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The agent makes a skeptical face. I know it doesn't make much sense, Curtis says. But that's how it is with those guys. They've got the goods on each other. They've got something to settle, and they're gonna settle it. The question is where.
The guy's rollerball hasn't touched his notebook. So your advice on how to find Damon Blackburn, he says, is basically to find Stanley Gla.s.s. And vice versa. Have I got that right?
My advice, Curtis says, is that I hope you have better luck than I did. That is pretty much my entire advice.
The agent pulls his tie from his pocket, smoothes it across his breastbone, replaces it with the inkstick. Mister Stone, he says, I should let you know that I am not anywhere close to being done with you. But I do wish you a speedy recovery, and I thank you for your cooperation today.
No problem, Curtis says. Hey, do me a favor, though. I'm starting to hurt pretty bad here. If we're done for now- Sure thing, the agent says. I'll get the nurse.
The nurse comes, messes with Curtis's IV, and soon everything's flattening out, becoming dull and vague. For a second, he has an answer to the agent's question-it's obvious: he pictures The Mirror Thief lying on Veronica's coffeetable, dropped on the Quicksilver carpet-but then the drug s.n.a.t.c.hes it away, and he lets it go. He wants to quit thinking very soon.
A warm swell of tears fills his half-empty eyes. He waits quietly and thinks of Damon until the medicine finally finds his brain, until he can't remember anything anymore except the weightless surge of planes taking off-out of Ramstein, out of Philly-until he knows nothing of his own past, until time seems to have stopped and he feels like he is no one at all.
Curtis. Add up the letters of the name, they come to four hundred eighty-two. Autumn leaves, it means. Or, believe it or not, gla.s.s. Add those three numbers-four plus eight plus two-you get fourteen. A gift, or a sacrifice. To glitter, or to shine.
Sometime later-minutes or hours, it's hard to know for sure-a telephone somewhere nearby will start to ring.
When the cops and nurses burst into his room, Curtis won't even be aware of the sound. He'll wake grudgingly, blinking at the overhead lights as cops gather: whispering into cellphones, setting up a recorder, stretching the cord of the hospital phone until the base rests next to Curtis on the mattress. He'll watch their busy mouths as they talk to him, and he'll nod, although he'll understand nothing they say. And then, as someone's finger mashes the phone's SPEAKER b.u.t.ton, he'll angle his head, and he'll try to listen.
Somehow he'll know right away. He'll hear the ghostly whine and hiss-long distances, strange satellites-and know exactly who's calling, and from where, and why.
But he'll ask anyway. He can't help himself. Stanley? he'll say. Is that you?
And then, after a long moment, you will answer him.
Good morning, kid, you'll say. Or good evening I guess it still is, where you are. Been a long G.o.dd.a.m.n time, hasn't it? I'm glad to hear your voice.
You won't keep Curtis long. Not because of the cops-what can cops do to you now?-but because there isn't much to say. Or there's too much. Anyway, you'll keep it simple. You'll say thank you. Then you'll say you're sorry. Then you'll say goodbye.
Another gust: the hotel window rattles. You hear churchbells ring, the scream of a gull. You draw the blankets tight around your chin.
In another minute or two you'll get up, make the call. You put the kid in a bad spot, so it's the least you can do. You should phone Veronica, too, while you're at it. See if she found what you left her in the airport locker. Her inheritance. That'll be a tough G.o.dd.a.m.n conversation. But you guess it ought to be done.
Veronica. Three hundred eighty-eight. A hard stone, like flint, or quartz. To veil. To conceal. To spread out. To be set free.
First things first: you should go to the window. Slide your feet to the slick hotel floor, grip your cane, rise. Somewhere down there-among the fruit- and flower-vendors in the Campo San Ca.s.siano, the bundled old women on the bridge's dainty steps, the black gondolas that slide down the mucus-gray ca.n.a.l-Damon is hunting you. He must know he's running out of chances to do this his way: with each pa.s.sing minute you slip farther from him. So you expect him soon. When he turns up, you want to be ready.
He's an annoyance more than anything else. A distraction. You had big plans for coming here, but you waited too long. You'd hoped to make a last trip to the Bibiloteca. The lady librarians are probably relieved today to get a break from your questions. What's this mean in English? How do I locate that?
You'd like to have seen more of the city, too, of course. So far it's been mostly Disneyland bulls.h.i.t: cameras and f.a.n.n.ypacks, glossy maps and flapping pigeons. But every so often there's a moment-a name on a sign that you know from Welles's book; columns and windows that echo buildings on Windward and the boardwalk-that'll freeze you in mid-step: trying to peek through the gap before it closes again, trying to see past overlapping screens of truth and fiction to Crivano. But it's hard to catch these moments, hard to keep yourself loose and open to them when you're looking over your shoulder all the time. Damon has spoiled this for you, too. You tell yourself it doesn't matter, but it does.
In your younger days-not so long ago-you'd have fixed this by now. Sipped espresso at the Caff Florian till you picked him from the crowd. Tracked him till the sun went down. Plenty of secluded spots. Bricks fall in this city all the time.
The strange thing is, part of you is glad to see him. Glad he's here. The parting f.u.c.k-you that you delivered in AC on Sunday afternoon-I'd like to tell you gentlemen a funny story about your shift boss, Mr. Blackburn-seemed cheap, inadequate, like a copout. But this feels right, feels earned.
Besides, you've found a few safe places where you don't have to think of him, where you can seek what you came here to find. The closest you've come to Crivano was yesterday, on the powerboat you hired to get a look at the city from the lagoon: belltowers emerging from late-winter mist, just as he might have seen them. Well, maybe not quite: in his day San Michele wasn't yet a graveyard; the Fondamenta Nuove hadn't been built. More of your cash sent the boat around Santa elena into the Ca.n.a.le di San Marco, and there you saw Crivano's city at last-somewhat sunken, with a few extra buildings, but otherwise much the same. The driver killed the engine, the boat began to drift, and as the fog and sea-smell settled around you a memory came, as clear as a punch to the forehead: playing cards with your dad on the Staten Island Ferry, looking up as the skyline of Lower Manhattan appeared through the clouds. Nothing natural in sight but water and gulls. Pure invention, imagined into being.
You stayed out on the lagoon too long, caught a chill, needed to p.i.s.s. Pushing yourself to your feet, you leaned on the gunwale, unzipped, tugged your diaper down. The driver rose from his seat in alarm-Ao! he barked-but he shut up in a hurry when he saw the hot stream you splashed across the sea's surface turn from yellow to red.
He dropped you on the Riva degli Schiavoni, and you wobbled toward the twin columns, your balance still troubled by the memory of waves. Lying here now, you can almost feel them again, an echo of the ebb and flow of your own sluggish blood.
Sniff the air: you've s.h.i.t yourself. You'd like to change before Damon comes. It won't be messy; you hardly eat anymore. Not being in control used to upset you; these days, not so much. You can get used to anything, or stop caring. As you've gotten sicker you've grown almost to enjoy it: it feels good, the warmth and the weight. Alive. More alive than you feel. You're always a little surprised to find that something so strange and vital can still come from what remains of you.
In another minute, you'll get up. You'll go to the window. You'll make the two calls. In just another minute.
It might have been nice to find a table somewhere. But of course that's the first place Damon would look, and anyway you've had enough of that scene. You're sick of gamblers, with their systems and their percentages. Blackjack is the only table game with a memory. Walter Kagami-still a kid, black-haired and skinny, in his guayabera shirt-explaining it to you for the hundredth time. Cards get dealt, they're out of play till the cutcard comes up. That's why cardcounting works. Get it? But you never understood, not really. That wasn't the world you lived in, or wanted to. Now the very thought of them-fixed to their tables like a.s.sembly-line robots, tethered to machines by frequent-player cards, that sorry bunch that fancies itself most free-turns your stomach. Wrong to call it play. Chance is not what makes gambling possible, Walter says. It's limits. Fifty-two cards in the deck. Six sides to the dice. Limits are what gambling's about. You're done with limits. Limits are bulls.h.i.t. A bunch of fairy-stories, dreamed up to ease us toward sleep.
The casino on the Lido is closed anyway-for the winter, maybe for good. Another's supposed to be nearby, on the Grand Ca.n.a.l. You must have pa.s.sed it your first morning in town, on your 250 gondola ride: the thug-beautiful boatman singing his guts out, the colorful competing palace facades like low-tech precursors to the joints on the Strip. But what's the point? You've already been to the Piazzetta, already stood between the famous twin columns: brought to the city from the Holy Land, along with the plague. That's where it really started, right? Dice-tables pitched on the execution ground.
After the hike from the Riva where the powerboat dropped you, you found yourself lightheaded and nauseous, overwhelmed by the grandeur of that s.p.a.ce, by all the history that built and shaped it. The feeling came upon you so fast that you thought: this is it. And what a way to go that would have been! What a spot for an exit!
But it wasn't. When you came to, you were kneeling on the dark trachyte tiles like you'd stopped there to pray. People were starting to gather. Kids at first, their expressions thrilled and scared. A few mommies and daddies following after. A lot of years gone since you last made a scene like that, since you last felt so visible. Something about the looks you got-wide eyes peering down from lovely foreign faces, worried murmurs in a dozen tongues-put a G.o.dd.a.m.n lump in your throat. You wanted to hold those eyes forever.
So you did the first thing that popped into your head: you dug a pack of cards from your jacket pocket. Right away your body remembered the posture, retrieved the feel of pavement beneath your knees, put your hands into automatic motion. The king of hearts, the seven of hearts, the seven of diamonds. Each card creased up the middle, lifted and dropped, rising and falling, dancing in midair. Forty-five G.o.dd.a.m.n years since you last worked a crowd like that. Not since that night on the boardwalk with Claudio.
Claudio. Two hundred eighty-seven. To be fragrant. Or seventeen. Fortunate. To dream. Or eight. To breathe after. To long for.
You've seen him every now and then: small speaking parts in movies and TV shows, a face in the corner of a soap-opera magazine. A different name, of course, which makes it hard to be sure. But the sightings have been steady through the years, so you figure he's doing all right. He could be famous, even; you wouldn't necessarily know. You hope he's happy, wherever he is. You hope he got those long brown fingers around some of what he wanted.
It's all good and scattered now: every piece of those days. If the whole scene had pa.s.sed out in the sand, been carried off by the tide, you wouldn't have been surprised. But that's not what happened: it blew up instead. Larry Lipton's youth book came out in '59, and against all expectations it was a big hit. Every poet and painter from Santa Monica to the Marina del Rey became famous for a while, mostly as somebody else's punchline, and right away the fame started killing them: dope, disease, murder, suicide. Charlie drowned himself in '67; cancer took Stuart in '74. Alex published his own book in '61 and never wrote another. Somehow he kept his junk habit going for another twenty-odd years. His real life's work.
Welles checked out in '63, the same week as Jack Kennedy. You didn't hear about it till months later, pa.s.sing through L.A. after wearing out your welcome in Palm Springs. You sent Synnve flowers anyway; Walter helped you figure out how to do it. She sent a nice card back, brief and vague, snapshots from the funeral enclosed. No familiar faces. The girl nowhere to be seen.
Welles's death sent you back to the book, which for a few years you'd put aside. You half-expected the spell to be broken, but it wasn't-though the book had changed, shifted along invisible faultlines. Or maybe you'd grown into it, in ways he'd surely predicted. You're a gambler! You live by skill and fortune. By then it was true. Even today the old b.a.s.t.a.r.d finds ways to poke at you, to jerk your strings. He must've known you'd find your way here eventually. The city's been waiting-a trap he baited-and you've waltzed right into it.
Just how much of your life has he scripted? That scene yesterday between the columns was pure Welles: probably playing in his head the first night you met him. You were running a card game on the boardwalk. I won a dollar from you. Still, kneeling there with the sea at your back, you never felt like a sucker or a patsy-and it was hard not to take satisfaction from it: moving the cards with your old fleet hands, working the switch, there at the very center of the web you've been walking.
Maybe that's why you weren't too surprised when you looked up to find Damon watching you: leaning against the marble railing of the loggetta, eating gelato with a plastic spoon, appearing and disappearing in a line of tourists queued behind an upraised umbrella. He wore a new linen suit, a new wool overcoat, and a deeply p.i.s.sed-off expression: the ensemble of a traveler who's left someplace in a hurry, who had time to pack nothing but cash. A battered leather shoulderbag hung at his side, flap unbuckled, within easy reach of his right hand. You grinned at him, but you're not sure he saw it. You have no idea, really, what other people can see.
For another ten minutes or so you kept the cards going while Damon finished his ice cream, started drifting closer. Just as you began to think about how best to get away, a cop showed up-lithe, poised, runway-model handsome, state-funeral tidy-and answered the question for you, helping you stand, gently shooing you away. Oh, thank you, signore, you said, plenty loud enough for Damon to hear. I'm sorry, but I'm not feeling well. And this city is so confusing! I'm staying at the Aquila Bianca in San Polo. Can you tell me how to get there?
So now you wait. Damon's probably bivouacked this very minute at the bacaro across the street, flipping through a magazine, wondering when you'll come down, or when he should go up. Odds are the bacaro closes for a couple of hours after lunch; most of them do, it seems. It's getting late. You have a clear picture of what comes next: Damon will knock back the last of his wine as the proprietor motions to the exit, he'll rub his sleepless eyes and adjust his coat as the door locks behind him, and then, with a few easy steps, he'll cross the gray flagstone street.
You won't be making it back to the Biblioteca Marciana. Probably just as well. You've seen what you came to see, well past the point of diminishing returns. The library girls brought them to you on platters, helped you tug on the white gloves that protect their frail pages: the collected correspondence of Suor Giustina Glissenti. You understood hardly any of it, but you knew the one word you were looking for, and you were certain your eyes wouldn't miss it.
It wasn't there. You flipped through again to be sure: backward this time, slower, your nose an inch off the paper. The result was the same: no mention anywhere of anyone named Crivano. Why would Welles lie? Did he lie? Even at this dead end you turned up clues, or what might be clues. The nun's letters stopped after 1592, the same year Crivano supposedly fled the city. Suor Giustina's name doesn't appear in her convent's records after that date-but it isn't listed before that date, either, although you did find a record of another Glissenti girl: a cousin, maybe. To make matters worse, some letters that were supposed to be in the box were missing. Why? How long have they been gone?
It felt something like cardcounting: filling in gaps based on what little you can see. Walter and Donald could probably figure it out in a heartbeat-but they're not around, and your head doesn't work like that: if you can't see it, then you're at a loss. But you can almost always see it. Almost always.
Patterns: that's what you're best at. Seeing the figure in the tealeaves. You could spot it-you're sure you could-if you had a little more to go on, a few more dots to connect. Vettor Crivano flees this city one thousand lunar years after Muhammad leaves Medina: some kind of echo there. Ezra Pound is released from St. Elizabeth's Hospital a few weeks after you depart the sh.o.r.eline; he dies and is buried half a mile from here, at San Michele, the same year Veronica is born. John Hinckley, Jr. watches a movie, shoots a president-launching Curtis on his own funny trajectory-and then gets locked up at St. Elizabeth's. All of this must add up to something, must spell something out. You're running out of chances to put it all together, to see it whole.
Or maybe soon you'll see everything.
At the desk downstairs there's only the proprietor, visible through the window from the street; Damon shouldn't find it hard to get around him. You hope he's careful enough to take that extra step. He'll lean over the wooden counter, match your name to your room number, and soon he'll be on the stairs, fixing a suppressor to a pis...o...b..rrel, hiding the weapon with a glossy newsmagazine. The lock-quaint, old-fashioned-won't slow him down. The well-oiled door will swing open, and he'll see the neat berm your legs make on the bed.
By then, of course, you'll already be in the mirror.
It's not easy, but you've practiced. Quick trips at first: a few seconds, in and out. Then longer stretches, deep dives into un-s.p.a.ce. Not unlike learning how to swim. What you recall from the other side is the hugeness of it. And the unity: coming back, the idea of separateness becomes laughable. If pa.s.sing through is hard; returning is much harder. Because, why bother, frankly?
But you do come back. Surfacing in Curtis's suite, in Veronica's room, in the suite at Walter's joint. Letting people see you when you got confident enough. Their startled reactions proving that what you felt was true. Proving something, anyway.
This time will be different. More like learning to breathe water. You have been very patient. You have waited a long time.
Damon will stand over your body for a while. Sniffing the s.h.i.tty air. He'll step to the bedside, sit lightly on the mattress. Watching you. Then he'll set his gun on the stacked blankets and flick a finger hard against the tip of your nose. He'll find a penlight in his coat, lift your eyelid with his thumb, and shine the beam into your slack clammy face. Then he'll sigh, and turn, and look out the window at the campo below.
Eventually he'll stand, pick up the pistol. He'll press the thick barrel against your head, resting it in the orbit of your left eye, and he'll hold the newsmagazine above it, opened to catch the spatter. Der Spiegel: you'll be able to read the cover over his shoulder. In Gttlicher Mission, it says.
He'll shoot your eyes out, one at a time. He'll drop the wet red magazine on your chest, wipe his hands on the blanket. On his way to the door he'll pick up the pa.s.sport that he had his friends in D.C. make for you: it's on the chest of drawers, easy to find. On his way back to his own hotel he'll drop it in a ca.n.a.l, fastened with an elastic band to a palm-size chunk of stone.
You will not get the chance to make those two calls.
If Damon looks in the mirror on his way out of the room-is he the sort of person who would?-you won't let him see you. Not just yet.
Mirror. Three hundred twenty-nine: a sharp disciplinarian. Or: those exhausted by hunger. Or: in the land beyond the sea. In Hebrew, , which adds to fifty. Unwedded. Completeness. A citadel.
This is what you've wanted all along: freedom from what's trapped you in this world. Freedom from yourself. At the end, they say, your whole life's supposed to flash before your eyes. Flash: that's the word they always use. You hope like h.e.l.l it isn't true. It's been a long time since looking last held any interest. Lately, what jazzes you is what you can't see: the way the spell of vision gets broken, the way your breath fogs the gla.s.s when you get too close. All these years, dragged around by your eyeb.a.l.l.s: you've had about enough. A G.o.dd.a.m.n slideshow! What the h.e.l.l kind of death is that for a person? You don't want it. You're ready for whatever's next.
Eye. Four hundred ten. A mounting-up of smoke. To be hindered or restrained. To lay snares.
That was Crivano's escape: it says so in Welles's book. Took you long enough to figure it out. Part of you wishes you'd brought The Mirror Thief along-although that's silly, sentimental. Curtis will take care of it; here it'd just get thrown away. Besides, it's not like you don't remember every word. Over the years you have become the book: a lifetime of dreams and memories, braided through its lines.
In a way, it's not so bad that the trail in the Biblioteca ran cold. Isn't that exactly what you wanted to hear the night you stalked Welles on the beach? That he'd made Crivano up? That the world of his book overlapped with the real world hardly at all? Finding out otherwise became a problem for you, one you've been working for years to solve. But even if Welles did lie, even if Crivano never really existed, this trip hasn't been a waste of time. There's something here: you've felt it, even if you haven't seen it. Can't somebody still be a ghost, even if they were never born? Why not? Who made up that rule?
Yesterday, a final clue. You mentioned the name of the ship to a librarian-the ship Crivano escapes on-and she came back with something: a letter from a young merchant captain to his father, bringing news from the Dalmatian coast. Very bad are the uskok pirates, the librarian translated. Last month they robbed two small ships en route to Spalato, and they burned a trabacolo-a trabacolo is a boat, yes?-that fought them with great valor.
The Lynceus. You kept the girls busy till closing time, but they found nothing else: neither the date the ship was lost, nor where it had sailed from. It might have already stopped at Split, let Crivano off. Maybe, as its wreck lit up the ocean, he was already intriguing his way through the Croatian port, dodging the Council of Ten's a.s.sa.s.sins, seeking pa.s.sage to Turkish lands. No doubt that city would have felt dreamlike to him: both strange and familiar. Diocletian's ancient palace was the model for this city's Piazza; the belltower in this city's Piazza is duplicated there. You would like to have seen that, too. But no matter. Cities appearing in other cities: a map of echoes, a pattern you know well.
You prefer to believe that Crivano burned. It's an end that fits him, a doom you can imagine. Trapped belowdecks, flames arcing overhead, his mind would have returned to Lepanto: what he did there, what he did not do. His lonely secret life would have seemed a peculiar circuit, beginning and ending in the hold of a burning ship.
With nothing to do but await the agonies-the blistering flesh, the smothering outrush of air-how would he have pa.s.sed his final moments? Tincture of henbane, probably: to slow his pulse, to dull his senses, to free his mind to wander. And the magic mirror, of course: the trick he taught you. To meditate upon the talisman-to gaze upon the mirror's surface-is to arrange your mind to resemble the mind of G.o.d. You pa.s.s through the silvering, beyond all earthly torment, into the realm of pure idea. At last, all mysteries become clear.
By that point, you imagine, it'll be hard for you to care about any earthly thing: hard to convince yourself to come back, to finish your remaining task.
But when Damon returns to his own hotel, you'll be waiting. It might take him a moment to notice you, especially if he's avoiding his reflection; you'll bide your time until he does. With the benefit of perfect knowledge, you will not be unkind. If he shoots out the gla.s.s-as well he might-you will remain with him, even in the fallen shards. There was a time not long ago when you felt something for him akin to love.
Only one result is possible, so you hope it will come easily. Your ghost-hands will guide the pistol to his mouth, then steady it while his thumb locates the trigger.
Then it will be time for you to join Crivano: to stand with his shade on the blackened foredeck of the Lynceus while he signals to the full moon. The moon will answer through the smoke: Imagine me not as a mirror, but as an opening, an aperture, a pupil admitting light. Imagine the earth curves around you, not under. Imagine this world to be the eye of G.o.d, and the ocean its retina. Know that you are always seen.
But you are indeed a mirror, Crivano will say. And I, a stranger to myself, would be seen by no one. That is all I ask, and far more than I deserve.
The pillar of smoke will blot the moon; the flames will rise to erase him. The ship will burn to the waterline: hissing, then sunken, silent. Once the sky has cleared, the sea will betray nothing. The Mirror Thief will be gone.
So, in the end, only we two will remain: you and the ocean, you and the mirror, you and the story you've dreamed.
Listen, now: footfalls in the corridor. A cautious hand upon the k.n.o.b.
No time remains to doubt. This, then, is the end of you-what you've feared, what you remember. All of it flashing. The faces and the colors. Watch closely: here they come.
It took me five and a half years to write this book, and another seven and a half to find a publisher for it. During this time I benefited to a nearly immeasurable degree from the patience, guidance, and generosity of others, without whom this would not have been possible. I'd like to express my thanks to my spouse, Kathleen Rooney; my parents, David and Barbara Seay; my late grandfather Joe F. Boydstun; to Michael Seay, Jen Seay, Beth Rooney, Nick Super, Richard Rooney, Mary Ann Rooney, Megan Rooney, J. Mark Rooney, Karen Rooney, Cliff Turner, Kelly Seal, Richard Weil, Hester Arnold Farmer, Andrew Rash, Angela McClendon Ossar, Scott Blackwood, James Charlesworth, Carole Shepherd, David Spooner, Matthew MacGregor, Elisa Gabbert, John Cotter, Carrie Scanga, Jason Skipper, Warren Frazier, Mitch.e.l.l Brown, Bob Drinan, Olivia Lilley, Shane Zimmer, Tovah Burstein, Timothy Moore, the faculty and my fellow students at Queens University of Charlotte's low-residency MFA program, and my colleagues at the Village of Wheeling, Illinois, especially Jon Sfondilis, Michael Crotty, and Lisa Leonteos.
As my collection of pages has grown closer to becoming a book, I have benefited from the hard work and good judgment of my agent Kent Wolf and my editor Mark Krotov, as well as his colleagues at Melville House, including, but not limited to, Dennis Loy Johnson, Valerie Merians, Julia Fleischaker, Liam O'Brien, Ena Brdjanovic, Chad Felix, and Eric Price.
A substantial portion of the ma.n.u.script was written at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Ma.s.sachusetts, where I had a 20052006 fiction fellowship. It's impossible to overstate the value of the support and encouragement that I received from this organization, its staff, and the other fellows.
Finally, I'm eternally indebted to Richard Peabody for starting me down the path that led here, and to Jane Alison for helping me map my route. If they're willing to claim it, this book is theirs as well as mine.
About the Author.
Martin Seay is the executive secretary for the village of Wheeling, Illinois. The Mirror Thief is his first novel.