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
This morning was her physical. She told Jules she'd be late but that she'd work doubly hard to beat the deadline.
Zoë, wearing only panties and a cloth hospital gown, read magazines and waited through her physical at a private clinic overlooking the ocean. She got to sit outside on a private, screened patio between tests, shaded by an awning. The nurse practitioner mentioned to her that she had dark circles under her eyes. At first Zoë was impatient. Then she realized that this was what rest really meant, and how little of it she'd had in a long time. She remembered some long ago yoga lessons and breathed deeply in and out. She tried to sit as relaxed as possible. And to explore her mind while she rested:
The ocean rumbled in her mind with a slow pulse beat, and she walked barefoot on a beach, wearing a bikini. It wasn't a scene from her imagination; it was a metaphor presented by the Cold Thing, and she willingly let herself into from curiosity. The day inside the bottle of her head was hazy, and the sun burned milky-hot like a filament in a light bulb. The moon and the earth were like a heart beating, and the ocean tumbled through its phases like squirts in an artery. But it was scaryif the earth and the moon got too close to each other, they would squash against each other, go limp, and the whole music would stop.
The Cold Thing resided in the pebbly beach somewhere between a cortex (!where was high school biology when you needed it?) and a medulla, or was that an isthmus and some islets? She stubbed a toe of thought into the midafternoon tide pool of her consciousness. This was a motherly place with boulders of love and rocks of concern. The biting coral of girlishness lay far out on a reef. There were smooth river rocks every woman's soul flowed around: recipes, hurts, candle-making, ducks on a shower curtain, nagging mother, lost father... There! its shadow rippled on the fine sand, like the head of an eel. Or did it have little crooked antlers on its head? Inscrutable, reptilian, feigning sleep, it dreamt of killing. She was sure of it. But why? What did it all mean? Why was she scared and curious at the same time, as in her attraction to Vic?
"Are you sleeping?"
Zoë opened her eyes. "What?" The white-clad technician handed her her medical file to carry to the next station. "You're done with X-ray, Miss Calla. You can go on to blood work now." The eyes softened. "Your X-rays look good, I'll just tell you off the record. The radiologist already reviewed them. The CAT scan is normal, but the doctor will call your doctor. It's lovely here, isn't it? Were you sleeping?"
"I may have dozed off a bit. It's so peaceful." But the Cold Thing lurked, and nobody would believe her if she told them. As she dressed, she realized she was light-headed and hungry. Time to find a deli, maybe get a chicken salad sandwich. She dreamt of toast and pickles and mustard and mayo. She thanked the medical staff, and was glad to get out into the warm sunshine of reality.
It was good to be alive. It was good to be in the warm air as cars churned past. She could smell the heat of their tires, the vegetable-soup smell of lawns being mowed, the vanilla in a cone held by a passing child, the citrus aftershave of a young bodybuilder who leered at her. She trudged along the sandy sidewalk toward her car, enjoying the warmth emanating up from under her soles. As long as the Cold Thing sleptor was busy elsewhereno Dark Feelings, no pain from it.
As she remembered the Dark Thing, a.k.a. the Cold Thing, she began to feel dizzy again. Somebodywhether it was Vic, or Dr. Stanislaus, or Father O'Malleymust help her get rid of this thing that had wormed its way into her very soul that day in the zoo. Somehow, too, she knew, somehow this thing in her mind had something to do with the deaths in the zoo, which had something to do with the Burtongales, which had something to do with her father, which connected to the ham bone, which connected to the thigh bone...
She shook her head, trying to clear the craziness away as the metaphor broke apart in her head.
The body builder looked at her strangely and then turned away as she held onto the rim of her car door with white-knuckled hands and made throat clearing noises. The dizziness abated again, but she didn't feel quite so happy anymore as after leaving the clinic.
A cloud had passed over the sun, suddenly turning the air leaden and gray.
She got to work at eleven and found that the entire resentful City Room of reporters and editors had been pounding away at obits most of the morning. That was like ten people at least, she thought with grim satisfaction. Let them see all the work she did.
Jules sidled by. He wasn't carrying his pipe and he had a funny dark look. "You heard from Wiz?"
She shook her head. "Not word one." She indicated with her chin the humongous pile of obits. "Christ, Jules, are they all out there dying by the truckloads?
"I hope not."
"Have you found another Obit Queen yet to help me, or better to replace me while I become an ace reporter?"
He leaned forward and placed his finger under his nose. "Shhh. I'm interviewing a guy tomorrow afternoon. You'll sit in, okay? Two o'clock. If we like him, we hire him."
"Oh Jules. That would be so wonderful."
"I thought you'd like that." He started to leave. "If you hear from Wiz, I want to know."
The Chatfield guy called and canceled, saying things had come up and it would be at least a week before he could really give her the zoo tour. But he promised to give her good color.
So instead she met Ann Temple for lunch at a French patisserie. Clouds were moving in from the sea. The air was gray, and inside the restaurant was an almost underwater light. A mirror on the wall seemed filled with quicksilver. Zoë had a baked patty shell with steaming lemon-mushroom filling.
Ann spooned hot onion soup. "How's old flashy eyes?"
"The cop?" Zoë licked her fork. "I went out with him last night."
"Yep. Had a good time."
"Is he as slick as he looks?"
"Stopped him at thigh one."
"Play that one slow."
Zoë sighed luxuriously. "Well, I don't know what I want to do. He could be a little weird, I don't know. I'll see how it goes. But I intend to have some fun."
She spent the early afternoon digging through the back areas of the newspaper morgue, trying to find old scrapbooks maybe, or fiche, anything to learn more about the Burtongale family. It was hard to see in the dreary light, even with inside fluorescents on. A few droplets spattered the windows overlooking San Tomas. The spires of the Burtongale Building rode like ships in a sea of clouds. Tiny figures in anoraks stood on the roof of the Burtongale Building, reeling in the garrison flag while wind ripped at their clothes and they reeled like sailors on a pitching deck.
Zoë threw her papers on the table and sat down. She felt like crying. Dead ends. All roads led to the Burtongale family, and all doors were closed. She could not go to Jules; she could not even leave her name with anyone for fear she would, as Jules put it, make more enemies. She went back to her desk, discouraged, and puttered around, cleaning up.
The phone rang.
"Miss Calla?" A man's voice. Nothing familiar about it. Very nondescript; grammatically correct at least; fortyish; possibly an authority figure. "Or should I say, Miss Chang?"
Oh chips, she thought. The game is up. Her stomach did a hiccup.
"You want to find out about the Burtongale family."
"I'm trying to do research for a story, okay? Who are you?"
"I could be a friendhelp youwould you like that?"
She sat forward, tense and scared. "I'm not sure."
"Try me." (What was that echo she heard?)
"What do I need to do?"
"There is a restaurant right next door to the police station. I think you should feel quite safe there."
"Let's say, five forty five."
She would have Max with her; Ann could not pick him up; she frowned... "Okay, let's do it." She could send him into the police station to sit with Vic, maybe.
"Just ask for Mr. Vecci. That's V, e, c, c, i. That's me."
The restaurant was Napolitano's, a pizzeria much used by both the police and by local businesses. She'd eaten in there a few times, but preferred Puffy's Pizza near her house because it had a thicker, crustier crust.
Zoë luckily found a space fronting on the alley between the pizzeria and the police station. Dropping a quarter into the meter, she walked into the station with Max. Vic was not in, the receptionist patrol woman said.
Zoë had Max sit down on one of the smooth wooden benches in the lobby, under pothos and arecas. "I expect to be back in a half hour, okay? You do your homework."
Low voice: "Okay."
Pinching her jacket shut against the drizzle, she hopped over puddles. The light was growing dim, like bluing in laundry water as the lid slowly closed. Neon glowed cozy in shop windows. Zoë entered the restaurant and peeked around.
The restaurant was small, but it did a brisk business all day round, from the daytime breakfast lunch and dinner crowds to the all night requirements of police, fire department, and EMT people. It smelled wonderfully of breads and sauces, meats and sweets, and Zoë was tempted to order a cannoli but she was too nervous. Standing on tiptoe, she looked around a knot of mechanics in blue overalls who held beers and chatted. In corner booths, families with small children worked on bowls of lasagna.
"Can I help you, Miss," said a thin Italian man with a small mustache and an accent.
"I came to see Mr. Vecci."
He nodded and went into a back room. Zoë waited. She studied the display case of pastries off to one side. The tortes and marzipans looked delicious. Minutes passed. A middle-aged woman with heavy arms and lips came to work the cash register. Two sheriff's deputies from San Tomas County stopped in to pick up a large pizza. The cash register rang. More people came in to order. Zoë looked at her watch again. First five, then ten minutes passed. She asked the woman: "Is Mr. Vecci coming out?"
"Oh yes, he'll be right out. Want some spinach bread?"
"That sounds divine," Zoë said.
The woman cut something behind the counter, then handed over a still-warm piece of bread on a piece of wax paper. Zoë tried it and made eyes. "Mmmm..."
"Here comes Mr. Vecci now," the woman said.
Zoë stood back and stopped chewing.
The young slim Italian man came out, pushing a high-backed wheelchair. In the wheelchair, wrapped in blankets, was a husk of a little man who had to be ninety if he was a day. His skin was mottled like a pastry with chocolates and reds and blues. His hands were bunches of uselessly dangling fingers. His mouth was open, and his eyes stared mindlessly into space.
"Hey Pop," the heavy-armed woman shouted to the husk. "The lady's here from the state rest home. Y'have a nice vacation?"
Drool ran from the old blue mouth, the tongue protruded, and the eyelids gave a flicker of recognition.
Zoë stood transfixed, as if some giant hobbyist had applied a drop of fixative to her head. Only dimly did she hear the woman ask: "Where is your assistant? And the ambulance?"
The door burst open. "Mom!" It was Max. He struggled with a crutch and the rattling door. "You'd better see this."
Zoë stepped outside and put her hands to her mouth.
Her Mustang was up on blocks. The wheels were gone. The engine was gone. Even the trunk lid, the hood, and the driver's side door were gone. The rag top swung in windy shreds on the bare frame. The windshield had been removed. The seats were gone. Wires hung where the radio had been. The passenger side door was still there. Someone had used a power brush to remove a ragged swatch of paint, leaving a violent display of naked scoured steel. On it, someone had written in large white letters: NOSY BITCH. And in smaller print, evidently in some sort of laundry marker: "All you need to know."
Zoë stood looking at her devastated car as total darkness fell. Max looked shocked, and she felt sorry most of all that he'd had to see this. To get him out of there, she hailed a cab. Then she bought them each a hot dog and soda
"Mom, why did someone do that to us?"
She looked up surprised from her self-pity, from the devastation of her own hot doga missile in an explosion of ketchup and mustard. "Someone was telling me I should stick with obits for a while…or I'll be as dead as my car." Now she'd have to borrow Mother's car.
Max answered the phone at home that evening. He hollered in a cracking voice: "Mom! Phone!"
It was Lara. "Zoë?"
"Yes," she said. "You sound like you're in a cookie tin."
"That's sweet of you. No, I've got a cell phone and as a matter of fact I'm standing in front of Flopsy's Diner on 101 feeling hungry and thinking about you."
"Did you hear about my car?"
"Yeah, I did." He sighed, as though she were a wayward child. "Are you okay?"
"I'm still a bit shook up."
"Want me to come by?"
"No. Thanks for calling."
"I'll check into it, Zoë, see what I can do for you."
"Vic, do I need police protection?"
He appeared to think for a moment. "Probably not. Will you take my advice and back off from this whole mess?"
He sighed. "Come have coffee. I'll pick you up."
"Well" she looked over at Max, who was busy with his homework at the coffee table. She'd always made a point of telling him ahead of time when she was going out. "I can't, Vic. I have to plan things."
"What's this plan things? Where's the party spirit I was hearing about last night?"
"That was after two margaritas and a lot of shanana. This is tonight. I worked all day, my car is stripped, I'm worried, and I'm tired. I can't leave Max alone. Not after today."
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.