This Shoal of Space:
Zoë Calla & the Dark Starship
(World's First E-BookPublished On the Web in 1996 For Digital Download)
a Dark SF novel originally titled Heartbreaker
by John Argo
Part I-Chapter 2
Part II-Chapter 66
In the morning, over breakfast, Max told her: "You had one of those screamers again last night."
"Huh?" She stopped in mid-croissant and blushed. For years, about once a month, maybe more when under extreme duress, she had variations on a nightmare whose contents were a closed, sealed secret. She might wake up screaming, sitting up in panic; or sleep through and have Max tell her she had awakened him. "Sorry," was all she could offer, but he seemed used to it.
ZoŽ dropped Max off at St. Andrew's School. She watched until his mop of thick brown hair disappeared among other heads on the playground, then drove to work. Jules called her into his office. "Bad news. Wiz called early this morning and said she won't be back."
"I'm sorry, ZoŽ. It will take a few days, maybe a week or so, but we'll get a replacement. Meanwhile I'm afraid you're going to have to woman the obit desk all by yourself. When we get a new person you'll have to train him or her also."
"Yeah. I can empathize. I'll give you the freedom to help Perry in anyway you want, as long as it doesn't interfere with obits. I'm making you his assistant, and damn Mart Willow."
"That does make me feel a little better. Just give me a chance, that's all I ask." She thought, I will find a big story and write it down and be Hemingway and it will be good.
"Hey, there's more good news. Chatfield called from the zoo yesterday afternoon. Very impressed with you. Says he wouldn't mind helping you put together some color about the zoo. Want to do some stories?"
She took a moment to answer, remembering her mixed feelings about Chatfield. "Well, maybe..."
Perry stopped by to offer condolences about Wiz quitting.
"Great timing," she remarked as the copy girl brought a stack of death notices needing phoned accuracy checks.
"A little less chili pepper please," Perry said. He sat on the edge of the desk and cracked an apple. "Did you know there was another death at the zoo last night?"
"Yes. One of the maintenance men. They found him lying in the street, bitten up by spiders. I was just on the phone with the M.E. He says the stings caused a heart attack." Perry rapped a knuckle on the desk. "Well, assistant, I gotta run. Can't wait for you to get out there on the police beat."
ZoŽ got to work. Doing obits alone was like rowing a leaky boat. The faster you rowed, the more water got in, or so it seemed. She arranged the piles of paper on her desk and tried to get organized. With the rhythm of cooperation between herself and Wiz gone, she felt overwhelmed. Each morning, ten or twenty death notices arrived, of which probably three to six required obituary newspaper articles. In other words, she had to write about twenty pages of meticulous articles every day before the two p.m. deadline. Woe if a name were misspelled, an address wrong, or a surviving relative not mentioned! Often, a death notice or obituary article required telephone time, checking details. ZoŽ had been doing obits for nearly five years now, and it gave her a strangely serene overview of life and death. Sometimes she felt like a secretary to St. Peter or whoever unlocked the pearly gates. People died suddenly or from long illnesses or were murdered. People died young or old or in the prime of life. For example, one of the obits today was on a 13 year old girl named Teresa Avila who had died of leukemia. Another was on a little baby named Theodore Grant, who had fallen from a third-story window; with a name like that, he might have grown up to be a great lawyer, maybe even a president. How sad life could be. But she had her Max.
The obituary notice on the zoo employee who had died last night was phoned in by a relative late that morning.
"Would you repeat that name?"
"Washington. J.W. Washington."
She nearly dropped the phone. "I was just speaking with him yesterday!" ZoŽ and the shaken relative exchanged observations about life, death, fate, and coincidence for several minutes more. Whisk, Whisk, she thought sadly. Snap, snap.
"Going to lunch?" Perry asked a while later.
"Is it that time? My God it's noon. Perry would you be a sweetie and bring me a sandwich?"
He was, and he did. They ate together in the hall on a windowsill. "Perry, I've been doing obits for a couple of years," she said as egg salad fell out of her mouth and she used her fingertips to stuff it back in. "It seems to me I've done several obits on zoo people the past year." He merely shrugged.
Still chewing, she hurried back to her desk. The clock was ticking. With every minute the 2 p.m. deadline loomed closer.
Ann Temple, ZoŽ's girlfriend from school days, called at ten after two. "Hey Rat Breath." Ann and ZoŽ long ago had exchanged special secret names. Ann's son Jeremy was a grade further along than Max at St. Andrew's.
"Yo Beagle Face," ZoŽ said weakly, sitting back in her typing chair after having made the deadline by thirty seconds.
"Want to go out for steak dinner at Pepper's Steak House this evening?"
"Great idea," ZoŽ said. "Let's make an evening of it." With that to look forward to, she brightened. She started playing with the computer while she ate the remaining half of her sandwich and lukewarm coffee. Suppose, she thought, I wanted to know how many people have died around the zoo during the last year or two, how would I look that up? ZoŽ sat at the glowing screen. The keys clicked as she tried different directories and paths to access the information. At five, after calling Ann Temple to pick up Max, ZoŽ was still working on the computer system. She saw Mart Willow walk into his office with (ugh) Gilbert Burtongale. Mart (bigger ugh) was Gilbert's uncle, and no doubt Gilbert was here to hit him up for some money again. The whole staff knew that Gilbert would yell his head off if he didn't get his way. The ancient woman, Polly Burtongale, made sure Gilbert always had his way.
As ZoŽ pondered the computer screen, someone sang "He-e-l-l-l-o-o-o" right into her face and she nearly fainted. Gilbert. She stared at him, paralyzed.
He smiled charmingly. "I just keep running into you everywhere. I saw you at the zoo the other day, and now here." He looked at her closely. A Dark Feeling came over her. Don't you remember anything? his mouth said.
She shook. Words would not come out of her mouth.
His face looked luminous, as though she were shining on him. He licked his lips, and she noticedyuckwhite goo in the corners of his mouth, as if he never brushed his teeth. His eyes flicked over her skin with the speed of knives, as though carving off little bits of beauty here and there. "We are meant for each other." He licked his lips again. The ooze in the corners of his mouth made him seem hydrophobically mad.
She raised half her upper lip, exposing (she hoped) TEETH.
He raised his fingers. "Such pretty curls."
She brushed his hand away. "I have work to do."
"I'm sorry. Here I am, disturbing you while you do what?"
"DEATH NOTICES," she said, trying to put a hint into it.
"You remember my name?"
She wished either he were gone or she could melt through a crack to get away.
"Gilbert," he said. "Gilbert Burtongale. I am going to own all this one day. But none of it matters. None of it." He made an apocalyptic face, staring at her.
She turned away. Her fingers clicked on the keyboard. Her cheeks, as she stared at the screen, were hot points. She heard the swash of his clothing as he rose.
At 5:30, Mart Willow, Jules Loomis, and the staff all trooped past carrying their satchels and jackets, giving her surprised looks. Usually she was on her way to pick up Max about this time. Jules said, "They must be dying like flies out there." He passed her with a fond gaze.
The system prompted her through a series of menus. She tapped out the commands that would make the computer search through all the obituary articles for the past year, noting any that had the word 'zoo' in them, and printing on the screen before her the names and zoo jobs of the dead person(s). She waited while the cursor blinked on a dark screen. She was unsure this would lead anywhere.
"Processing..." the machine silently displayed. Still the cursor blinked. "Please wait..."
Then she sat up suddenly. The name "Washington, J.W." displayed on the screen. My God, she thought, it's picking it up. It's reading through the articles backwards, of course, and Washington was just entered today.
Folly, she thought. Probably just a blind alley. There might be one or two more, but probably nothing to interest anyone. "Smith, Jonathan, Non-Employee" the system displayed after "Washington, J.W., Maintenance." Her leg rocked rapidly forward and backward, a nervous habit of old. No more names, no more names, no more names, her mind repeated hypnotically as she tried to check her frustration.
Then the names winked into a column, one by slow one:
Appleworth, MaryGift Shop
End of Search.
"Holy Moses," she said. "It worked." Then the deeper implication struck her. "Five dead ones in the past year!" Already it dawned on her that here was her great chance. As scary and ominous as this whole thing seemed, she knew in her heart that here was the news story that would change her life.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.