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
Saturday evening, Zoë and Ann once again got together at Crank's.
Zoë parked in the brightly lit, most fashionable part of Canoga Avenue. Several blocks over, the age-green copper spires of the Burtongale Building taunted her, lit by spotlights and flying a large American flag that gently luffed in the wind.
Ann said: "C'mon, let's make eyes and have eyes made at us." Crank's was a popular dress-up bar along Canoga Avenue. They walked up granite steps to a warm oak doorway piped with shining brass tubes. Husky blond men with Crank's logo T-shirts and suspenders checked ID. "That's a nice start," Ann whispered to Zoë while glancing back at a muscular bicep. A thin man in a business suit, too old and not right, said something charming to Zoë. She raked him with The Icy Lookonce, down, then upand the glitter went out of his smile, like a neon-lit shop window with a rock through it.
"Not too crowded," Ann said. They found a small table set into the wall. A waitress in a mini-tux, tray held high, took their orders of house white.
Zoë thumped Anne's back. "Good choice, Beagle Face. Glad we decided to dress up."
"Thanks, Rat Breath. Good to party a little again."
"You call this partying? Geez, I would never have imagined, when I was chain-smoking Dromedarys and swilling beer with Frank and the boys, that in ten years I'd be sitting in a place like this wondering if I should sip Chab or Cab." The interior was all mirrors, but cool because the light had an understated bluish brightness that made faces and hands appear fluorescent. Brass tubing arced among graceful potted palms. The mirrors, coated with art-deco figures in white latex, gave an impression of boundless space: trippy space, pounded by heavy speakers extruding a thick paste of metal-sounding music. Crank's was hip, and hip meant music without deafness. Talk, however aerated, was in. So was Looking.
"That one," Ann said, pointing. "There. No, there."
Zoë finally saw him, a man with a nice smile who seemed entranced by his heavy blonde companion, listening to her every word. "Nice," Zoë said. "He doesn't look scroungy, so probably no drugs. Trim, so he must work out. Isn't swilling his drink, hasn't scratched his balls. Classy suit without flashing lights, so he might be loaded."
Zoë and Ann clinked glasses. The clinking caught the eyes of the man with the blonde, and a look of startled speculation crossed his upper face, changing the eyes, while the smile remained frozen. Watch it," Zoë said. "He's a faker. He's seen you."
Ann was smiling across the room, nodding.
"Oh Jesus. I knew something was going to happen tonight. Fast work there, Beagle-Face."
Ann put her glass down with a knowing, secret smile. "I just enjoy the game a little bit. Try myself to see if I'm rusty."
"I'm going to the ladies' room," Zoë said.
"Wish me luck. Hey whattaya know. He's telling her he must go to the bathroom." She pulled in her chin and made a deep Transylvanian voice: "Dahlink, I must go shake my hose."
Laughing, Zoë escaped just before the guy returned. He glided in like a black and white fish, angling slightly toward Ann with an expressionless but appraising look at Zoë. What a feat, Zoë thought, he should be in a circus. How could a person present two different faces to two different persons at the same time? He curved in like a dolphin, fins laid back and relaxed as in a dancer's bow. With one side of his face he looked suggestively into Ann's eyes while with the other side of his face he sized up Zoë. How did men do that? Better yet, why? She picked up her purse and threaded her way through the crowd.
That was when she saw Lt. Vic Lara of the San Tomas Police, whom she had met at the Medical Examiner's morgue, and her breath caught.
Lara's eyes, like pencils shading in a drawing, started at her toes and moved up to her curls. His eyes had a warm, cocky twinkle, and his chin moved back in a smile. "Haven't we met somewhere before?"
"Let me buy you a drink," Lara said.
"I'm with a friend."
"Now are you cold or just shy?"
"Oh why not?" Zoë said.
"Great." He held the chair for her. Glasses came: Rosé for her, scotch for him.
"So we meet again," she said feeling witless. His eyes, when he looked at her a certain way, reminded her of old pain and she wished he'd quit doing that. She could not remember the thing, just the pain.
He moved a toothpick around on his lips. "I was kind of surprised to see you're on the police beat. Gets pretty gory."
"I quickly noticed that somehow. How do you deal with it every day, Lieutenant?" It occurred to her that this man could be a source of valuable information for her news reporting, not to be mention the big story she was developingif only she wasn't so thoroughly scared of him and yet attracted to him.
"Vic. Call me Vic. Hey, do I get the feeling I'm being interviewed?"
She folded her hands on the table. "Do reporters make you nervous?"
He slapped his forehead. "Reporters. Naw. Pretty girls. Women who are sure of themselves and stare into your soul. Like you."
She laughed. "Very theatrical. Must be the Latin blood."
"Now there you've hit it right on the head. I'm Mexican-Puerto Rican." He made sawing motions with his forearms. "Salsa, baby. Sabes?"
"I like a little salsa now and then. Say if you trashed that toothpick I probably could see into your soul."
The toothpick sailed away in an arc. He opened his mouth wide.
She looked in. "Well, you have a lot of fillings..."
He snapped his mouth shut. "What are you, a dentist now?"
She laughed. "Just a struggling obituary writer."
He placed his hands over hers. "I was going to ask you for your phone number."
"You presume greatly, Lt. Lara. Here, I have something in my purse that I want to show you." She placed it before him. "Speaking of dentists."
"A tooth?" Vic asked, regarding the object.
She said: "I found it outside the zoo." There was a ringing in her ears, a rush of blood, and she wasn't sure why she was doing this.
"Oh?" He placed a new toothpick carefully in the "o" of his lips while his eyes appraised her. Again, that feeling scraped her soul. What was it Vic Lara did to her? He looked at the tooth but did not touch it. "Now why did you pick up this old thing? Isn't it better to let old things lie where they are? Are you trying to wake the dead?"
"You too, huh?"
"Wait," he said raising a hand as though he were cleaving a pound of truth. "Why were you wandering around outside the zoo?" His eyes looked surprised and interested.
"I wasn't wandering," she said, "I was throwing up."
"I was grossed out by the smell of Smith's blood."
"You're going to be police reporter. Get used to it."
"I'm working on it, Vic. I'm with you here, aren't I?"
He stopped laughing. "You could do worse."
She whacked him. "I know. Stop treating me like a sister, will you?"
He reached for her hand. "Okay." He helicoptered close with puckered lips.
She felt starved and wanted to take him home to bed but she put her finger over his lips. "First things first, Vic."
He sat back. "All right, tell me exactly where you found this tooth."
"About a thousand feet from the main zoo gate. On a bald spot of sand and scrub."
He nodded. "And?"
She looked at the tooth, confused. "I thought it might be important. A man murdered a thousand feet away. How on earth does an adult tooth..." She looked up, suddenly at a loss.
"You said murdered. This is getting very interesting." He yawned, still not touching the tooth.
"Blow it out your ear," she said. She swept the tooth into her purse and rummaged for the list of names. "I had something else to show you. I was going to call you. At work. Business only." She showed him her piece of paper. "I did some checking and found out that these people have died suddenly while working at the zoo during the past year."
He took the list and this time, his jaws genuinely slid apart. "How did you do this?"
Ann waved to her from a distance.
"Excuse me a minute." She hurried to Ann's side. "What trouble are you getting in now? And where's the shark man?"
"Oh, him. The dolphin. He was going to drive his wife home and then..."
"Wife! I had a feeling."
"And then he was going to come back for me. I told him to take a hike. Or a swim."
"Can you wait just a few minutes? I met a policeman I know and I want to ask him some questions about a case."
Ann laughed outright. Then she frowned. "You're serious. You, Zoë Calla, are meeting with a cop to discuss a case."
"A murder. Hang in, I'll just see Vic for a few minutes."
Ann ribbed: "Oh, Vic is it now?"
When she returned to the bar, Lara was leaning his chin on his hand and looking down at the piece of paper. "Zoë..." He swallowed hard. "This is classified police information. Where did you get it?"
"I looked things up."
"This is very sensitive information."
"For whom? The Burtongales?"
"Zoë, I'm impressed."
"Oh?" She sipped her wine, secretly gratified that he was impressed with her research. Hell, she was.
He took her hand and squeezed it with just enough force to hurt.
"Zoë, don't look any further into this matter, okay? Please." He leaned close and she could smell the smoke and scotch on his breath. He glanced down at her hand and when he saw that he had hurt it he cradled it like a wounded bird in both of his hard hands and blew on it.
She got chills up and down her back. Her hair tingled on the nape of her neck. She pulled her hands away and hid them under the table, sealed over by her breasts. "Vic, I need a break. If I want to make it as a reporter, I need a big story. I'm not going to back away from this."
There was theater on his face as his gaze bounced from wall to wall as if trying to catch something elusive. "Madre. This woman cannot let things rest when I tell her."
"I am NOT one of your giggly little mujeres, Vic."
"So much I gather. With a name like an ancient Greek goddess, nothing surprises me. What is it about you and these names?"
She ran through her standard explanation about her name, knowing it by rote so well that she knew when to stop for breaths. "My Mother is Doris Shane. My poor Daddy was Wayne Lull, as in Dull. That made me Mary Lull, as in Dull. It was pretty awful, and not cool at all, until I got married."
"Frank MacLemore," Vic said heavily. "Mary MacLemore didn't sound right, so you took your mother's maiden name, and became Mrs. Mary-Shane MacLemore."
Her mouth felt dry. Time seemed to go by slowly. Why did that always seem to happen in this restaurant? She hoped she didn't have that hypnotic drool-stare, and licked her lips. "You know a lot about me."
"The biker murders were my case. You served time. Apparently you have forgotten, which is all for the best."
She stared at him, as if underwater, not understanding. He knew things…but what?
"What about the two little dots?"
"What two little dots?"
"Over the e. In Zoë. Is that like a German Umlaut?" He pronounced it wrong ('Yoomlawt'), and made a face as if his two rolling eyes were putting dots on the e, which was at the tip of his nose. They both laughed.
"It's not an Umlaut at all. It's called diaeresis."
"Diaeresis, in Greek, meaning to divide. You use it when you have two vowels next to each other, but don't run them together as in 'boot' or 'tweet', which would be a diphthong, but pronounce them separately. It's Zoh-ee or Zowee, not Zoi."
"And her sister Chloë, pronounced like Klowee, not Kloi."
"I'm brighter than I thought." He brightened. "I did have an old Spanish handbook of the world's frogs and birds, when I was a boy. I couldn't figure out why it read Zoölogical, and why penguin was pingüino."
"There you go, Detective Lara."
He practiced: "Zoë, Chloë, and their brother Noël."
"You are very smart, indeed," she said.
"I'm not exactly naïve. Where do you get all this information?"
"From a little bookshelf full of dictionaries, style guides, and other references at the newspaper office, because I want to know my craft as a writer. I want to become a reporter."
"You are so smart it's almost scary. I hoped I'd never run across you again." He toyed with his drink, and looked at her pale hand on the counter, as if he wanted to play with that also. She did not move her hand away. He said: "You have people looking out for you, Zoë, but there are also people with secret agendas around you. Do you remember anything from before?"
She stared at him another full minute, while the bar clock ticked, and Vic looked at her with glittering, scalpel eyes. "Frank died," she said hollowly, as if that explained everything. Vic Lara waited patiently. "I took the name Calla, from a lily on a calendar that I saw. So now I'm Zoë Calla, and I like it that way."
"I like it too." He made a face. "But Zoë?"
"It means Life."
He leaned close. "Nice choice, but why not Martha? That's a nice name, all regular and down to earth and stuff. Or Linda? You know Linda means beautiful?"
She raised her face close to his. "Zoë can also mean mysterious, sensuous, and intriguing. So watch yourself."
He closed his eyes. "I am." He opened his eyes, and regarded her full of amor, his eyes almost brimming with tears and sadness.
She gathered her purse. "Thanks for the drink."
"The number," he said.
"Oh yes." She tore a deposit slip from her bank book. She handed it to him before darting away.
"Maybe we can work together," he said, folding the slip very carefully. "Maybe we can get our arms around this situation." He added: "Zoë."
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.