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
A gentle, whispering rain sifted through the leaves outside ZoŽ's apartment and fell splat splat down among the arecas and chaemadoras in the garden box.
"Kind of a drippy yucky day," she said wiping down the kitchen table. Secretly she was relieved, because her mind had been made up for her about Vic. No more.
Max sat by the living room window. "I kinda like it. I'm watching raindrops fall into the pool."
She looked over his shoulder into the sky-blue pool. Hypnotically, circles appeared, grew from dots into stove rings, then were overlaid by new dots turning into concentric circles. How oddthat the sky was a gloomy, ashen pearl color, but the pool, underwater, gathered light and shone like a summer sky in this rain.
She swatted him with the dish towel. "Got any homework?"
"I did it all last night. Me and Jeremy Temple worked through all the math problems. I really like the geometry problems because you can visualize..."
My son the nerd, ZoŽ thought happily. Frank wouldshe paused in mid-dish, as a thought suddenly occurred to her. Frank had hated educated people. He had considered himself street smart, an alumnus of Hard Nox U. She remembered that Frank and his buddies had actually gone out while still in high school, big raw football players, and looked for San Tomas State University men to beat up. Frank, she figured, would have always been angry at Max. Would have beaten him, beaten his son the way he had beaten her, the way he himself had been beaten by HIS father...
"Mom!" Max said. "Mom! You're going to break the dishes."
She stopped and took a deep breath. She realized suddenly that she had been banging a plate with both hands against the edge of the sink before her. She dropped the plate bck into the dishwater, and wiped her arm across her forehead. "Sorry." Frank, she thought, you're better off dead. It's best for all of us.
Max was still watching t.v. at eleven a.m. The kitchen and living room were done. Windows gleamed, tables looked bare and new, dishes stood stacked, brushes were at attention in the dishrack. ZoŽ thought enough and abruptly ended her housecleaning.
She undid her apron and tossed it into the clothes pail under the bathroom sink. "Max? Tomorrow it's supposed to be bright and sunny. We're going to the zoo tomorrow, okay?"
"What are you watching?"
"Captain Colorado of the Space Patrol zapping a bunch of Denebian Greelings."
"I don't want you to sit and watch tv all day. How about we go to the mall for ice cream a little later?"
Captain Colorado, having rescued the Aldebaranian princess, reassures her that her kingdom will now be safe. In answer to her tearful plea, he says he cannot marry her because he must return to his lonely patrol of the Spaceways accompanied only by his talking dog Ray and his telepathic parrot Kabob. As the music crescendoes, credits roll...
"What a jerk," Max said.
ZoŽ frowned. "Huh?"
Indignant, Max waved his hand. "In real life nobody would go flying around in space with a dog and a parrot if they could live in a palace and like maybe, well, you know, FOOL AROUND with someone like the old Princess there."
ZoŽ plopped down on the couch. "Yeah, well who knows maybe he knows something we don't. Like maybe she's a nut with the credit cards. Or she talks all night. Or who knows."
"Yeah," Max said grinning, "or she might have B.O."
"I wouldn't doubt it." ZoŽ flicked open the paper and looked under Movies.
Max went into the kitchen and the mixer briefly went whrr!
She fluffed the paper. "Hey, here's a movie we can go see tonight. Journey into Fear." It was a remake of the Eric Ambler classic, and several of her favorite actors were in it.
"Naw," Max said in the refrigerator as he looked for something, "I'd rather see that space movie."
She looked up and down and flinched when she came across a large and lurid ad for the bug-eyed monster saga Invasion from Galaxy Five. "Oh Max," she lamented.
He slammed the refrigerator door and stuck a can of frozen orange juice into the electric can opener. "You don't have to go with me. I've got a new friend at school who's just nuts about space stuff."
"Yeah. His name is Rudy Chatfield. He's only nine but he can run the mile in seven-twenty and he's dynamite under the hoop."
"Chatfield. You know. His dad's gonna give us free passes to the zoo. I can probably get you in at a children's rate." He made a face. "Just kidding."
She took two deep breaths and leaned over the back of the couch. "You're going tonight? with this kid? whom I haven't met?" (And don't want to meet, she thought, if he's got anything to do with the zoo).
Max licked the spoon, having just let the glob of frozen concentrate go plop into the mixer. "There's a further angle here."
"I can't wait."
Max measured cans of water into the mixer. "He has a sister named Elisa who is dynamite. She can ice skate backwards."
"How old is this Elisa?"
"Ah-hah! He goes for older women."
"She's real pretty. Two eighth graders got into a fight about who could carry her books to the bus."
"I thought you were more interested in model cars and dinosaurs and all that neat stuff."
He spread his arms. "Hey, do you think I'm a fool like Captain Colorado? Seize the month!"
"That's Moment," she said and turned to her paper.
The mixer fell silent again.
She thought about Roger Chatfield in his airy office with the light pouring in like cream. I'll bet Elisa's real pretty, she thought.
ZoŽ and Max met the Chatfields near the Bijou 6-Plex amid a sea of screaming kids.
ZoŽ shook Dr. Chatfield's hand. Max paired off with Rudy. Rudy was a fast-moving blond comet of a boy with a bang on his nose and a cut on one knee. He wore his hat backward, his jeans jacket half off, and three colors of sneaker laces.
Elisa was a tall, caramel girl with long mahogany hair. Her clear white sclera and cornflower-blue irises were startling. She carried herself maturely and demurely but had humor in her dimples, one before each ear and another in the center of her chin. So this is the first of a long line of beautiful women who will steal my son from me, ZoŽ thought. Lord, but she IS beautiful. Elisa politely followed the conversation between her Dad and ZoŽ, but her eyes wandered after Max. After a while she whispered something in her Dad's ear and he nodded. He gave her twenty bucks and she wandered off to shop.
"We meet again," Chatfield said in that kindly voice that made ZoŽ want to wring his neck.
"So we do, so we do."
"Can I ask you for coffee?" He pointed to a nearby Donut Shoppe.
"If you're in a hurry, I understand."
"Okay." It would be rude not to. Besides, he was a tall good looking man. Not a Pinscher like Lara. Not a poodle either, she deduced from the hard knots in his arm. Arm? What was she doing? He'd casually extended his arm, European style, and she'd slipped herself around it as though they'd been going steady for decades.
ZoŽ, she thought, are you nuts? This is a married man. Are you about to have your first extra-marital affair?
She felt her cheeks burn. Should she pull her arm away? Would it anger him? Or should she keep it like that but stand a half a foot away? Would he think she was cold? Or should she press against him like a damn...
He interrupted her flustered course of thoughts by holding the door open and ushering her into a place that smelled like heaven.
No, leaven. Sugar, dough, coffee..."Uuhhmmmm..." she said.
Killer donut special, a sign said, 67 cents.
He too inhaled. "I love that smell. I don't drink or smoke or have any similar vices, I work out every day, but this smell drives me to crime. The smell," he said, "of warm, freshly baked...tantalizing..."
"KILLER DONUTS!" they said together and laughed.
She pulled her arm away under cover of jollity and took a window seat. He came back minutes later with a tray of coffee and donuts.
"I really shouldn't," she said holding up a glazed, multi-color sprinkled, raspberry filled donut.
"Join me in sin," he said.
He was a nice looking man with thick dark hair. He had strong hairy arms. Chest hair poked over the V of his open, blue-white pinstriped shirt (very expensive, she thought, longing to reach out and touch the material). His dark eyes (like Elisa's) were mature and kind and intelligent. His skin had the same caramel complexion as Elisa's.
"I thought we were going to do some zoo color, Dr. Chatfield," she teased in her practiced way, drawing out the syllables over him like the meshing of a net.
He appeared flustered, looked down. "I'm sorry. Call me Roger, will you? I meant to call you but, well, frankly, with things at the zoo the way they have been..."
"I understand," she condoled. "My friend was murdered there just a few days ago."
"Oh Jeez, I'm sorry. That would be Miss Chickowitz."
"Tsha-ki'-vitch. Terri. Yes. Now be sure and quickly correct me and say it was outside the zoo, not inside, with your fabulous safety record."
He swallowed hard. "I don't blame you for the way you feel. No, I've stopped thinking that way."
She froze in mid-chew. "Honest?"
They ate in silence for a few moments.
"Isn't it ironic somehow," Chatfield remarked, "that our children are at the same school?"
"Quite a coincidence. San Tomas has over thirty private schools. It has more private schools than many cities have public schools, including San Tomas."
"You should write a tour book."
"Maybe I will."
"Rudy and Max seem to have really hit it off."
"Yes. Maybe we can have Rudy and Elisa over for cookies or dinner sometime. If you and your wife don't mind."
He looked startled. "I'm sorry. I thought you know. My wife died in an automobile accident three years ago."
ZoŽ felt blood drain from her cheeks.
He laughed. "That's why you were holding your arm so stiffly. I thought you were having neurological difficulties. I was going to recommend a specialist." He winked. He knew what she'd been thinking.
"I was. I am." She collected herself. "What about you, Mr. Zoo Mensch? Did the thought ever cross your mind that I might be, like, heavily married?"
He laughed. "Yes. But I checked."
"I ain't gonna tell."
"You better, Roger Chatfield."
"Sister St. Cyr."
"God yes. I tried to play it straightforward. This new friend of Rudy's seems to come from a nice home. Do his mother and father live nearby? Well that old bird"
"Sister Sincere, I call her"
"Good name. Sister Sincere looked through me like a sunbeam through glass. She has those twinkly eyes the color of."
"Nickers," ZoŽ said meaning the marbles.
"Yeah, knickers," he said, "and she winked and told me not in so many words that you were single and quite possibly unattached."
"You are making grave suppositions," she admonished.
"How about dinner or a movie sometime soon?"
"I'll think about it," she said.
He looked at her through the hole in a donut. "Tuesday at seven?"
That would be the evening with Dr. Stanislaus. She'd feel free and refreshed. "Eight thirty," she said. "By the way," she added, "do you know much about the history of your zoo?"
"Some," he said, puzzled.
"Do you know anything about a statue, a black sphinx maybe, that stood in the main entrance at one time and then was dumped out at sea?"
He frowned. "Where did you hear that?"
"Oh, just some casual reading."
He had a closed, careful look. "There are some old stories. But I only came here ten years ago, and they're nothing but rumors. You don't believe in horror stories, do you?"
She grinned. "Try me. I read all the time. Horror stories too."
His look was rueful. "I'm a scientist. I close my mind to weird tales. Don't let rumors carry you away."
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.