Of the five steps in developing film, four must take place in complete darkness. And in the darkroom, timing was every- thing. The difference between overexposure and under- exposure sometimes came down to a matter of milliseconds.
Camille Adams liked the precision of it. She liked the idea that with the proper balance of chemicals and timing, a good result was entirely within her control.
There could be no visible light in the room, not even a red or amber safelight. Camera obscura was Latin for “dark room,” and when Camille was young and utterly fascinated by the process, she had gone to great lengths to practice her craft. Her first darkroom had been a closet that smelled of her mom’s frangipani perfume and her stepdad’s fishing boots, crusted with salt from the Chesapeake. She’d used masking tape and weather stripping to fill in the gaps, keeping out any leaks of light. Even a hairline crack in the door could fog the negatives.
Found film was a particular obsession of hers, especially now that digital imagery had supplanted film photography. She loved the thrill of opening a door to the past and being the first to peek in. Often while she worked with an old roll of film or movie reel, she tried to imagine someone taking the time to get out their camera and take pictures or shoot a movie, capturing a candid moment or an elabo- rate pose. For Camille, working in the darkroom was the only place she could see clearly, the place where she felt most competent and in control.
Today’s project was to rescue a roll of thirty-five-millimeter film found by a client she’d never met, a professor of history named Malcolm Finnemore. The film had been delivered by courier from Annapolis, and the instructions inside indicated that he required a quick turnaround. Her job was to develop the film, digitize the negatives with her micrographic scanner, convert the files into positives, and e-mail the results. The courier would be back by three to pick up the original negatives and contact sheets.
Camille had no problem with deadlines. She didn’t mind the pressure. It forced her to be clearheaded, organized, in control. Life worked better that way.
All her chemicals waited in readiness—precisely calibrated, carefully measured into beakers, and set within reach. She didn’t need the light to know where they were, lined up like instruments on a surgeon’s tray—developer, stop bath, fixer, clearing agent— and she knew how to handle them with the delicacy of a surgeon. Once the film was developed, dried, and cured, she would inspect the results. She loved this part of her craft, being the revealer of lost and found treasures, opening forgotten time capsules with a single act of light.
There were those, and her late husband, Jace, had been among them, who regarded this as a craft or hobby. Camille knew better. One look at a print by Ansel Adams—no relation to Jace—was proof that art could happen in the darkroom. Behind each finished, epic print were dozens of attempts until Adams found just the right setting.
Camille never knew what the old film would reveal, if it hadn’t been spoiled by time and the elements. Perhaps the professor had come across a film can that had been forgotten and shoved away in the Smithsonian archives or some library storage room at Annapolis.
She wanted to get this right, because the material was potentially significant. The roll she was carefully spooling onto the reel could be a major find. It might reveal portraits of people no one had ever seen before, landscapes now changed beyond recognition, a rare shot of a moment in time that no longer existed in this world.
On the other hand, it might be entirely prosaic—a family picnic, a generic street scene, awkward photos of unidentifiable strangers. Perhaps it might yield pictures of a long-gone loved one whose face his widow longed to see one more time. Camille still remembered the feeling of pain-filled joy when she’d looked at pictures of Jace after he’d died. Her final shots of him remained in the dark, still spooled in her camera. The vintage Leica had been her favorite, but she hadn’t touched it since the day she’d lost him.
Working with film from complete strangers suited her better. Only last week, a different storage box had yielded a rare collection of cellulose-nitrate negatives in a precarious state. The images had been clumped together, fused by time and neglect. Over painstaking hours, she had teased apart the film, removing mold and consolidat- ing the image layers to reveal something the camera’s eye had seen nearly a century before—the only known photograph of a species of penguin that was now extinct.
Another time, she had exposed canned negatives from a portrait session with Bess Truman, one of the most camera-shy first ladies of the twentieth century. To date, the project that had gained the most attention for Camille had been a picture of a murder in commission, posthumously absolving a man who had gone to the gallows for a crime he hadn’t committed. Write-ups in the national press gave her credit for solving a long-standing mystery, but Camille considered the achievement bittersweet, knowing an innocent man had hanged for a crime while the murderer had lived to a ripe old age.
Touching the digital timer, she scarcely dared to breathe as she prepared to launch the special alchemy of the darkroom.
The moment was interrupted by a ringing phone, located just out- side the door. She couldn’t have a phone in the darkroom, due to the keypad that lit up when it rang, so she kept the volume turned on loud to hear incoming voice mail. Ever since her father’s cancer diagnosis, her pulse jumped each time the phone rang.
She waited through several rings, chiding herself for panicking. Papa’s disease was in remission now, though his doctors wouldn’t say how long the reprieve might last.
“This is Della McClosky of the Henlopen Medical Center, calling for Camille Adams. Your daughter Julie has been brought into the ER—” Julie. Camille ripped open the door of the darkroom and snatched up the phone. The film can clattered to the floor. Already, fear thud-
ded through her. “This is Camille. What’s Julie doing in the ER?” “Ma’am, your daughter has just been brought by ambulance to the
ER from her surf rescue class at the Bethany Bay Surf Club.”
Ice-cold terror. It took her breath away. “What? Is she hurt? What happened?”
“She’s conscious now, sitting up and talking. Coach Swanson came with her. She got caught in a riptide and aspirated some water. The doctor is checking her out.”
“I’m on my way.” She lunged for the back door, scooping her keys from the hook as she leaped down the porch steps to her car. There was no thought. No planning. Just action. When you get a call that your kid is in the ER, there can be no room for thinking. Just the deepest fear imaginable, the kind that gripped like a steel band around her chest.
She hurled herself into the car, started it up, and tore down the driveway, her tires spitting an arc of crushed oyster shells in her wake. She roared around Lighthouse Point at the end of her road. The rocky shoals there had been guarded for a century by the sentinel overlook- ing the bay.
The car radio was on, broadcasting a surf report at the top of the hour by Crash Daniels, owner of the Surf Shack. “We are getting our first taste of summer, people. The whole Delmarva Peninsula is basking in temperatures in the mideighties. The oceanside looks rad. Bethany Bay is totally off the hook . . .”
She snapped off the radio. Panic about her daughter demanded total focus. Surf rescue class? What the hell was Julie doing in surf rescue? She wasn’t even taking that class, an optional PE credit offered to ninth graders. Camille had forbidden it, even though Julie had begged. Far too dangerous. The tides on the ocean side of the peninsula could be deadly. There was no satisfaction in being right. Julie got caught in a riptide, the nurse had said. A surge of horror filled Camille’s throat, and she felt like puking.
“Easy,” she told herself. “Deep breath. The woman on the phone said Julie is conscious.”
Jace had been conscious, too, moments before she had lost him forever, five years before, when they were on a romantic second- honeymoon getaway. She couldn’t stop herself from thinking about that now. That was the reason she had refused to sign the permission slip to allow Julie to participate in surf rescue. She simply couldn’t survive another loss.
There had been a time when Camille had led a charmed life, cheer- fully oblivious to the devastation that could strike without warning. Throughout her idyllic childhood in Bethany Bay, she’d been as wild and carefree as the birds that wheeled over the watery enclave at the edge of the Atlantic. She herself had excelled at surf rescue, a rigorous and physically demanding course all high schoolers were encouraged to take. In this community, surrounded on three sides by water, safety skills were mandatory. Thanks to the popularity of the beach, with its pipeline waves rolling in, local youngsters were trained in the art of rescue using special hand-paddled boards. It was a time-honored tradition at Bethany Bay High. Each May, even when the water was still chilly from the currents of winter, the PE department offered the challenging class.
At fourteen, Camille had been clueless about the dangers of the world. She’d shot to the head of her group in surf rescue, ultimately winning the annual competition three years in a row. She remem- bered how joyful and confident the victory had made her feel. She still remembered reveling in the triumph of battling the waves under the sun, laughing with her friends, intoxicated by the supreme satisfac- tion of conquering the elements. At the end of the course, there was always a bonfire and marshmallow roast on the beach, a tradition still observed by the surf rescue trainers so the kids could bond over the shared experience. She wanted that for Julie, but her daughter was a different girl than Camille had been.
Up until five years ago, Camille had been an adrenaline junkie— surfing, kiteboarding, attempting harrowing rock and mountain climbs—anything that offered a dangerous rush. Jace had been her perfect partner, every bit as keen as she for the thrill of adventure.
Those days were long gone. Camille had been remade by tragedy, cautious when she used to be intrepid, fearful when she used to dare anything, restrained when she used to be unbridled. She viewed the world as a dangerous place fraught with hazards for those foolish enough to venture out and take a risk. She regarded everything she loved as fragile and apt to be lost as quickly as Jace had been.
Julie had processed the death of her father with the stoic innocence of a nine-year-old, quietly grieving and then accepting the fact that her world would never be the same. People had praised her resilience, and Camille had been grateful to have a reason to put her life together and go on.
Yet when Julie brought the permission packet home and an- nounced she was taking surf rescue, Camille had flatly refused. There had been arguments. Tears. Stomping and flinging on the bed. Julie had accused Camille of trying to sabotage her life.
With a twinge of guilt, Camille knew her own fears were holding her daughter back, but she also knew they were keeping Julie out of harm’s way. Yes, she wanted the same kind of fun and camaraderie for Julie that she herself had found in high school. But Julie would have to find it through tamer pursuits. Apparently she had found a way to join the surf rescue class, probably with the age-old trick of the forged permission slip.
There were few forces greater than the power of a fourteen-year- old’s determination when she wanted something. A teenager would stop at nothing in order to get her way.