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Ash and Lies
By: Rebecca McQuarrie
“Our top story tonight comes from the leading criminal defense lawyer of a small local town. Robert Mandrave released a statement today about his client Cora Allen, who has become notoriously known as ‘Ashen Lies’. During the press conference, he stated that his client would not be pleading guilty on grounds of insanity. This came as a shock to many, including the prosecuting attorney’s office, due to the unusual events surrounding the case, and the defendant’s recounting of the events, both at the time of the fire and the months prior. We’ll have more for you as the trial proceeds.”
“What a load of bull!” exclaimed Cora as she watched the prison barber shave off the last of her scorched auburn hair. Glaring at her reflection in the mirror, she continued, “Ashen Lies? Those guys could screw up a wet dream. And I’m not pleading insanity because, I’m. Not. Insane.”
“Sure you aren’t Sweetie, just like every other person in this joint. The Zig’s just chock full of sane, innocent people.”
“What do you know about it?” demanded Cora as she jumped out of the chair, whipping around to face him. “You don’t know a single thing about me or what happened that day.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. I know you’re here, and ninety-nine percent of the time, that means you’re guilty. That’s all I need to know. Hell, that’s more than I need to know. I’m just here to cut your hair, not be your lawyer, parole officer, or counselor. Tell it to someone who cares.”
“Speak of the devil and she appears,” said a well groomed brunette woman wearing a perfectly cut pin-stripe suit. Extending her hand toward Cora she said, “Hello, I’m Dana Stevens, I was sent over here by Mandrave’s office to collect a more in depth statement from you and go over the one you gave to the police. I want to make sure we have every possible fact before your trial next week. Shall we?” she asked holding the door to the hallway open for her client.
With a sigh, Cora nodded her head and slowly walked towards the door. “You know this is pointless, right? I’ve already told everyone everything.”
“I know, but, for some strange reason, I feel like you’re telling the truth. Or at least a part of it, and I feel the need to hear your story from you.”
“Fine, where would you like to start?”
“At the beginning, of course.”
(One year earlier)
“…and now up into Downward Facing Dog. Very nice. Now down into Cobra. Back up into Mountain. And relax. Excellent class. That’s all for today. You all did a great job. I’ll see you on Thursday!”
Cora let out a deep cleansing breath, and then bent down to roll up her yoga mat. She had been coming to this studio for the past six months. It wasn’t so much an enthusiastic choice on her part as much as a strong suggestion from human resources. Apparently she had taken her aggression out on a co-worker a little too strongly. They agreed to let her retain her position if she agreed to find an acceptable outlet for her stress. Yoga was only activity that they could all agree on.
After she had returned her mat to its storage place and slipped on her shoes, she waved to the instructor, who was in conversation with a man she didn’t recognize, and headed toward the door.
“Cora!” her teacher called out. “Could you come here for a moment?”
Glancing at her watch, she shrugged her shoulder and walked over to the still conversing couple. As soon as she was within hearing range, the conversation broke off. Glancing anxiously at the man next to her, the Yoga Siromani said, “I’d like to introduce you to an acquaintance of mine. This is…”
“Meyers. Henry Meyers,” the man said as he stepped forward and extended his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Cora. I was watching you during class today. You have excellent form.”
Looking at her instructor, Cora said, “What’s the deal, June? Do you let the perverts in for free or do they pay you too? There’s nothing like feeling violated to whisk away the stress of the day. I’m out of here.”
As she turned to go, June grabbed her arm to stop her. “Wait! It’s not what you think.”
“Perhaps I should explain,” the man said. “I apologize if I gave you the impression that my intentions were anything but pure. I work for an agency that would be interested in your services. We are willing to offer a fee that is substantial, and I promise we won’t require you to continue with this tedious exercise.” Glancing at June he said, “No offense.”
“Some taken. I’ll leave you two to talk.”
“So, I suppose you want me to stand here and listen while you offend me too?” By this time, Cora was on the defensive moving quickly to offensive. The grip she had on her handbag was strong enough to turn her knuckles white.
“No, I want you to stand here and listen while I offer you a deal you would be remiss to refuse. I’ll only offer this once, so you would be smart to consider your options carefully.”
“Options? I don’t need them. In case you haven’t been stalking me long enough to figure it out, I’m the Executive Director of Sales and Marketing for one of the world’s largest corporations. I’m sure I make more in a year than you would ever dream of offering me. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a dinner meeting I have to go to.”
“Is it worth your life? You and I both know that you’re not here by choice. If you keep this up, you’ll be dead before you’re forty.”
“And if I trust you, I’m sure I’ll be dead before nightfall. Good day sir.”
“Listen, just take my card. The amount we’re offering for your services for one year is listed on the back. Think about it.” With that, he allowed her to leave.
Cora tucked the card into her bag, not because she wanted to keep it, but because there were no trash bins around and she had a strict policy against littering. She quickly covered the few blocks to the bus stop and headed home to clean up and change for her meeting.
The next morning, on her way to work, she was digging through her bag looking for her ever elusive pen, when she noticed a flash of white. Recalling the odd conversation from the day before, she fished the card out, noting that the front did not contain much more than a name and phone number. She flipped the card over and let out a startled gasp at the figure written there. It was the equivalent of her current salary for the next ten years. Her mind began racing. If she took a year off of work it would kill her career, but, if invested properly, she wouldn’t need to work for at least five years, and in that amount of time she could always start a new one. Her mind was so wrapped up in financial planning that she almost missed her stop. Quickly, she scrambled off her seat and out the door. She was halfway to her office before realized that she still had the card clutched in her hand. She tucked it carefully away and hurried off to the executive suites.
When she was safely ensconced in her office, she once again pulled the card from her bag. She took a moment to study the front of the card and noticed what she originally thought was a company logo. Upon closer inspection she found that it was a symbol of some sort that she didn’t recognize. At that point, Cora realized that she had never asked what services were needed and Henry had never offered that information. The unease she had felt with him the day before returned and she flipped the card towards her waste basket. As if there were a sudden unseen gust of wind, the card fluttered madly to the left and missed the basket entirely. It landed backside up giving Cora a clear view of the figure written there. Even though every instinct was screaming at her, she picked the card up off the floor. Logic was telling her that that amount of money would be hard to come by in such a short period of time and she had done this job for a dozen years and survived. Surely she could get through a single year with them.
Turning back to her desk, she picked up her phone and dialed the number listed on the front. The phone rang only once before it was answered. “Hello, Cora. I’m so glad you decided to call. I hope you didn’t go through much grief before making this decision.”
“I haven’t decided anything. I’m calling because you, purposely, I’m sure, left out some specifics. Like what my duties will be.”
“I hope you understand…I’m not able to disclose that at this time. Our organization is very private and we prefer to keep it that way. After you agree to our employment and sign a contract, we will give you full disclosure. Let me assure you that while your tasks will vary greatly from those you currently perform on a daily basis, they are ones that I am positive you will be able to complete. We know we’re asking a lot of you, but obviously we are willing to generously compensate you. There aren’t a lot of people who are capable of filling this position. For various reasons,” he added hurriedly.
“Will I be doing anything illegal?”
“Then count me in. I need to give notice, so where do I report to in two weeks?”
“I’m so glad you’ve agreed to join us. We’ll be in contact with you shortly. And, Miss Allen? We would appreciate it if you kept this quiet.”
“…and here is your private work space Ms. Allen. We hope you make yourself at home.” Turning to face their newest employee, the petite blonde asked, “Do you have any questions?”
“Yes,” answered Cora, “Why is everything stainless steel. I’ve heard of the industrial look, but I think doing the walls, floor, and ceiling is going a bit overboard.”
“Our employers prefer to have workspaces that have clean lines, are easily cleanable and are…fire resistant. For safety reasons.”
“Ah, Cora,” said Henry, as he entered the room, “It’s good to know you arrived safely. Have you been given a tour?”
“We’re just now finishing sir,” the makeshift tour guide responded, before Cora could even open her mouth.
“Excellent. Mya. You may go now. I’ll see to the rest of Ms. Allen’s needs.” After he watched the young woman leave, he gently closed the door behind her, and then turned his attention back to Cora. “Have you ever heard of pyrokinesis?”
“The ability to control fire with your mind? It’s all just a load of crap, like psychics and Bigfoot.”
“No. It isn’t. We’ve spent a lot of time studying P.K. and we think that you have the ability within you.”
“You’re joking right? Playing a trick on the new girl? Are there cameras in here so the rest of the building can watch me play a fool?” she asked, looking around. “I knew this shiny room really couldn’t be my new office.”
“I’m not, and it is.”
“Seriously. I’m not going to fall for this. I wasn’t born yesterday. Just fess up and then I can go to my real office and get to work.”
“I’m afraid I’m not kidding Cora. I am being very honest with you. Our organization has been in existence for hundreds of years, and all that time we have been devoted to studying fire and those who can control it.”
“You’ve been reading too much Stephan King, or reading too many comic books. Did you fall asleep with the television on last night? They were showing ‘Firestarter’ on the Sci-Fi channel.”
“Please let me assure you once again Ms. Allen, this is not a joke.” As he spoke the last word a ball of flame appeared over his upturned hand.
“Smoke and mirrors. Or flash paper. I don’t believe for second that’s real.”
Raising an eyebrow in question, Henry floated the ball in a smooth arc from his right hand to the left and back again. He continued tossing the ball back and forth for a few moments, and then, without warning, he suddenly hurled it at the wall next to Cora’s head. As it exploded upon impact, she felt the heat roll past her and dissipate along with the flames.
“Are you mad?” she screamed. “You could have killed me!”
“How? It’s not real. And for future reference, yes, I could have. But I didn’t.”
Feeling a little shaken and knowing she had no other options, she said, “I guess seeing is believing. Where do we start?”
“From the beginning.”
“Inhale and exhale. Feel yourself sinking deeper.” The recorded voice droned on as Cora sat in her apartment, trying to complete the required daily meditation. According to Henry, this was the best way to open herself up to the ‘fire within’. So far, the only thing she had been able to conjure wasn’t much more than a large spark and a puff of smoke. She had been working with numerous different employees for almost nine months and had disappointed everyone. This was Henry’s final attempt before they let her go.
“Imagine that you are a tree. Feel your roots growing down into the earth. Feel them reaching and stretching, searching for warmth. As you find the warmth follow it down. Down into the very core of the earth. Sense them tapping into the molten core, the heat rising through your roots, up and up, until it flows into your body. Let me in Cora…”
Startled, Cora’s eyes snapped open. She had never heard her name spoken during a meditation before. The recordings were purposely generic so anyone could use them. She focused her attention on the still droning voice. The words were so familiar she could almost repeat them from memory. After glancing around to make sure she was still alone, she closed her eyes once again and tried to connect with the molten core.
“Cora. Hear me, Cora. Let me in. I can help you.”
This time she let out an audible gasp and stood up as she looked around. She was sure she was alone. So who was talking to her? “Hello?” she asked aloud, not expecting an answer.
“Cora…” answered a voice in her head.
“Oh gods! I’m going insane. First I trust these fire worshiping psychos, and now I’m hearing voices.”
“Cora…hear me. You are being used. But I can help you. I can save you. Hear me.”
“Who are you?”
“I am fire. I am the molten core of the mountain. I am Bat’Zul. I was trapped centuries ago by your ancestor. There are people who wish to release me, but only to control me. But they cannot release me without your help. Help me and you shall have more power than you ever dreamed of. Help them and you shall perish with them.”
“That doesn’t leave me much choice does it? How do I know I can trust you? Hell, how do I know you’re even real?”
“Hold out your hand. Now picture a ball of flame floating above your palm…”
As if by magic, the ball of fire appeared. She could feel the heat radiating, but she instinctively knew that it would not burn her. She knew from that moment on that no fire ever would. And the power…oh the feeling of power that rushed through her was so sweet and so intense that she almost cried when it left her. But she knew she could call it back whenever she needed to. And need she would. There were answers waiting out there and she knew just where to find them.
“Have you learned anything new since we last spoke?” asked Henry. It was a typical Monday morning and Henry had been making more visits than usual since her powers had manifested.
“Sure, check this out,” Cora replied as she stood up from behind her desk. She called up a ball of fire and tossed it into the air. By the time it fell back to her palm, she had called up two more. She deftly began juggling the flaming spheres while flashing a cheeky grin at Henry.
“Parlor tricks, nothing more. Cora, sit, we need to talk. It’s been a long year. For all of us. I know you’re trying your best, but we had hoped for more from you.”
“Now that you mention it, that brings up a topic I was hoping to discuss with you. Why me?
“Because I could feel the power in you.”
“And has that changed in the last year? The amount of power you feel in me?”
“Sadly, yes. You were so strong when I first met you, but it seems I was mistaken. I can barely feel anything now.”
Cora sat back, knowing that he was lying. Not only had she picked up a talent for sales, she could tell a liar from a mile away. You didn’t make it far in the corporate world without being able to read people. He wasn’t lying about her power waning, he was lying about ever feeling it at all, because if he could, he would know that she was near bursting with it. Ever since she connected with the beast beneath the mountain, her power had grown in leaps and bounds. She had found an old abandoned weapons test site and had been practicing there. She could make if rain fire if she so chose. He was also lying about why she had been chosen, and it was time for him to fess up.
“Tell me Henry,” she said leaning forward on her desk, “what’s the real reason you sought me out?”
Seeing the truth flash in her eyes, Henry let out a resigned sigh and said, “You know.”
“Maybe, but why don’t you explain it to me so I can make sure I’ve got it straight.”
“Your ancestor, Father Henri, imprisoned a demon named Bat’Zul beneath a mountain. The faction I work for has been trying to free him to harness his power. We knew that there was a fair chance that we could use you to free him. If you never developed any powers, then we were going to use you as a sacrifice to make up for your ancestor imprisoning him.”
“So let me get this straight. You were going to use me as a bribe if you couldn’t use me as a tool? There are a few things I think you may have overlooked.”
“Such as?” he asked, growing paler, sweat beading on his brow. She had taken the news far too well, and he feared what was to come.
“For starters, the reason that Father Henri was able to entrap Bat’Zul was because the demon was his son. You made your first mistake by assuming he was a priest. Well, he was, but not of any gods you would recognize. Bat’Zul’s powers were inherited from his father, as were mine. Although I didn’t know it until ‘Uncle Zul’ clued me in. After I did a little digging into my family tree, I realized the truth of it. And then I started digging into yours. Did you really think you would succeed? The Circle of Thorns? While I admit that they’ve been a thorn in my family’s paw for the past century, we’ve just ignored you. Now that you’re interfering directly with one of ours, we can’t let that go unpunished.”
Before Henry could respond, Cora seemed to explode in flame, engulfing everything in the room. His screams went unheard beneath the sound of roaring fire.
By the time the authorities showed up, the only
person left was a singed Cora, standing among the smoke and ruin. As they escorted her off of the premises, a
team of investigators was heading inside.
Cora looked at them, the flames dancing in her eyes, and said, “Don’t
bother. The only thing you’ll find in
there is ash and lies.”