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