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
Odd woman, Roger Chatfield thought, while pressing the Off button on his desk phone. She had hung up without another word. The room shook again as that pesky military plane murmured in low and thundered overhead before resuming its circling high up over San Tomas Peninsula. What was an Air Force ship doingunmarked, maybe CIAlumbering around in the sky over the San Tomas Zoo and all four-by-four blocks of mostly Burtongale owned or built downtown.
As he often did, Chatfield sighed as he thought of his widowerdom. He still had many ties to the Burtongale dynasty, living in their mansion atop the town's highest hill. His two kids were among Miss Polly's many beloved grandchildrenextensions of her iron family will and personal ego. Then there was his situation as Curator, serving directly under Miss Polly's son Wallace. The incomprehensible and scary series of zoo deaths had made him feel queasy about staying here, much less continuing as Curator. He'd offered his resignation already, but Wallace had scoffingly refused it. "It would be like cutting off my right hand," he'd said grandiosely. "We all cherish you, dear boy."These were Burongale wordsall, we all, as in The Corporationcherishnot lovebut value, as if they were always carefully hoarding and counting their assets. Which, he supposed, if you had nearly limitless money, you had to do. They were among the country's quiet, hidden zillionaires. They were ancient money, dating further back than British Colonial times, even to early Spanish Colonial timeshence his daughter Elisa's beautiful blue eyes, dark skin, dark hair, like a Castilian princess with mixed Moorish, Iberian, and Anglish blood. Rudy, on the other hand, was a boisterous little blond-haired, blue-eyed, freckled brute full of energy, mischief, and affection. When Rudy had to speak, he yelled, usually while swinging on a tree branch or kicking a ball around or racing down the sidewalk on a skateboard. Roger Chatfield sighed again, always coming to the same conclusion. He was tied to this place and its tyrantsunless his children were ever threatened by the Burtongale darknessin which case he and the kids would hauling ass over the hills, faster than you could say W-E-I-R-D.
The zoo was more to the coast, but downtown included a park, a brick library, a Greek temple bank, a concrete fortress (police, fire, court-house), the Burtongale Building with its yellow and blue tiles, the Athletic Arena with its whispering swimming pools tiled in whites and greens, a movie theater (the Burt), and two blocks of little restaurants including Crank's and Gale's. On the far side, was of course Burtongale Memorial Hospital, and a block of antiseptic medical, dental, and optical offices. Most of the city's business and law offices were situated inside the cavernous, sprawling Burtongale Building.
Ears burning, Zoë hung up the phone. There was something about Roger Chatfield she did not trust, but she wasn't sure what it was that bothered her.
By eleven, most of the work was in. She had fifteen funeral notices and six articles. Of the articles, two were major stories (as obits went). The big one was Freddy Shaw (with a y), a city councilman. As Zoë typed the formal, unimaginative notices and articles, her mind wandered in various directions. What was life? What was reality? Why did some people live to be ninety years old, and others only ninety days or nine years? She had nearly lost Max. She HAD lost Frank. Now these other obits. You became philosophica. Doing obits gave you an overview, a terminal check-digit on the program called Life.
The phone rang. Vic Lara. "Oh hi," she said, hearing that little spin on the i in hi that told her she was interested in him.
"I was wondering if we could meet for dinner."
"Not this evening. I have a doctor's appointment."
He pressed: "This is my only evening off. What do you say I take you dancing."
"We-e-ll..." She wanted to go slow.
She laughed. "Yes."
"Great. Crank's? What time?"
"Crank's will be fine," she said still laughing. She was glad he made her laugh.
"OkayI'll pick you up at your..."
"I'll meet you at the bar in Crank's," she interrupted to keep a distance. "Nine." She hung up before he could say more things. She wrote herself a note just to be sure and resumed her work with a pleasant hum.
The phone rang. It was Sister St. Cyr. Zoë was surprised; usually communication was by a note left in Max's lunch box. "Miss Calla, nothing big. You forgot to send ten dollars for Max's class trip next month. It was due today."
"Oh, sorry. I can bring it by on my lunch hour."
"Tomorrow will be fine," Sister said.
"No really. How is Max doing?" she asked.
Sister hesitated. "Well, I am a little concerned. Not worried now," she quickly amended. "Nothing dramatic, but his attention seems to be wandering. He got C's on three quizzes, and that's not like him."
"Do we need a conference?"
"Oh, not at all. A little phone call should serve as an alert." Sister St. Cyr had a pleasant laugh. She told parents to remember her name was Sister Sincere.
"It will indeed. Thanks, Sister."
Nevertheless, she drove to the school, secretly, like a spy. Eating an apple, Zoë wandered into the front yard at St. Andrew's. Stark light fell into the Victorian jumble of tomato-colored brick and almond-colored marble set behind a garden of trees and ferns. She had attended grammar school here. The Burtongale architect, bless his soul, had built five schoolson opposing corners of town, each exactly one mile from any other, but united by a Masonic star pattern. It wasn similar to what Thomas Jefferson had done for his university, leaving the campus itself totally secular, but surrounded by a circle of churches, schools, and temples of all religions so the students could go forth and learn the great ideas of all the world's philosophers and theologians, from Buddha and Confucius to Jesus and Aristotle and the Rabbis, and more. So the architect had done for Burtongale College, just east of town, in the 1830s. The newer Schools, finished together in the 1880s, all looked alike. One was Episcopalian (St. Ronan's), another was Roman Catholic (St. Andrew's), another was broadly known as Christian (the rest of the Protestantsnowadays also including some Byzantines, Copts, and an overflow of Evangelicals). The fourth had originally been the Hebrew School, later called the Abraham School, which had lots both Jewish and Muslim children. Little guys in yarmulkes and zotzkes hopping around on the playground with little women in hijabs, all getting along just fine.
Zoë was momentarily alone in the courtyard at St. Andrew's. She stopped and looked up at the shuttered windows. The Dark Feeling swooped down over herno, welled up from inside of herand she dropped her apple. She reeled dizzily, sitting down on a low wall. I W A N T TO T O U C H Y O U... something inside of her said drooling. Marble gargoyles gazed down at her from leaded drain spouts. Horned goats, hissing serpents, grinning devils leered down at her.
Go away, she screamed inside. Go away! She looked down the tunnels of her blood, into the chamber of her brains, through the egg whites of her eyeballs. Get out of my fucking life!
I H A V E W A I T E D S O L O N G ... it said, but then drew away. Abruptly she felt okay again. She brushed off her apple, but saw a worm in it and threw it away in disgust. She walked down a dark corridor that smelled of floor wax and books. She paid the ten dollars to the school cashier, a chubby volunteer with a merry smile. As she left, she paused and looked back. Somehow oozing through the pores of the brick, children's cries reached her. She walked back. A Virgin Mary of creamy nougat smiled down. Zoë walked a little further and rounded the corner. Now the cries were plain. She looked down a slight incline past the school and saw milling blue uniforms on the playground. The boys' shirts and the girls' blouses made a constant semaphore of white through the leaves.
Zoë resisted the impulse to wave, yell his name. Instead she kept to the shade under the trees so as not to be seen. There: around the basketball court. Shirts had the ball. Whack, whack, whack, went the ball as a shirt tapped it on the asphalt and looked for his opening to score another hoop. Zoë could barely make them out through the green cover, which suited her desire to stay invisible rather than be a helicoptering mom.
Alone on the side lines at mid-court stood Max wearing no shirt. He was firmly planted on one crutch, leaving the other hand free...He looked to be a little Frank, almost, a powerful little man with brawny kid arms, giving not an inch to anyone, prepared to stick the crutch up anyone's butt who dared mess with him…She was proud of him. He was part her, part Frank, and it looked like the best parts of each had rubbed off on him, while leaving their dark sides in biker dust.
Flurry of shirts and skins. Ball moved rapidly. Basket.
Max yelled "Yeah!" and waved a fist. His teammates pranced by and one by one slapped his upheld hand.
On the playground, a supervising nun in black and white habit obliviously walked along the edge paths under shady, peeling eucalyptus trees. The nun stayed silently bowed over her breviary and rosary beads, while lusty boys all around her yelled bloody pirate murder and biker-mayhem all around her. Uniformed school girls, still wearing lacy head cover from Mass and Communion earlier in the morning, sing-songed over skip-rope and hop-scotch, or gossiped in corners. Zoë kept her gaze through the trees and bushes, toward the direction of Max.
Ball. Bounce, bounce. Insults, challenges, yeah! Arc, rattle of backboard, another basket, more rough cheering.
Zoë waved her fist, near tears, and whispered, "Yeah!" With a feeling of relief, she hurried to her car. Lunch hour was over (she'd forgotten to eat) but no matter. That was one healthy boy out there, yelling his lungs raw. No need to live in terror of any more X-Rays, Cat Scans, Pet Scans, and related, screaming atomic bestiaries of glowing fear.
Having met her deadline, Zoë gave Jules the high sign. He nodded, and she sloshed out into the drizzle. First stop, the public library, the information desk. "Hi. I seem to remember seeing, somewhere in the halls, a marble scroll or something that reads Burtongale Room." The young librarian called over an older lady whose kindly eyes swam like pickled eggs behind thick lenses. "Yes," the older woman said, "years and years ago when they built this building, there was a plan to have a room for Burtongale memorabilia and books. They practically paid for this library, I'm sure you know. Then, who knows, nothing ever came of it. The room is now part of the stacks, and off-limits. If I remember correctly, we keep magazines in it."
"But why the change of plans?" Zoë asked.
The older woman shrugged. "I think they decided to keep all their books up in the mansion. They have a family museum up there, I'm told."
Zoë went to a pay phone and looked up the number.
At the Burtongale mansion atop the town's highest hill, a woman answered. "This is Miss Martina Strather." Miss Strather sounded refined, cheery, upper caste, Badminton School and probably Oxfordif not, she made a good show of it.
"I was wondering about the Burtongale Family Museum," Zoë said. "The library told me it's at the family mansion."
"Yes, it is, but it hasn't been open to the public in at least twenty years, and I don't anticipate that it will be. Miss Polly is very firm on that. Are you a scholar?"
"No, just nosy." Zoë hung up.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.