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?
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.