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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