A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
by JM Sherwood
I found the photograph on my second day in the house. Some of the furniture had been included in the sale, and I was busy digging through junk left in the best piece -- a large antique desk -- when it turned up, inside an old manilla envelope. There was nothing written on the envelope itself, other than a date, scrawled in a careless fashion in the upper left corner. February 10, 1984. Six years past.
I suppose I should have simply tossed it into the pile of things I'd accumulated to turn over to the estate agent, but curiousity made me look inside and there was the picture.
"Now there's a face," I muttered. Indeed it was. The photo was a formal job, posed; the kind that make even celebrities look like dummies from Madame Tussauds. Or usually did. I had the feeling that nothing could have made this being anything less than lively. Even the curls that rioted over his forehead seemed to snap with electricity. It was a head and shoulders study, but the expanse of chest revealed by the unbuttoned shirt hinted at a body that, I speculated probably caused cardiac arrest in yak. The most arresting feature, though, was his eyes -- you've heard of people being described as having cat's eyes. So had I -- I'd also never actually seen anyone that lucky. Until then. These were wide, slanted, and glowed green with a sort of feline sensuality that shot sparks along my nerve endings. I couldn't begin to imagine what the genuine article might be capable of, only that it would be somewhat devastating.
I set the photograph down, and turned the envelope over, thinking there must be some clue as to the identity of this fellow, or -- who the photo belonged to. Surely it had been left behind by mistake. I couldn't imagine ANYONE leaving it on purpose. But there was nothing -- just that date -- six years ago tomorrow, in fact.
Robert Morris, the estate agent, would have to be contacted. There were a number of other things which I'd found during my house cleaning -- clothing and some hardcover books, which were worn in a way that spelled out rereading by the owner. That sort of thing always gets left behind when you move from one house to another...over the years I'd probably left an entire wardrobe and library behind in the various and sundry places I'd lived in.
I had been an opera singer. Until a couple of months before when my busy-body doctors told me flat out that if I didn't stop the traveling and the performing, the strain on my voice would be such that I'd be lucky to come out of it talking, let alone singing. These medicine men are ruinously expensive, and I wasn't thrilled by their verdict -- BUT, if one has paid out enormous sums for such advice, the very least one can do is follow it. With luck I'd be all right. Eventually. In the meantime, since my specialists were all in Harley Street, I'd decided to stop living out of suitcases and buy a house. Which I did -- a nice place in Hampstead. Regency fan light doorways and all that. It was odd, though -- I'd been looking for something entirely different -- having always had a fancy to live in Chelsea. I almost didn't bother looking at No. 13 Marsden Street. And it was far too big for one person, though two or three would have fit quite comfortably. But there was a rather...lonely quality to the place, and --this will sound fanciful, you can put it down to 15 years in the theatre -- it seemed to welcome me. The next thing I knew I'd signed on the dotted line.
And found the photograph.
Which I finally managed to drag myself away from long enough to put the sitting room back to rights, and make myself some dinner. Rain was coming down in buckets, hard enough to make visibility nearly impossible; I spooned in the last of my chocolate pudding, reflecting how lucky I was to be inside.
That was when the doorbell rang. Now, I know what you're thinking -- when one is in the city, living alone, and its late at night you don't just waltz over and open the door wide to the first person who shows up. Well, I didn't. There's a peephole and, by standing on the London phone directory, I just managed to be tall enough to use it. Just as quickly, I lept off the phone directory and opened the door.
Now wait a minute -- you would have, too. It was the fellow from my mystery photograph.
Yes, I rather thought that might make a difference.
He was soaked to the skin, of course, which probably made him very uncomfortable but did wonders for me.
He edged inside, trying not to drip all over the hallway. "Sorry about this, but my car has decided to break down, and on top of that, I have to meet someone...could I use your telephone? I used to live here, you see...."
The voice was as attractive as the rest of him. "Sure -- and I know. I mean, I know you used to live here."
"How do you know that?" He looked puzzled, and I just smiled and took his jacket from him.
"Let me hang that up. Don't mind the floor -- they're going to be carpeting it tomorrow anyhow. The phone's in here...." I pointed at the entrance to the sitting room. "I'd better get you some towels to dry off with...." I herded him in there, adding "if you can find somewhere to sit, be my guest..." and when for the towels. Fortunately, they were still in the boxes littering the rest of the hallway, as the most I'd done to the upstairs was make my bed. I pattered back, and he took them from me without comment, except for a quick smile and a muttered "thanks."
He dialled the phone, while I perched on the desk chair, but whoever he was trying to reach wasn't answering. "Damn. He must have left already."
"Look, is there anything I can do to help?"
He shook his head. "No. I'll just have to try and get a taxi...."
"I'm afraid you're out of luck there, as well -- there's a strike on." The British economy may have improved, but its workers had never lost their enthusiasm for striking.
I turned my attention back to my visitor, realizing, suddenly, that his clothes were much like the ones in the photo. Not noticeably old- fashioned, but certainly not straight up to date either. Well, who was I to talk? I was sitting there wearing a pair of pink 10 year old sneakers, and some jeans I'd bought at Bloomingdales in 1980.
He was still gazing around the room, refamiliarizing himself, I thought.... "That's new -- we had the walls done in cream. Rather bare without the paintings...."
That puzzled me. There hadn't been any paintings when I'd first gone through the house [missing text]. The seller had been represented by a [missing text] never met anyone else. My visitor must have lived here longer ago than last year when the house went on the market. I voiced this last bit and he nodded, snapping out of whatever memories he was indulging in. "Yeh, it must be over 10 years ago that we moved in...."
That "we" again. And I still didn't know his name....
"I'm forgetting my manners -- my name is Alla Alexander." His hand was icy, the handshake surprisingly strong. The body -- though fulfilling its hinted promise of cardiac arrest in yak (what he was doing to those faded Levi's was positively immoral) -- was rather slender. All muscle though, tensile like steel. It reminded me of the kind of strength professional dancers acquire. "Ray Doyle." He studied my face intently, as though either memorizing it, or trying to place it. "I thought you were familiar -- you're a singer, aren't you? We saw you as Desdemona one night at Covent Garden. Your Othello nearly forgot his lines just before he strangled you...."
I laughed. "That's years ago -- my first big role." I'd sung the part since, but not in London. It was 12 years or more since that night. I said so, adding, "you have a good memory. I'd almost forgotten about poor Ian's near amnesia." When one is 22, facing an audience of 1,500 people, plus critics, in one's first big shot at being more than a horn wearing Valkyrie in a crowd scene, one is far too nervous to be concerned with much beyond remembering to die gracefully under Othello's hands.
"You said 'we,'" I prompted. I've never been known for beating about the bush.
I was sorry I'd asked, because this look came over him -- I can't really describe it, except to say it was infinitely sad. Yet that doesn't begin to come close. "My partner and I. Bodie. He's the one I'm supposed to be meeting..." a glance at his watch, "15 minutes ago."
I may not beat about the bush, but I also don't have to be hit over the head with a sledge hammer -- "at least not often," my husband always put in. Just the way he said the name, told me as unerringly as if he'd worn a sign, that this Bodie was his lover as well. When people are a "pair," there's a particular inflection to "we," I suppose....
Aloud I simply said, innocently, "Oh -- are you policemen?" (My parents had met that way, as a matter of fact, eons ago in the Pleistoncene age. Dad had been a very up and coming detective, sure women belonged anywhere but in a squad car. That was prior to being teamed with my mother, naturally....)
Doyle grinned. "Don't let Bodie hear you call him a cop. We work for CI5." I must have looked as blank as I felt, because he went on. "Just another bunch of British secret agents, you know...." He was laughing, and I didn't know whether he was kidding or not.
"Civil Servants, eh?" Robert had been one before chucking it to make a pile in real estate -- or so his secretary had chattily informed me.
"Close enough." He suddenly seemed to realize something, and his face darkened as he checked his watch again. "In this rain, Bodie's going to be pissed off, hanging about waiting...."
The rather desperate undertone in his voice got to me. It must have, I don't ordinarily run around loaning things like cars to people I barely know. (I can see a certain person's eyebrow raised in disbelief. Jimmy contends that I am so soft hearted, I would hug a rhinocerus if I thought it was unhappy.)
Anyway, I said, "Tell you what, you borrow my car. It's only an elderly Austin Mini, but it never stops running, and it will get you where ever it is you have to be. You can meet your Bodie, and then return it tomorrow."
"Oh, look, I didn't mean -- I can't let you do that. You hardly know me -- I could be an ax murderer. Or a car thief." This last bit was said rather dryly, and it was my turn to grin.
"My parents are cops, and I can spot an ex-one at 50 yards blindfolded. Also, persons of the thief variety. My own special form of ESP. You're honest. And you have somewhere you've got to get to." I fished the keys out of my suitcase-size purse (they were at the very bottom as usual) and handed them to him. "Just bring it round here tomorrow -- I'll be here, unpacking. If it makes you feel better, you and your partner can buy me lunch."
"If you're sure...." He still hesitated, but I could see that, for whatever reason, he was desperately anxious to get going....
"Thanks. You must think its a bit odd, but its very important that I meet him tonight. Hard to explain, but...."
"Then don't. To tell you the truth, if you were a car thief, I wouldn't be upset -- it'd be the excuse I need to put the effort into buying a newer model!" I went over to the window and peered out. It was still raining manically, and I could barely make out the street light flickering at the corner, let alone anything else. "You'd better get moving -- Bodie's probably swimming, the way this is coming down. Could you tell me where, sort of, he's waiting?"
Doyle hesitated, then answered. "Allerton Street. It's near the docks."
A job, I thought; no one would pick the dock area for a social meet.
"Fine." We were in the hallway, and I was handing him his jacket, when he stopped suddenly, as though struck by something.
"You said you knew I'd lived here? How?"
"Ah...let me show you." I dashed back into the sitting room and scooped up the envelope and photo. "See? I found this when I was straightening out the desk...."
Doyle stared at his photo, rather as one might stare at a snake charmer's cobra. "Bodie insisted we each get one done. His must be about here someplace. There was never time to look, afterwards...." His eyes met mine, jade coloured now, and intent. "If you should find the other -- the one of Bodie, will you let me know? I'll collect this tomorrow when I bring your car back -- if that's OK?"
I nodded. "OK by me. And I'll turn the place over, a bit, and see if the other portrait turns up. Any ideas where it might have got to?"
He stared over my head, eyes focused not on the hall or anything in it, but on some distant point known only to him. Finally, he said rather dreamily, "Try the document box in the attic. It should still be up there."
"Right. Take care now -- I've never seen it rain like this, not even in the tropics."
"I will. And thanks again." Doyle handed me the envelope, and slipped out the door. [missing text] The motor sounded unnaturally loud, being the only other sound except for the drumming of rain. And off he went.
Robert dropped in bright and early the next morning. The torrents of rain had packed off, and London was basking in a sudden turnabout of weather that was spring-like, and sunny.
"You were right about getting the walls painted blue," he beamed round the sitting room, "vast improvement over that ghastly cork. Can't think what possessed the bank to rent it to those artists anyway...."
My head went up. "Bank?"
He nodded. "Yes, well, you see -- you purchased this from a bank, through their solicitor. I tried to explain it -- but you were upset about those tests at the time, and just said to get on with the whole business."
Right. That was when I was sulking about not being able to sing. "My dreadful brat period. Now I remember -- I suppose I thought the bank representative was the seller...and of course, I only met their lawyer."
"The people who owned the house were killed several years ago, and their wills left the house to be kept in trust, or sold, as the bank saw fit."
I must have worn a puzzled expression or something, because he said "What have I said?"
"You say the people who owned this house were killed, years ago...."
Robert frowned. "Six or so, yes...why?"
Rather intently, I went on, "And who owned it before they did?"
"Who? An elderly Colonel, retired from the Army. Masterson, I think his name was...what on earth do you want to know that for?"
"That can't be!"
Robert sat down on the sofa and stared at me. Quite rightly he must have wondered if I'd gone off the deep end. "Why can't it be?"
I clasped my hands together, barely noticing that they were starting to shake. "Last night I was going through that desk, and I came across a photograph. Of a man -- no name or anything, just a date. February 10, 1984. I was going to put it aside, to give to you with these clothes," I pointed to the box at his feet, "but then, around 10 P.M. my doorbell rang. It was the man in the photograph. He said his name of Ray Doyle."
Robert had gone rather pale. "That is impossible."
"Alla, Ray Doyle,...Ray Doyle has been dead for nearly seven years. Are you sure this was the same fellow as in the photo?"
Oh my god. "Positively. He said he was on his way to meet his partner, Bodie, and his car had given out. That he'd lived here at one time, and could he use my phone."
"Did he get an answer from whoever he was ringing?"
"No. He slammed it down and said Bodie must already have left. Robert -- he was so desperate, underneath...it was an effort for him to chat. So I...."
"I loaned him the Mini. Robert -- he can't be dead, ghosts don't drive off in minicars."
Robert took my hands and drew me down on the sofa beside him. "Think carefully. Did this chap say anything else?"
"He said he had to meet Bodie at a place called Allerton Street, near the docks, that it was hard to explain why -- but it was terribly important that he get there. Bodie would be upset if he didn't. And he said that they were sort of civil servants -- he referred to Bodie as his partner, and I'd wondered if that meant policemen."
Very quietly, Robert asked, "Did he say who they worked for, then?"
"Something called CI5. It didn't ring any bells for me, and he laughed -- said it was just another bunch of British secret agents."
He got up and began pacing back and forth, agitated. I just sat and watched, bewildered, thoughts chaotic.
Robert stopped in front of me, finally, and said "Secret agents? Well, yes, strictly speaking, that's rather what they were...."
"How do you know that?"
His expression was an echo of the sadness on Doyle's. "I used to work for CI5. I knew them, you see."
Robert, it seemed, had joined Criminal Intelligence 5 back in 1978. Bodie and Doyle were already two year veterans by then, and already legendary within the department. Cowley, the dour Scot who had headed things up, had even been heard to admit -- in strict confidence -- that those two tearaways were his best.
In their business, death was a routine, daily presence. "Put your affairs in order," was no idle suggestion, but an absolute necessity. Still, Bodie and Doyle, the Bisto Kids as they were jokingly called, had managed to beat the odds and stay alive -- and together. Robert was rather delicate about that, but, as usual, I simply trod in with both feet. "You mean they were an old married couple, don't you?" I said.
"I should know better than to skirt an issue with you. Yeh, you'd think it would've affected their working together, but it didn't. Instead, it just got so they wouldn't even have to talk...just a couple of glances, and they'd get on with the job, each knowing exactly what had to be done. It was bloody eerie, sometimes. My partner and I were good, but we never got like that...or that close." He grinned suddenly, then went on with the story.
I said finally, "So, what I've told you almost exactly parallels their last job?"
"Exactly. One of Bodie's contacts, I guess you'd call him, was on the inside of the organization. When he found out what was being planned, he got on to Bodie about it. Doyle was on duty in the ops room that night -- but when the call came through, Cowley told him to hop it over there to Allerton Street. Backup. Just in case."
"Except Doyle never got there -- it was raining, just like last night, and the car he was driving conked out on him."
"Yeh." [missing text] "It wasn't around here, of course, but on a night like that, things must have been just as deserted...not even taxis about."
"They're on strike now...go on."
"Not much else to tell. The bad guys found out about the snitch in their midst, and decided to kill two birds with one stone. Doyle'd used his R/T to call HQ, and Murphy and I got to him -- fast. By then Bodie'd radioed wanting to know where the hell his back-up was...when we got there it was too late. I can still see it, you know, clear as day. Doyle kneeling over Bodie, blood everywhere...not a bit like on TV, you know... nothing pristine...no commercial breaks...." He took a deep breath. "I cleared out soon after that. Enough was enough. So did Murph. He's got his own security firm now."
"What...what happened to Doyle?"
"He limped on, doing the job, for a while. Couldn't work with anyone else. I though Cowley'd make him, but he just let him go solo. I think he knew that sooner or later Doyle would be gone, too. About three months later Ray got into a tight corner and decided not to fight his way out of it. End of story." Robert stared straight ahead, then shrugged. "He was dead the minute Bodie was anyway -- at least as far as anything that mattered is concerned. God preserve me from loving somebody that much."
"Not the end," I said slowly. "Apparently he's still looking for Bodie."
Robert jerked as though someone had pulled on a string. "You can't be serious? Last night was just...."
"Just what? You know the story because you were with CI5. How many other people who just happen to be twins of Ray Doyle are there? Wondering around London? Re-enacting -- nearly -- the events of the night their partner was killed? How many?"
"None," Robert whispered, rather green around the gills.
"Well, then, you tell me, if that wasn't Ray Doyle -- or some manifestation of him, then who in bloody hell was it???"
"I don't know!!! I only know I don't believe in ghosts. And neither should you -- it's unhealthy." He stood up. "I've got to get back to the office."
I let him go -- he was too upset to be of any help, and his trying to cover it up made things worse. I knew I wasn't imagining things, anyway. I've been in some very odd places in my time -- enough to know that whoever said there are not only more things in the universe than we imagine, but more things in the universe than we CAN imagine, was quite right.
Something else was niggling at my brain. If the man I'd loaned the car to was, in fact, Ray Doyle -- then where was the car? And secondly, if I checked the attic, would I find a document box? With another photograph in it???
The uppermost floor was dusty, filled with the accumulated boxes of what appeared to be the Ages, and ill-lit. I needed the flashlight I'd brought along, just to keep from tripping over things. I'd been through three million back issues of Sporting Life (the Major had been a pack rate), and untold old copies of the Times (interesting but they would have to go -- fire hazard was written all over them). Nothing else had turned up, and I was walking back toward the door that led onto the landing, terribly disappointed. I'd turned the flashlight off, thinking I knew the way, and of course tripped over the first box I came to. It's contents spilled onto the floor, old curtains mostly, and I swore loudly, before beginning to shove them together. I was stuffing them back in when my hands hit paydirt. Hard, metal paydirt.
What I fished out was a rather large, dull grey, box -- like an oversized first aid kit. It was locked, and no sign of a key. Too bad. I practically ran down three flights of stairs, and skidded into the kitchen. Judicious application of several knives and a knitting needle were enough to break the lock.
Inside were a pile of papers, and I examined them one by one as I took them out. There was a long legal document deeding the house to "Raymond Doyle and William Andrew Philip Bodie," old insurance policies, a couple of stock certificates (Bodie's), copies of two wills. At the bottom, was the twin to the envelope I'd found in the desk. Like everything else, it was dated nearly a decade ago.
I examined the photo carefully. Zowie -- I could see why Doyle had been thoroughly hooked. Bodie, at first glance, was the exact opposite of his partner. Relentlessly handsome, blue eyes that would have made Robert Redford envious, and straight, silky-looking dark hair, cut short, like a cap. On closer inspection, the eyes had the same sort of... aliveness to them that Doyle's had.
I wandered back into the sitting room, and propped the photos up, side by side, on the desk. "Two halves of a whole...that's for sure." Next to each other like that, the men seemed to be smiling at each other, as if sharing some marvelous private joke. I felt like an eavesdropper. And I felt a strange mixture of anger -- that times were such that two vital, happy...and yes, valuable, people like this could be wiped out in a moment, and all for nothing; and also of sadness, for the same reasons. I'd liked the man I'd met -- and not just because he could cause cardiac arrest in yak, either. His quality had been the type that communicates itself at once; not even the two dimensional photograph could dim it. Not in Ray or in Bodie. I wished I could have known them.
Nothing else untoward happened. The police found my Mini, parked neatly in Thorpe Street. Oddly enough, that's only about a block from Allerton. The keys were tucked up in the sunvisor. Doyle being a cop to the last. They wrote it off as just another odd, harmless, incident.
I tried to discuss things with Robert, but he was so bothered by it all, that he wouldn't. "Not another word. It's all absurd...." he'd snarl, then firmly change the subject. He wouldn't tell me any more about CI5 either, though it wasn't listed in the phone book like the rest of the government agencies were. I finally called a reporter friend. Sounding rather surprised, Mara explained..."Oh, they phased it out when it's chief retired -- the crime problem was pretty well under control, and besides -- budget cutting had reduced it to a clearing house. That was in, oh, 1987. The head man, Cowley, died soon after." That was all anyone could -- or would tell.
I still live in the house -- I don't know what it meant to Bodie and Doyle, but I think I can guess -- I've always been happy here. It's been good luck, too -- my voice recovered full strength, and I've been singing ever since. Better than ever -- which surprised my doctors no end. But not me.
Soon after all this, I was wandering through the Manuscripts department at the British Museum, and tripped over Jimmy -- he was kneeling in front of a packing crate, cataloging the items in it at the time. He's a Ph.D. in history and writes long and (though I'm prejudiced) fascinating books about it.
In the end, I kept the photographs -- they stand framed on that same desk, though it's in my study upstairs now. I don't know why, exactly, except somehow I feel as though I'm looking at friends when I see them. Or it could just be I'm a pack rat and hate to toss anything out. I kept the clothes, too -- there were a number of shirts, all rather like the one Ray had on that night. I wear them when I splash about working on my hobby -- painting planetscapes. I don't think he'd mind.
Jimmy's the only person I've ever told the whole story to, other than Robert. He heard me out, then eyed the faces in the gilt frames thoughtfully. "I see what you mean," he said, and put an arm around me. "I hope he found Bodie. Finally."
Now, this last bit may be crazy, but you know, I think he did. You see, this is the one thing I've never mentioned to anybody.
I'd been mucking around, trying to paint a simple seascape, for a change -- I'd gotten in the water and the shore, some cliffs in the background. Two suns hung in the sky; it should have been finished, but it lacked something. I gave up on it, and stuck it in a corner.
I didn't get back to my painting for a couple of months, having been busy getting married, and whatnot, but when I finally uncovered my little alien seascape all those weeks later I got quite a shock.
This is the crazy bit. You're quite free to discount it, or say I painted the rest of it in my sleep, or whatever. I know who did it, at least I think I do. I hope I do.
Strolling along the shore, arm in arm, were the figures of two men. They were small -- being painted as though off in the distance, almost at the point where everything, sea, land and sky merged. But they were familiar figures, one a bit taller than the other; one head suggesting a mop of curls.
Tucked into a corner of the painting, so minute you'd miss them if you didn't have your nose practically pressed to the canvass, were the swirls which, on that close inspection, suspiciously resemble a 'B' and a 'D.' But they're VERY tiny, as I said, and I could be seeing what I want to.
On the other hand, that doesn't explain how the figures got there, now does it?
-- THE END --