Of Stars and Smoke and Other Intangible Things Excerpt

Chapter One- TALA

It started with a dead body.

Most of her nights didn’t, but Tala enjoyed the ones that did. She perched on the second floor scaffolding, her hand cold as she gripped the metal pole. The corpse was strangely bright against the darkened wet ground it lay on. Pale, bloated face, bright red stain on its beige jacket.

The homeless man had been easy enough to find. The renovations on the flats near Terring Lane had been abandoned for months now, and the homeless tended to gather there on the colder evenings. He had been the only one there when she arrived, bustling about on the very platform Tala was crouched on.
He hadn’t listened to her. Not when she had approached him earlier that afternoon in warning, nor when he had shouted obscenities at her a few minutes before he had slipped. If she closed her eyes, Tala could see him fall again, could hear the echoed shout that ended too soon, and the thump and crack on the pavement when he landed. She had approached him as he lay there, gasping for breath, fingers twitching for all of thirty seconds before he died.

The corpse had been warm when she had knelt next to it an hour ago. Tala shoved a hand into her coat pocket, fingers closing around the crinkled envelope. wasn’t sure if it was still warm now. She wasn’t even sure why she was still here. Maybe because the corpse didn’t have anyone else. Tala could understand that. She had lived that. So maybe she owed it to the once homeless man to wait so it wouldn’t be alone. Even though it was freezing, and looked like it might rain.

It was quiet apart from the wind, and the rumble of cars on the nearby streets. Tala shifted on the scaffolding, pins and needles racing through her arm as she stared up at the cloudy sky. The distant sound of sirens and shouting caught her attention as she huddled further into her coat, her long, black hair falling in a curtain around her face. If she stared hard enough, she could just make out a small strip of the ocean in the distance, the seaside town still bright and lively. Two years she had lived here, and Tala couldn’t remember a time that it was truly quiet.

The sirens grew louder, and she froze as red and blue flashing lights approached from down the street. ‘Putang ina mo,’ Tala cursed in Filipino, fingers curling tighter on the scaffolding as the police car screeched to a stop. She scooted backwards and tried to shrink into the shadows of the building as two cops approached the crime scene, pointing and talking into their radios. Flashlights wavered along the ground and Tala prayed that they wouldn’t point up. Was she really that distracted that she hadn’t noticed another witness stumble upon the scene? Tala pulled her hood over her dark hair, wanting desperately to locate an escape route, but unwilling to look away from the scene below her as another police car arrived, the whoop whoop of the sirens echoing through the empty air.

One of the cops crouched next to the body and reached out to presumably check for a pulse and Tala used their distraction to move closer to the window. The wooden boards creaked as her weight shifted, and she froze. They couldn’t have heard that. Not over the sound of their own voices. But then a thin beam of light shifted in her direction.

‘Hey, up there!’

Tala ducked through the window frame behind her, and jumped down to the floor before bolting for the stairs, dust and dirt flying up around her. Her trainers thudded on the concrete as she jumped down the stairs two at a time. There was no way she was going to get caught, not now.

The cops were loud as they tried to force the communal front doors open, but Tala didn’t spare them a glance as she ran for the back exit. The door slammed against the brick wall, glass panes shattering as Tala raced across the overgrown grounds. Damn her and her stupid sympathy. What would have happened if she had just abandoned the corpse? Not a chase through the badly lit back streets of Otterlea at 10.30pm, that’s for sure.

The street lights flickered as Tala jumped over a crumbled stone wall, and slipped on the wet redway. Her trainers squelched as she ran for the adjoining street. The sounds of the cops were faint, but present and she had no idea how many were chasing her. If she could make it to Grand Way, she could hide in the drunken crowds and pretend this never happened.