This piece of flash fiction is recently featured in my storytelling podcast, Marvelous Miscellany. You can listen to it and other stories here, or on your favorite podcast app.
Rain pattered on the courtroom window, the sound echoing through the great hall despite the heavy black curtains that had been drawn over them. The jury sat in their box, silent and pale.
The corpse was still fresh, but the face had been so thoroughly mangled it was only by a bracelet on the victim’s wrist that the body had been identified as Leonora Sharn, a seamstress employed in one of the textile factories at the east end of the city.
The accused was a slim man named Edward Bolten who had been her lover. He now sat with the defense, eyes turned down, hands and feet manacled. He was seen at the site of the murder by Leonora’s sister, Rose, leaning over the body, knife in hand. Rose sat at behind the prosecution, eyes red from crying.
Edward insisted he was innocent and without a clear and reliable witness, the court had called on the services of Vanessa du Lancet, a corpse-talker. The dead don’t lie after all.
Vanessa stood before the jury, dressed in a long black dress over which she wore a gray coat, black gloves, and polished black boots. She wore a veil over her face and her scarlet red hair was pulled back into a high and tight bun. Pinned to her lapel was the symbol of her office, a white skull engulfed in blue flame. She held a small, black velvet case.
Behind her stood Father Wykes, grim-faced, clutching a bible in one hand and a vial of holy water in the other.
“Your honor, gentlemen of the jury,” she said in a soft voice that carried through the still and silent hall despite the rain. “I am here at the request of the court to call up the spirit of the deceased to acquire clear evidence of the crime here committed. The testimony you are about to hear is accurate, as the soul is incapable of lying once it has passed beyond the gates of death. Father Wykes is here should anything go awry.”
Vanessa smiled gently and held each member of the jury in her gaze briefly.
“Don’t worry. I am very good at my job,” she said.
“Proceed,” intoned the judge. The edge of fear to his voice was unmistakable.
The corpse was laid out on a gurney, covered in a sheet. Vanessa stood on its left side where a small table had been placed. She put the case on the table and opened it. In it were a silver knife, a ball of string, a vial of blue liquid, and a stub of a candle already burning with a pale blue flame.
Vanessa asked the lights to be dimmed, and the bailiff did so. The candle threw monstrous shadows on the walls as Vanessa pulled back the sheet, placing the candle on the body’s chest.
She then took the silver knife and cut a length of string. She pricked her finger and let the blood drip onto the string. She placed the string into the flame so that it would burn slowly. This served as a timer, a lifeline, ensuring Vanessa did not spend too long in-between the living and the dead.
She opened the blue liquid and drank it. She groaned and covered her mouth as she swallowed. The candle flared.
Vanessa clutched at the edge of the gurney, eyes closed and brow furrowed in concentration. The candle flared again. She raised her head and opened her eyes. They were pale blue now, like ice shot through with sunlight.
She turned to the corpse, its mouth agape and slack, saying, “Leonora… Leonora… can you hear me?”
The courtroom was silent. The candle guttered twice.
A voice came from the corpse. It was like an echo through a pipe, distant and distorted, labored and barely a whisper.
“Yes, I am here.”
Vanessa leaned forward, “We need your help, Leonora.”
“I am cold. I feel like ice. I cannot move my hands.”
“You are dead, Leonora. We need your help to find out how you died.”
The voice was silent for a long time. For a moment Vanessa thought the connection had broken, and just as she was about to extinguish the candle —
“Yes, Leonora. You were killed. We need your help to find the person who killed you.”
“Yes, Leonora. You’re—”
“I am not dead, I can hear you. I can see you.”
The remaining eye jumped and swiveled to focus on Vanessa. It too had the same ice-blue glow to it. Vanessa took a breath. She had to end this quickly before Father Wykes came in with his holy water and ruined the whole thing. The string was almost burned halfway through.
“I am a corpse-talker, Leonora. Now I need you to tell me who killed you. Do you remember?”
“Where is Edward? I want to see my Edward. I want to apologize…”
“We don’t have much time, Leonora. I must know who killed you.”
The corpse seized suddenly, its stiff limbs clattering against the gurney. Vanessa stepped back. Father Wykes stepped forward but she stayed him with a baleful look. She was not done yet.
The corpse sat upright in one stiff motion. The audience gasped and Vanessa could see in the pale blue light of the candle the sister faint. The corpse turned its head, its one eye frantically scanning until it found Edward.
Edward stared back transfixed, his eyes wide.
The candle was almost out.
“Leonora, listen to me,” said Vanessa. “You must tell me who killed you. Was it Edward?”
“I— No, no— it wasn’t — I—” the corpse seemed to tremor then it turned its head back to Vanessa.
“I killed myself!” it howled. The corpse’s voice echoed through the hall. It reached for Edward, its voice fading as it said, “Eddie… I’m sorry…”
The candle went out and the corpse collapsed.
The dead don’t lie, but this one just did. Vanessa was sure of it.