Friday Flash Fiction – Talk About the Weather (Part Five)

Zara Corman knew she wasn’t alone in disliking interviews with the police, but she had more experience of the process than most people. Her recent history involved an above-average number of crime scenes, dead bodies and pointed questions. She had no doubt a database somewhere was starting to file a lot of red flags next to her name. Every fresh encounter came with a new round of suspicion, skepticism and sometime outright hostility, and sympathetic perspectives like Ben Dallas’ were rare.

At night, a firetruck in silhouette aiming a water spray at an intense house fire

Photo via Pixabay

Senior Constable Angela Shearer’s blunt approach didn’t help to restore her good opinion of cops.

“Eyes over here, Ms. Corman. You’re talking to me now. Constable Dallas is securing the scene. Let’s go through your statement again.”

Zara’s gaze lingered a second too long watching Ben as he unspooled a roll of checkered tape to around the perimeter of the car park. “I’m aware of your relationship, Ms. Corman. That’s why you and I are having this conversation here and not in a comfortable interview room at the station. Some things don’t need to show up on the official record.”

“That’s very kind of you,” said Zara. “But I don’t need your protection any more than he does. We all know I had nothing to do with this.”

The scratching sounds from the policewoman’s pen as she took notes reminded Zara of fingernails on a blackboard. She wondered if it was leaving ink marks or just gouging paper. Did you need a special order for pens like that?

“Give it a rest. I’ve seen your file. What we all know is that you show up at crime scenes like most people watch the footy. How did you oh-so-accidentally stumble on this one?”

“Would you prefer the truth or something plausible?”

Constable Shearer said nothing, tapping an impatient pen-on-notepad beat.

“Fine. Either the number of parked vehicles struck me as unusual for the early hour or I saw it in a dream. Up to you which one you write down.”

“Uh huh. So then you entered the premises and identified one of the deceased before calling the police.” The glare she directed Zara’s way was clearly conveyed on behalf of the forensics team who would be yelling at her later about compromised crime scenes. Zara decided not to let it become her problem.

“Helen Burns is – was – a regular customer. We talked most mornings.”

“About what?”

“What everyone talks about over coffee – nothing in particular. Local history. A bit of gossip. The weather.”

“And what about the other two victims? You found a crushed body then went looking for more?”

“I called you as soon as I realized it was Helen. While I was waiting, I checked to make sure nobody else was hurt. The two men upstairs were dead and – uh, not in a recognisable state. Who are they?”

“That’s a matter for the police,” Shearer replied. “Did it not occur to you there might still be a murderer in the building?”

“I wasn’t exactly worried about getting jumped by a killer road roller or a rogue industrial press, Constable. I can look after myself.”

Constable Shearer took a deep breath and seemed to come to a decision. “Believe it or not, Ms. Corman, I think you’re mostly telling the truth. Other than reporting a crime and identifying a victim, I doubt you were involved. That’s why I’ll say just one time – keep it that way. Stay out of this investigation. Don’t change your story. Don’t follow up on your own or ask any questions. Don’t snoop. And if I were you, I’d leave town as soon as we clear you.”

“And what about him?” Ben had finished with the cordon and was speaking to someone on the patrol car’s radio.

Angela Shearer tucked her notepad inside her jacket and stared past the lighthouse, where gulls were dipping into foaming wave crests. “If I were you,” she said again, “I’d leave this town.”

* * *

Having nowhere to run is like a whetstone for her senses – Zara feels everything like a sharp edge. The pinpricks of sea spray on her face, salting her tongue and nostrils. The first hint of a blue horizon forecasting the coming dawn. The shift of grit and gravel underfoot with every slow sideways step. She’s been here before, in this crystal moment of anticipation, though she doesn’t welcome its familiarity.

“Listen to me, all of you.” It’s all she can do to blunt the emotion from her words. Fear, anger, revulsion. “I can make this right.”

The statue repeats its odd dance, an awkward sway-lurch-lean as each face takes its turn to regard her. The two she doesn’t know, the farmer and the realtor, wear wide-eyed, tortured expressions. If they retain their individuality, she thinks, these two have already succumbed to insanity. Ben’s scowl is all indignant fury, a wordless, aggrieved tantrum to put a toddler to shame. Zara wonders if this was his real face all along.

Helen’s flat eyes have no pupils, but her flat stare is openly greedy and calculating. “We. Need. No. Help. We. Have. Power. Now.”

A sense of strength emanates from the statue, a primal physicality like the challenging roar of a predator. The fused collective of Helen and her kin are beginning to understand what they have become, and that the harm they are now capable of inflicting goes beyond the merely physical. They are a juggernaut of stone and will.

Something deep inside Zara unhurriedly stirs in response, uncurling and reshaping itself in preparation. A stab of adrenaline hits her chest. She’s running out of time and options. Not for the first time she wishes she knew how to suppress the flame inside before it becomes a furnace. All she can hope is that she can get through to the collective before the storm arrives.

“Helen, you’ve got to believe me, this isn’t power you’ve stolen from the sylphs. It’s a curse. It’s your punishment! Please let me undo this.”

She sees it all like cheap Polaroid photos scattered across a detective’s desk, shuffling themselves into a logical sequence. Helen’s historical studies. The shared petty grievances of an ambitious clan. The oh-so-coincidental discovery of a hidden path to power, the workings of alchemy to make slaves of the elements. The plan assembled piece by piece over months or years at the Sunday lunch table. The compacts sworn.

The sacrifice chosen.

Something went wrong, obviously. One of the players missed a cue or overstepped their mark. Probably someone got greedy for more than their fair share, or else lost their nerve at the crucial moment. Ben’s supposed to bring her onstage for the big scene but when the moment comes, the spotlight is empty. Zara discovers three deaths that were supposed to be her death, and calls Ben. Then things get complicated.

“You – Ben panicked, didn’t he?” She checks herself before she can address him directly. Keep the focus on Helen. “When he found out you went ahead without him, he panicked. He killed Shearer before she could put together the family connection.”

Another earthquake shudders through the statue, dislodging flecks of debris. The head shakes as the Ben face tries to turn her way, and the Helen face holds its ground. “Had. No. Choice.”

The wind flows across Zara’s hair, like fingertips through the curls. The sylph must be close, watching the fallout of its handiwork. Is it angry, indifferent, or enjoying the show? Her dealings with elemental spirits haven’t given Zara much insight into their nature, but following her instincts has always worked. She snatches a lungful of cold air in one quick gulp, then exhales slowly, measured and warm. You are safe. The unspoken words hang in the air. Zara doesn’t know if the thought comes from her or the sylph; isn’t sure who is reassuring whom.

“I’m sure you didn’t. You thought all your little alchemy tricks could control it, didn’t you? Thought that by ritual and method you’d set the schedule? Dictate terms? Impose your will?”

“It. Worked. On. You.”

Zara reels, steps back, perilously close to the crumbling edge and the long drop beyond. The words sting like a bee swarm trapped in her chest. A hundred poisonous pinpricks as she recalls the last few months with Ben – every gentle touch, every kind word, every moment of warmth. She already knew it had all been a lie. This was worse. Not just deception and manipulation, but illusion and fakery. Unreality. A pretty glamour hiding a vicious, rotten truth.

They hadn’t just marked her for death. They’d groomed her for it.

The pain swells and spreads, searing out from her core, borne on a swollen river of blood. Helen says something else, some fresh taunt to twist the knife. Zara ignores it in her struggle for focus. All she hears is the intense, insistent roar calling from behind and below her pounding heartbeat, promising violence.

A chorus of inhuman voices screech, beseech and insinuate, clamouring for attention, begging her favour. Every inhuman thing she has ever turned away from the world, every slithering, scorching, shrieking nightmare she’s ever banished. She was a child when she first learned the truth, that the skin wrapped around reality is a messy patchwork of open contusions, festering wounds and itching scar tissue. Things crawl there, sometimes grazing on the blood or the rot, and sometimes squeezing through the cracks, on the hunt for more succulent fare.

Zara Corman’s spent a lifetime cleaning the sores of the world, applying stitches, and dressing wounds. She recalls a friend once joked: “Do we call you a paranormal paramedic?” She remembers laughing with them, but not who said it. She’s lost too many friends to keep track.

Let us back though, the other things demand. Only we can save you.

A tempting lie. She fell for it once. The mistake extracted a heavy toll and taught her a hard lesson. Never again.

“Helen, I can make this right,” she repeats, projecting calm to trick herself into resuming control. “You’re suffering from an infection, that’s all. It’s given you bad ideas. I can help you.”

Like all the best lies, it’s mostly true.

I swear, I really thought this was going to be the last part of this story.

(Parts One, Two, Three and Four precede this one, in accordance with the ancient though deceptive strictures of linear time).

Without going back to check, I may have actually declared that I’d wrap ‘Talk About the Weather’ up with this installment, but I daresay I thought the same thing with the previous two parts. I also thought this would be about 4000 words (arguably it still should be) but it’s closing in on 7000 at this point and I don’t quite know what the final count will be.

Time, and an aversion to brevity, makes liars of us all.

What I will commit to is you won’t have to wait to the end of next month for the next part. I’ll post the finale as soon as I finish it, which could take anywhere from a couple of days to another week. After which I’ll start something new, and get on in the background with the laborious task of editing this piece into its actual final shape, instead of its current stream-of-consciousness first draft form.

Also it’s my birthday this week, so I’m having cake.

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Friday Flash Fiction – Talk About the Weather (Part Four)

If there’s another choice but to face what’s ahead, Zara can’t think of it. Then again, she’s here because of the dream, which probably means there was never another option realistically open to her. She’s debated free will and predestination before – once or twice with Ben, staring up at the stars at two in the morning, and she really doesn’t want to bring that up but here she is, thinking about him, no matter what she thinks of him. Deep-and-meaningfuls are all well and good, but what it always seems to come down to is taking the next step and the next after that.

“Free will sucks,” she says, as she pushes open the door to the upper deck.

A cloudy sky

Image by from Pixabay

The lighthouse’s great glass lamp is a mass of glass shards and plastic debris. The lamp’s metal framework is intact but twisted, now a child’s sketch of its original shape, and the smooth concave reflective plate is riddled with punctures and distended out of shape. The hemispheric cupola that previously sat atop the lantern room like a stone cap has disappeared, exposing the destroyed lamp to the night sky.

The stone remains of the cupola have shattered, but not scattered like the softer pieces of the lamp. Zara isn’t sure what she expected, but it wasn’t this.

The broken fragments, most of them no larger than her fist, have reformed into a crude statue, a mosaic of shards and rubble. It’s human-shaped, more or less. It stands three heads taller than her, and a fingerless hand is raised overhead like a snake preparing to strike.

The head has four faces. Each one appears lovingly rendered, as smooth and fine-detailed as the rest of the monolith is rough-hewn and crumbling.

Two of the faces she can’t place immediately, until she remembers the cars haphazardly abandoned in the parking lot this morning. The black BMW with the personalized plates – YRHOME – belongs to Bryan Gibbs-Watson, a seemingly ubiquitous mid-thirties real estate agent whose perfect teeth and blonde waves are plastered on practically every “For Sale” sign from Cutter’s Inlet to Rockwater. The hard-worn Land Cruiser has stopped by Zara’s van a few times in the past month, disgorging a hard-worn goat farmer who introduces himself as Bill and orders a single small mocha.

Faces three and four are, of course, Helen and Ben. And Zara wonders why it is only now, as she sees them side by side for the first time, that the family resemblance becomes obvious.

All four faces speak at once, with a voice like a landslide crashing into the surf.

“This. Should. Be. You.”

* * *

The first time they spoke, Ben’s voice was raw with smoke and emotion.

It was nearly dawn when the fire brigade called time on the emergency and the police forensic team took command of the hostel’s ashes. Zara had stood most of the night behind the barricade of a single strip of yellow tape, wrapped in a blanket, not speaking to the other onlookers, just watching as the flames and smoke were slowly brought back to ashes and steam.

The chatter of fresh and old ghosts around her was so steady, so embracing, she didn’t hear his human voice at first. When the empty heads turned to look away from the tragic remains, she followed their gaze to the young policeman with smudges of ash on his face.

“Excuse me,” he said, but it came out more like a cough. “Zara Corman? My name is Constable Dallas. I need to go over your statement with you, if that’s okay.”

She had lied, of course.

The official version of events would eventually settle on an electrical fault. Old building, bad wiring. An overloaded power board charging too many phones and tablets at once. Sparks inside a dusty, dry wall cavity. Flames take hold before sleepers awake to smoke.

Three dead, seven injured. Tragic. Avoidable.

Nothing in the official record about an imp with fire in its eyes and murderous intent. Nothing about the dreams that drew Zara to break her wandering at a cheap hostel in a small coastal town in the middle of nowhere. Nothing about the grief-worn pleas of the dead only Zara could hear, desperate cries to avert what they knew would come. A tragedy only Zara could prevent, they hoped, though Zara knew better. She couldn’t stop what they had shown her would happen – the blinding smoke, the cries of pain and panic, the crashing of timbers and rumble of hellish flame. All Zara could do was make sure it never happened again, by luring the little fire demon into a circle of pink salt with an improvised song and a well-chewed paste of coriander, fennel and walnut on her breath.

The monster was gone. The horror remained.

Zara stuck to her earlier story, that she had woken up to the smell of smoke, had gone from room to room, banging on doors and shouting. That much had been true, and though she had been too late for some on the top floor, she’d undoubtedly saved lives. There was no reason to raise the parts of her story she skipped over, where she chased and was chased in turn by a small burning man through smoky darkness, hacking her lungs out to hold a steady tune and hold a demon’s attention. She kept it simple.

Ben had not been fooled.

He’d taken her statement with a weary resignation, in mutual acknowledgment of their shared shock and exhaustion. He’d checked details, confirmed times, the sequence of events, the few names she recalled of her fellow hostel patrons. In the end he had nodded, put away his notebook, and escorted her to the minibus waiting to take the uninjured survivors to an evacuation center in the church hall down the road.

Two days later, he had taken a table next to her at the café-bakery where she was eating a fresh croissant and burned latte and had asked her what really happened. And she saw that he knew what he was really asking, and so she told him. They’d been all but inseparable since that moment.

And now Zara knew it had all been a lie.

* * *

Zara is terrified, but that’s nothing new. She’s been here before, staring down horrors face to face. (“Faces?” she thinks, a little deliriously). The trick, she knows, is not to show it. She masks herself with an expression somewhere between indifference and contempt as she eyeballs the graven image of Helen Burns. Helen’s face grimaces and contorts, shifting like disturbed gravel.

“Good morning, Helen. Trying something new with your makeup today?” She tells herself she’s just trying to bluster through her fear, but she can’t deny the righteous fury taking hold in her chest.

“Wanted. You. Here.” The rubble statue lumbers forward a single step. Little avalanches of grit tumble from its joints. A churning wind whips the debris away, howling and whistling through hollows and grooves in its impossible architecture. Its footfall opens cracks on the observation deck’s concrete surface. A warning grumble of strained stone vibrates up from below in response.

It’s hard to read the change in the Helen-face’s expression in the pre-dawn gloom. It could be agonized, enraged or deranged, if not all three. Zara’s been successful in the past at provoking the recently dead, using their anger to break their delusions like a judo throw through a plate glass window. She looks at the size of the four-faced statue’s fists and wonders how far she can push it.

“So you said, Helen, so you said.” She wants to run. She’d love to fling herself down the three-flight spiral and out into the car park, but she doesn’t like the idea of being anywhere below the massive stone effigy when it tries to negotiate stairs. If it brings the walls or roof down with it, she’ll have nowhere to go. Zara takes a cautious backward step to see whether it will follow. She backs past the stairway doors, circling one two three steps away around the ruined deck’s circumference. The statue seems content to permit the retreat.

“Nowhere. To. Go.”

Zara shrugs. “That’s a matter of perspective, Helen.” She spares a glance back over her shoulder, past the tangled knot of white-painted steel cables, all that remains of the guard rails. Her back is to the ocean, but it’s too dark to see the waves. She only hears them crash against the rocks the lighthouse stands upon. She could never jump far enough to reach clear water. There’s nothing for it but to talk this out.

“I’ve never cared much for destinations. Speaking of which, where did you think you were going with all of this?”

“The. Sea. The. Sky.”

Zara nods. “You thought you could bind something to you – what, an air spirit? A sylph, something like that?”

The statue doesn’t answer, but its rocky grumble might be a note of affirmation. Or impatience.

“And what was I supposed to be? Obviously not a virgin sacrifice, unless your boy Ben greatly mistook his part in the scheme.”

“You. Are. Touched. Sensed. Your. Power.”

She gets the idea, even if the details are a mystery. She’s never had the kind of formal training to pick apart the mechanics of rituals. Making it all up as she goes along is easier and takes the edge off the terror, though there are times when having the option to fall back on muscle memory and preparation might be nice too. “You were going to siphon off my power to prime your magical pump, is that it?”

Now the statue shifts in place, turning the Ben-face towards Zara. “You. Made. Good. Bait.”

“Gross,” she replies. “We’re done, by the way.”

The air shifts, still whipping and hooting through crevices in the debris. One second, it’s a bone-chilling cold and the next it’s a puff of warmth on her neck and cheeks. She hasn’t run across an air spirit before, but her recent experiences have motivated her to scour town libraries up and down the coast to study up. She’s no expert, but she’s read enough folklore and mythology to be getting on with. The sylph, or whatever the local name for it might be, is watching them.

“And what about the rest of your little coven, Helen? A cop, realtor and a farmer? Were you flogging them some sort of spirit-binding timeshare scheme?”

“Brother. Nephew. Grandson.” The shoulders shift again, grinding like a misaligned millstone as each one faces her in turn.

“Ah, a family affair.”

I’ve been off work for a couple of weeks, which is my way of explaining how I totally missed that yesterday was (a) Friday and (b) the last day of the month. My instinct is to apologise, but let’s face it, this won’t be the last time I’m late on a self-imposed deadline.

If this is your first brush with this story, Parts One, Two and Three may fill in some much-needed context. I don’t imagine it makes the slightest lick of sense on its own.

The next part of this story should be the final installment and I’ll post it as soon as it’s done. I have a few options for the next story but I haven’t decided which one I’ll go with yet. 

I do plan to continue this monthly (in theory) story posting project, which is going some way towards rebuilding my writing habits. The writing has been very slow for reasons I’ll go into when the dust settles, but on the plus side I am going through a phase of being reasonably serious about practicing my guitar and bass playing, so at least one thing is moving forward.

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Friday Flash Fiction – Talk About the Weather (Part Three)

Zara rubs her wrist, conscious she can no longer feel the weight of the bracelet. She wonders how it already feels like something she’s missing. She wore it through dinner, no more than an hour at most, and she remembers nothing beyond that point.

Waves crashing on rocks sending up a wall of sea spray

Image by Anja from Pixabay

The ghost watches her with patience or tiredness, she’s not sure which. Ghosts can get tired, she knows, as they ebb in and out of the world’s attention. There’s something taxing about it, draining, they’re swimmers fighting against a tide the living don’t feel. But again, this ghost belongs to someone who was alive this morning. Shouldn’t it still have a full reserve of whatever it is that sustains the dead?

“Who killed you?”

Angela Shearer shakes her head. “A question you already know the answer to is a poor use of your time.”

Zara blinks away the hope that she’d been wrong. “Ben. Did he poison you?”

It’s an educated guess. In her experience, which is limited but far from negligible, ghosts who died by violence usually retain signs of the fatal trauma. Senior Constable Shearer looks exactly like she did when they parted ways after she filed her statement, like someone who should have been off shift by now rather than anticipating a tedious afternoon of paperwork.

The ghost nods, an odd gesture of approval. “And?”

“And he drugged me at dinner and brought me here.”

Another nod. “Now you’re asking yourself, why? And who killed him?”

“I think you know the answers to those questions,” replied Zara, “and I think you’d tell me if you could. Which suggests that someone or something is stopping you.”

“I am commanded to serve and name no names.” Angela Shearer’s expression shifts, now almost a smile. “You’re very good. I think he underestimated you. If you’d had enough time, you might have seen through him.”

“You didn’t,” Zara observes. Ghosts don’t have feelings to hurt, or at least she hopes they don’t. If there are experts on the subject, she doesn’t count herself among them. “How long was he your partner?”

“Less than six months,” replies the ghost. “I was assigned as his mentor.”

Zara hears the unspoken ‘but’ in her words. “But he already had a mentor, didn’t he?”

The ghost blinks, slow and blank-faced again.

“You can’t tell me. Of course you can’t.” Zara glances back to the door where she came in, and then stares out into the cold dark through the loading window. “How about this, then – what do the other symbols on the bracelet mean?”

Now the ghost’s lips tighten, and the smile is a smirk but offers another intriguing hint of real emotion.

“Good question, Ms. Corman. The first is the symbol for quicksilver, also called Mercury. Meaning the planet, the metal and the concept of change. The second represents Libra.”

Zara frowns. “Ben’s birthday’s in March. He’s a Pisces.”

“Not anymore,” says the ghost with a sly hint of satisfaction. “But zodiac symbols have a corresponding meaning in the practice of alchemy. Libra aligns with a chemical process called sublimation, where a solid becomes a gas without passing through a liquid stage. Or-”

“Or if the process is transformed to the reverse, something made of air becomes a solid.”

There’s a cracking noise and a flutter of dust from above, as though something heavy has taken its first step, placing its weight on the concrete and steel of the lighthouse observation deck.

Angela Shearer’s ghost seems now to be fainter and more distant, without having moved.

“Good luck, Ms. Corman,” she says as a second footfall shakes the lighthouse. “Time’s up.”

“You didn’t grow up around here, did you dear?”

Helen lifted the takeaway cup lid and blew a puff of steam into the frosty morning air. She had stood aside to make way for the rest of Zara’s customers but accepted no obligation to interrupt their conversation.

Zara nodded, smiling to herself as she frothed a jug of skim milk. “Army brat,” she replied. “Born in Brisbane, but I grew up all over the country.”

“Why did you decide to settle here then, love? It’s the middle of nowhere.”

It wasn’t quite true. It was less than an hour in either direction from the Olive Coast’s stretch of beachside villages to some decent-sized towns, but being off the main highway kept the passing traffic mostly confined to tourists and delivery trucks. She imagined some blonde presenter with bright teeth describing the area as “A hidden gem” while walking along a pristine beach against a backdrop of kids swimming and gulls swooping, except that the Olive Coast’s beaches were mostly disappointing – too rocky for sandcastles and too choppy for surfing. The travel documentaries had yet to discover its secret charms, and from what Zara could see, most of the locals preferred it that way.

“I like the pace, Helen.”

“Well, you certainly moved quickly enough with our handsome Constable Dallas.” Helen slipped an exaggerated wink at her as she sipped her coffee.

Zara snorted, delighted to have her suspicions confirmed that Helen Burns was the very model of an incorrigible country town gossip and busybody. “And this is the part where I politely but firmly change the subject, Helen.”

“Ha! Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to pry, dear,” Helen replied. More a delaying tactic than a lie, thought Zara.

Helen stepped back a little and pointed out towards the sun rising over a patch of rocks jagging out of the rolling waves. “Tell me, can you see the sprites?”

A few curious heads turned, and Zara looked up from her espresso machine. As each wave struck the outcrop, a swirl of mist rose from the crest of the breaking foam, twisting and shining against the sunrise glare before dissipating. A consummate professional, Helen granted her audience a moment’s respectful admiration before dropping into her museum-guide patter.

“The sea-sprites, sometimes also called sylphs, are an unusual phenomenon particular to this area of the Olive Coast. A combination of the warmer water temperatures, movement of the cool surface air and the angle of the waves striking the rocks appear to create human-like shapes in the spray. If you watch long enough, you might see bodies in motion – jumping or turning. Some people even report seeing faces.”

Amid low murmurs and pointing, a young boy grabbed his father’s hand and exclaimed, “That one looks like you, Dad!” Others joined in, reporting their own visions: a kangaroo, a bonfire, a fire truck.

“Of course, recognizing face shapes in random patterns where they don’t really exist is a well-known tendency called pareidolia,” said Helen. “Humans are instinctively good at perceiving faces in things. The conditions here just happen to be perfect for seeing what’s not there.” A few people laughed. Zara returned her attention to the backlog of orders, but not before noticing Helen was watching her.

Zara already knew about the sylphs, of course. Ben had pointed them out the first day she had worked the van solo, a week after they first met, in the aftermath of the hostel fire. He’d later all but admitted that he’d used the local legend as a pickup line, an excuse for the nervous young country cop to chat up the pretty new girl in the coffee van. She’d found his awkward enthusiasm charming. She’d asked him to meet her at the pub that evening, and they’d been seeing each other ever since.

“Did you see any faces, dear?”

Zara snapped out of her reverie to see that Helen had resumed her spot at the front of the van. She reached around the older woman to pass a tray of cappuccinos to the family of the young boy.

“Sorry Helen, I guess I don’t have much of an imagination,” she replied, thinking of the lonely figures standing in the smoldering remains of the burnt-out hostel. “The only things I see are what’s right in front of me.”

It’s not the final Friday of the month, but I had the next part ready so why not? I’ve already started work on the next story (which will also not be a single one-and-done flash piece) so I figured I should probably get this one finished as soon as I can. Before I get distracted, you understand.

Read Part One and Part Two first though, otherwise this makes even less sense than it already does…er, not.

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Friday Flash Fiction – Talk About the Weather (Part Two)

She can’t look at Ben, so she looks away to the stairs. It’s somehow worse in the dark, where shadows shudder in time to her unsteady grip on the phone. There’s nothing overtly different about the upward curve of plain concrete blocks sweating with a sheen of salt water. Is there?

A concrete silo, seen from within and looking up (and not a lighthouse)

Image by LEEROY Agency from Pixabay

Mind your step, Zed, comes Ben’s voice, drifting back from this morning. It’s a bit slippery.

“You’re not wrong”, she mutters as she takes the first step. A chill wind drifts past, as if granting permission. Zara shivers, and climbs.

She remembers two floors. The first is a simple living area with a galley kitchen with a too-loud fridge, a battered green sofa that might also be a bed, a walled-off bathroom and a desk with a three-generations-past PC. She passes the open door and looks in. Nothing’s amiss, though the refrigerator’s grumbling has gone off with the rest of the electrics. She keeps climbing.

The next floor used to be a storage area when the lighthouse was operational. When she was here earlier, she had followed the two police constables across to a large barn door that opened onto a tiny verandah with no protective railings. A pulley assembly was set on the outside wall above the door frame, but the chain or rope that used to bring supplies up from the perfunctory dock on the seaward side of the building was long since gone.

Zara remembers wondering this morning, “Why would the barn doors would be open?” but then of course they had discovered the next body, and she’d forgotten all about the way the morning sunlight had been almost blinding as it streamed through wisps of spray.

Her eyes flick to the spot, at the end of a freestanding rack of shelves, where this morning a bloodied and contused bare foot had stuck out from behind a box of museum pamphlets.
Now there were two boots, black with shine but spattered with wet mud. Zara followed them up – dark uniform trousers, a belt laden with black plastic equipment and a holstered pistol, a blue buttoned shirt with an embroidered label marked “Shearer”, and a lined, sun-spotted face staring at her with suspicious blue eyes beneath a dark cap.

“Hello again, Ms. Corman.” The voice has a strange dissonance, as if she’s hearing it from underwater through a distant amplifier.

The moonlight through the still-open doors casts the room in greys and blues. Zara kills the phone light and thumbs the camera to record video, not breaking eye contact with the woman she met this morning.

“Ange – Senior Constable,” she says, catching herself before she can let the conversation sound personal. “May I ask what you’re doing here?”

Angela Shearer cocks her head to one side, as if the question is more curious than obvious. “This is where I am now. You should have paid closer attention to your dream.”

Zara sucks in a deep breath. She never likes these kinds of conversations. “You’re dead too, aren’t you?”

The figure shaped like a weary country cop who’s seen it all in twenty years on the force smiles. “That word has no meaning in this place, Ms. Corman. But for our purposes, let’s say yes.”

* * *

“I hope this doesn’t make you uncomfortable,” was the first thing Ben said when the waiter left with their drinks order. “I would have understood if you wanted to cancel after this morning.”

She reached across the table to put her hand on his, steadying his nervous finger tapping. “Babe, I’m fine. It’s not like that was our first crime scene together.”

“Yeah, I guess not.” A quick smile twitched the corners of his mouth, as if he’d bitten two fishhooks at once. “This isn’t what you’d call a typical relationship, is it?”

Zara looked him square in the eye. They were somehow an even deeper and richer brown than hers. When she thought about them, which was often, she thought of a warm, loamy mud bath she could sink into, safe and encompassing. “Benjamin Lachlan Dallas, are you taking the temperature right now?”

He coughed, snatched his hand away, grabbed for his water glass, almost knocked it over, gulped greedily, spluttered water and laughed. “Ah. Ahhhh, Zed, you got me.”

“You got yourself this time. I’m not taking any points for that.” It was a game they’d spontaneously played since they started dating – who could make the other spit their drink out? Zara was the undeclared but indisputable winner. “And you didn’t answer the question.”

The waiter returned with two glasses of white wine, giving Ben a momentary reprieve. He watched Zara warily as they tapped a salute and raised their glasses, but she just smiled and sipped, eyes to eyes.

“I brought you something.” He fetched something from his jeans pocket and set it on the table, a small object bundled in a batik wrap. He glanced up quickly, more nervous still. “It’s not a -”

Zara nodded. Not a ring. They’d already discussed the subject, specifically that it was never happening. For his part, a bad experience straight out of high school had led to a quick divorce and a rebound decision to join the police. For hers, it was more complicated but just as decisive. “Come on then, hand it over.”

He nudged it into reach. She snagged his fingers in hers and unwrapped the bundle with the other hand. It was a curved band of faintly tarnished metal, its rounded ends almost touching. An intricate folding pattern overlapped back and forth on itself along the edges, while the center of the outer face was smooth but for three embossed symbols. Zara recognized them as alchemical symbols, but could only place the middle one, a triangle bisected by a horizontal line, as the element of air.

“It’s for luck,” he said, watching for her reaction. “And protection.”

She picked the bangle up, contemplated the dull reflection of the restaurant’s tea candles on its surface. “Since when have you been the superstitious type?”

Ben sighed. “These days you can’t be too careful, right?”

She detangled her fingers, slipped the bracelet onto her left wrist. “It’s beautiful. Thank you, Ben. I love it.” The silver band slid loosely as she lifted her wine for another sip. “So, it’s supposed to be for luck, is it? Mine or yours?”

* * *

Last night, Zara dreamed:

She was flying, high above the water, but not so high the terrain below was unfamiliar. The peninsula, the winding coast road, the lighthouse. She knew them, had seen them a hundred times, if never from above and rarely in the dark.

She dipped lower, circling like a seabird. The lighthouse lamp glowed, not a beam aimed out to sea but an embracing halo. Like a signpost, illuminated to draw passing eyes. She whirled about the lamp while a figure stood, silhouetted against the lamp’s brilliance, shadowing her movements so it was always right beside her.

“Come to me,” called the figure, in a language she couldn’t speak but understood well enough. “Your service has value, thus I declare my mastery. Come and serve, come and serve. Come to me and set yourself in my service.”

She didn’t want to. Her freedom was everything. She could go anywhere she chose, do whatever she desired. To be held here was to give up everything she was. But the words were old words, and like many old things had power beyond their meaning, and she could no more deny the words than deny the sky itself. So she lit upon the lighthouse deck and bowed her head and was bound to servitude.

But this she knew, as her captor did not: not all services are of equal value, and not all who are bound are slaves.

It’s later in the day than I planned to post this, but in my defense I thought next week was the last Friday of the month. And now that I say that, I am forced to acknowledge that “I can’t read a calendar” is not a rock-solid defense. Still, since I was aiming at that date, and since I have most of the next part finished, I’ll put up Part 3 on the first of March.

Also the image is actually a grain silo interior but I liked it too much not to use it.

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Friday Flash Fiction – Talk About the Weather (Part One)

Two thoughts strike Zara Corman even before her eyes snap open.

A tall white lighthouse

Image by Bernd Hildebrandt from Pixabay

The first: the salt stinging her nostrils, the muffled weight of waves dashing on rocks, and the damp stone chilling her right shoulder blade and hip bone tell her she is back in the lighthouse.
The second: her date is going very badly.

The concrete floor she’s lying on weeps saltwater and smells like rotting feathers. She’s facing the same rough stairs she climbed this morning, following in the footsteps of Ben Dallas, the young police constable who drew the shortest straw possible. Stairs that spiraled up, past two scenes-of-a-struggle and three persons-of-interest-now-deceased, to a lamp room reeking of ozone and copper and dusted in pulverized glass.

Zara checks her watch, wincing at the sharp complaint from a shoulder that hasn’t moved in hours. It’s just past four in the morning. She listens for a moment, in case whoever brought her here has been waiting for just this moment, but beyond the efforts of the Pacific to rend the peninsula back to sand, it’s quiet. Even the seagulls aren’t up yet.

She picks herself up, cataloguing yet more aches and pains, all consistent with an uncomfortable night on a hard floor. No clues as to what knocked her out or brought her here. She’s dressed in the same jeans and black linen top she wore to dinner. The chunky silver bracelet a nervous Ben had given her when they met outside Mama Cognetti’s is missing from her wrist.

She still has her phone, still almost at full charge. She sweeps the torch in a full circle and stops the beam on the figure lying crumpled behind her.

It’s Ben. His brown eyes are locked in a wide, blank stare. His short blond hair is mussed and bloody.

Her date is going worse than she thought.


She shouldn’t have gone to the lighthouse.

She could have ignored the dream, could have made it to work on time without giving in to the lie that it would be “just a quick stop.” But her midnight vision had been so vivid, and the peninsula road was just off the coast road where her little coffee caravan sat permanently parked. And besides, it wouldn’t even be open yet. The museum manager, Helen, a retiree in her eighties, always stopped in at Zara’s van at 8:30 for a cheerful chat and a double-shot heart starter.

Zara was telling herself she’d leave it until later right up to the moment she eased off the Honda’s throttle and leaned into the turnoff. Following the twisting single lane causeway, with rocky mudflats exposed by the low tide to either side, she made up new deadlines to ignore: Check the building’s intact. Check the carpark is clear. Check the front door is locked.

But as she approached, squinting into the sunrise, she knew what she would see. Three vehicles – a late model BMW, a battered Land Cruiser that probably stopped being white sometime around the millennium, and Helen’s little yellow Daihatsu – sat abandoned in the car park, all pointed at the door. In the glare of the Land Cruiser’s spotlight, the door was clearly ajar. And as Zara pulled up, dropped the kickstand and killed the engine, she looked up. The lighthouse’s glass canopy was completely gone, and the heavy gas lamp within, which had been lovingly maintained by the Olive Coast Historical Society since its retirement in 1973, was an irreparable mosaic of fractures and scorch marks.

She couldn’t help herself. Zara removed her helmet, gripping the straps in case she needed an improved club or missile, and approached the door. A mixture of gravel and glass crunched beneath her boots. The sign announcing the Kettle Headland Lighthouse Museum opening hours was hanging loose from one of four screws. The metal door was freshly cracked and bulged from the inside. The Cruiser’s incandescence threw shadows across the dark interior, picking out upended display cabinets, fallen photo frames and broken furniture. Huddled beyond the door frame, picked out like a diva taking center stage, lay Helen Burns.

Helen. She of the chirpy morning conversation about whatever popped into her head. The price of petrol. The latest Swedish murder mystery. Yesterday’s museum visitors.

And the weather. She always had something to say about the weather, and she was never off the mark. “The wind’s turning northerly, love. We’ll get a chill and a spot of rain around eleven,” or “Pay no attention to that nice lass on the news this morning. These clouds will clear in an hour or two.” The first time they met, watching patiently as Zara steamed a jug of skim milk, Helen had leaned forward and said, “When you get a chance, perhaps you’d better move your bike in behind the van, dear. There’s a gust coming in shortly. It might get knocked about, out in the open like that.” Her concern was so sincere Zara didn’t think to question in, but shifted the bike into shelter and took down the hanging plant holders on the front of the coffee van. An hour later, as a sudden squall battered and rocked the van and sent her customers dashing for their parked cars, Zara remembered the little old lady with the eyes as storm cloud-grey as her hair, the knee-high fishing boots and the sky-blue hand-knitted cardigan.

Within a week or two of Zara starting work at the van, she was so confident in the unerring accuracy of Helen’s predictions that she would pass them on to her customers. She gave credit where it was due, of course, and more than one carload of tourists made the short hop up the coast road to see the lighthouse and its cheerful museum guide.

Zara had taken a few steps forward, stopping short of the threshold where Helen’s blood had spread until stemmed like a dammed river by the raised lip of the door frame. She yanked out her phone and thumbed through to Ben Dallas’ work number. This was a job for the cops.

She’d seen bodies before, but never one this beaten and broken. The twisted joints, the many-angled limbs, and one rib jutting through the dark, soaked cardigan. The gut-churning sense that what was left of Helen Burns’ body was held together not with skin and bones, but cling wrap and powder.

Helen didn’t look like she had been assaulted.

She looked like she’d been dropped from a plane.

Okay, so, I cheated. This isn’t a complete story. It was going to be, but then it got out of hand and I realised there was more to the situation than I thought. So, check back soon to see what happens next, I guess? The writing is feeling pretty good right now, so I think I can manage to build on this pace a little, but it would be reckless to promise that Part Two will be up next week, but it won’t be long.

Welcome back, Friday Flash Fiction. Gosh, it turns out I’ve missed this!

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