
Declan raised an eyebrow. “That sounds terribly improper. Scandalous stories, remember?”
“Don’t be a Victorian, Declan.”
“I chose not to be. Don’t worry.” Which made him the minority of the family. “I still don’t know how you want to pose. Who do you want to be? Photography can make you whatever you like. I’ve dressed up street urchins as princesses. Very dull women as intellectuals. Angry men as kind ones.”
“Then make me psychic.”
Declan glanced at the mattress again. It would be so perfect…
“Want to see a magic trick?”
“Love to,” Charlie said, smiling.
“Let me blindfold you.”
“Well then I’m hardly seeing the magic trick, now am I?”
“Let me rephrase. I’m going to make you a psychic. And when you see the photograph, it will be magical. Though you’ll have to wait for it to be developed.”
“All right, then. Do your magic.”
Declan took a long handkerchief from his dresser drawer and tied it around Charlie’s head. This was going to be fun.
“Hold out your hands,” Declan said. “And then hold still. I promise it won’t hurt.”
“I’m somewhat inclined not to believe you… You did pull a knife on me earlier…”
Declan chuckled, then went over to the mattress and pulled the orb out from underneath. He relit it and set it in the air above Charlie’s hands, where it hovered obediently. He set up his camera and took several pictures, from various angles, in case she doubted. She would doubt, of course—that was the point. He couldn’t let her think it was real. But he wanted it to be a good show.
He took the orb away, and put it back under the bed, and then slipped the blindfold off of her eyes.
“That was quite anticlimactic,” she said.
“The photograph won’t be,” Declan promised. “But you won’t get to see it.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Unless you trade me back mine,” Declan clarified. “You give me my photograph, and I’ll show you yours. All of them. I took several. You can keep one or two.”
She crossed her arms. “No. Too easy. I’ll play you for it, though.”
Charlie reached into her purse and pulled out a worn stack of cards, then walked across the room and sat down on his bed, placing the cards on his mattress. “Play. Poker. Buy in bet is a photograph from each of us.”
“I’m really bad at poker. We’re playing cribbage.” He could maybe win at cribbage. But not poker.
“I have the more important photograph. I choose the game.”
“Don’t you want to see the magic trick? It’s good, I promise. If you’re dissatisfied, I’ll even give my photograph back.” Glowing orbs were just impressive. You couldn’t go wrong.
“You are operating under the assumption that I actually care enough about it. It’s a photograph of me pretending to be psychic. It means nothing.”
“And my photograph means nothing to you. So it’s fair.”
Charlie started dealing cards. “You are almost as stubborn as I am, Declan. We’re playing.”
He was going to lose. He just knew it. But he sat down across from her, anyway, and picked up his hand. She picked up hers as well, face completely blank. Then she glanced at his desk, and the button collection that sat on the top.
“We need chips,” she said. “Your buttons would work.”
“No.” Those weren’t toys. Those were memories. Supposedly. He’d never really bought into that.
Charlie stood up and grabbed the button collection anyway, spilling it on top of the bed and dividing them up equally between them.
“Don’t lose any…” Declan said, his voice strained. Quietly, he set aside some of the more valuable ones out of his hand. He was going to lose anyway—but he couldn’t afford to lose the button from, say, his christening gown. Or the vest he’d worn on his first assignment. Those were important, and he really didn’t want to have to tell his mother that he’d lost them. Or how…
Charlie started arranging the buttons by size, smallest on her left and growing bigger to her right.
“Size?” Declan said, raising an eyebrow. “Color. Please.” Actually, he arranged them chronologically, but that was a pattern only for him.
“Why would you arrange by color?” she said, making a face. “You arrange by size. Color is subjective. Size can be measured.“
“Color can be measured!” Not that Declan got to use color much. When he got back home, he printed some of the photographs in color, but mainly he worked in black and white. It felt more authentic.
“Not accurately.” She moved one of her buttons to the center of the bed. “I did look at the photograph, by the way. Yours. But I don’t know any of the people… So tell me, Declan, who is your family?”
“It’s very self-explanatory. They’re my family. End of discussion.” He hesitated. Betting with memories… something just felt wrong with that. He moved out the button from off of the shirt he’d worn to his first birthday party. He didn’t remember it, anyway. Mum had started their button collections for them.
“Tell me about them, though. Your parents… your siblings, I’m guessing…”
“And my aunts and uncle. Yes. Very good.”
Charlie rolled her eyes. “Names, at least. And occupations?”
Oh, that was not a good topic. Period correct occupations… period correct… er… “My father is an ambassador. My mother helps him.”
“And your siblings?” she pressed.
“Socialites,” Declan lied. “They do charity work. At libraries.” That was so bad…
“And what about your aunts and uncle?”
“One of my aunts is a librarian…” That was true enough. “And the other is a mortician. My uncle is a gunsmith.”
“And you ended up a photographer?”
Yes, that definitely made sense. “It’s what I wanted to do. After I failed to become a diplomat.”
“I cannot see you as a diplomat,” Charlie said, raising the bet again with a grey button stamped with a laurel.
“That was the button from my coat,” Declan said, “From before I failed.”
She examined the button closely. “Failed how?”
“It was too much pressure.” Declan matched her bet, though his hand wasn’t that strong. She liked to bluff. That much was evident from all the pickpocketing. “My father is rather famous. I couldn’t possibly follow in his footsteps—no matter what I did, I was overshadowed. The pressure made diplomatic training almost impossible. So I left home.”
She was silent a moment. “Oh.” She put the button back down on the bed. “So why do you keep the button?”
“So that I never forget the failure. And so I never forget why I left.”
“That seems like a… heavy load. I don’t think I’d want to remember that sort of failure.”
“It keeps me… stable,” Declan said. Yes, it had been painful, failing. But sometimes his resolve wavered, and he almost gave up, almost went back home. The button was there to remind him that there was nothing for him in that world—only his family, who could be visited occasionally, and then put back into their boxes, kept out of his day to day life.
“Hm.” Charlie slid all of her buttons forward. “All in. Photograph included.”
Declan hesitated. She had to be bluffing… but he was going to lose, so just in case she wasn’t… “I’ll match that.” Though, technically, with the buttons he’d held back for sentimental value, he wasn’t. But that was a trivial detail.
Charlie smirked and showed her hand. A royal flush.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You can keep your buttons.”
“If you took them, you really wouldn’t leave this room without a story following you home to your father.”
She swept the buttons into a pile and deposited them in their container. “I’d be interested to see if you have the creativity to come up with something he would actually believe… but it isn’t something either of us need concern ourselves with. So long as you show me the photograph when it’s developed. I’ll be keeping yours, in the meantime. Unless you’d like to reconsider taking me to meet your lovely family?”
“You can’t meet them. They don’t live in the country, Charlie.” And that was an understatement. “Why do you want to meet them, anyway?”
“I want to see the diplomats and gunsmiths and librarians that formed the gullible photographer sitting in front of me.”
“You physically can’t,” Declan said. “They’re too far away. I hardly ever visit, and I’m their son.”
“That seems like a lonely way to live your life. I can’t imagine my world without my father…”
Declan felt a pang, and reached for his pocket watch. “It does get lonely. But I visit for Christmas, and birthdays… and whenever it gets unbearable.” Instantly, he wished he could take the last phrase back. If they actually lived in another country, that wouldn’t be a valid reason to visit.
“When what gets unbearable?” she asked, her voice softening.
“Hiding from them.” He shouldn’t be telling her. She was just a pretty stranger who had something he needed. But she was also his escape—she could be his confessional, too. “I hide from them. And sometimes the guilt becomes unbearable.”
“I hide, too,” Charlie said, fiddling with the hem of her dress. “From my father… and myself. Sometimes I don’t know where the various masks I put on end and my real self begins.”
“Masks.” Declan laughed. “I know all about those. I’ve decided that whatever lies I choose to hold up to myself are a reflection of myself—but they’re also a distortion. Sometimes a negative, even. But they’re still an angle of me.”
“So are mine. And that scares me more than you know,” she murmured.
“I said they could be a negative,” Declan said. “Reflecting all that you were not.” He gestured back to the camera. “Do you want me to take pictures of the masks, too? I can do that. Maybe I can show you what’s real, too.”
“I don’t need to see my masks reflected back,” she said. “But… you can try to capture what’s real. If you want.”
“I do. That’s the purpose of art. And I am an artist.” At least, he wanted to be. “But you need to tell me just a little of who you are. Just words. I can do the art.”
“I think…” Charlie hesitated. “I think you know who I am. Tell me what to do.”
“You think I know who you are?” Declan smiled. He didn’t. Unless she really was all shallow flirtations and fake psychic act—which somehow, he doubted. She was too stubborn for that. If she’d just wanted the money, she would have accepted his offer to pay her. And if she’d just wanted the kisses, she would have taken those already, as well. “Very well. Let’s see… sit down on the chair, but don’t bother sitting like a lady. Take out a cigarette—but don’t put it in your mouth. I like it in your hand. And…” Declan looked around the room. He typically kept a few props for models, including an ornate, circular mirror. He liked using mirrors—sometimes the camera ended up reflected back at himself, a hidden cameo to the photographer. “Do what you want with this.” He handed it to her, and she staggered slightly at its weight.
She glanced around the room. “Could you bring me that table in the corner?”
Declan crossed the room and moved the stack of books that was on a small folding table onto the floor. He tried to be careful—some of them were going to be Christmas presents. He dragged the table over to where Charlie sat. She placed the mirror on the surface, reflective side up, and sat in the chair. She crossed one leg over the other, then rested her elbow on the table, holding up the cigarette, while placing her other hand at the rim of the mirror.
“Like so?” she asked softly.
Declan smiled. She was reading her own reflection. Still the psychic, but this seemed… truer. He moved the tripod closer, so that he had an angle where he could not only see her face, but her reflection in the mirror, as well.
“That’s lovely. Hold still.” He took the photograph. This would make a lovely collection. He should let more people model, and try to show their true selves through it… self-perception was almost as interesting as who people really were. That could be his next series.
Which of course was just another excuse to stay here… for even longer… hiding…
“I’d like a copy. When they’re ready,” she said.
“Of course.” That was the nice thing about not being restricted to just 1920s technology.
“And the other one. As per our agreement.”
“Don’t make everything a business agreement. I would have given it to you anyway.”
“All the world is simply transactions, though. Whether it’s realized or not. One thing for another. Nothing is free, Mr. Falker.”
“The best things are free.” Declan hesitated. “The only worthwhile things are free.”
“Then I suppose I’ve never had anything worthwhile,” Charlie said.
“Let’s go have a worthwhile thing, then.” It wasn’t the smart thing. But to never have anything free? One of the best parts of Declan’s childhood had been the grace. The free moments. He stood up and crossed to the door. Slowly, she stood up and followed him.
“And where are we going, Declan?”
“Ice cream. The best things in life are free, and ice cream is good anyway, so… free ice cream… that’s about perfect, isn’t it?” Another fundamental part of childhood: sugar is almost as important as grace. That had probably been an unintentional lesson.
“It must be. But… I won’t be able to stay long, you realize. My father is likely already in a state that I’ve been out this long.”
“Then a little ice cream won’t hurt anything.” He opened the door. Charlie hesitated in the doorway.
“You know, you were wrong yesterday,” she said suddenly.
“What?” He turned to look back at her.
“About Limerick. There’s been nothing in the papers about the National Army taking it.”
“It’s not in the papers yet? It will be… It should be…” Declan grinned. “Then I will also get you a free newspaper.”
“It’s not free in that case. You’re doing it to prove a point.” She stepped past him into the sitting room. “But fine. Do as you please.”
“I do.” Declan opened the door of his apartment—straight into the face of a policeman.
“Declan Erikson?” the policeman asked. “We need to have a talk.”