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
Dropping Max off at St. Andrew's, ZoŽ got to work fifteen minutes early. She was sitting at her desk sipping coffee, eating a donut, reading the paper, and combing her hair when Perry waved from the City Room.
Spike walked in, big grin on his face and a bounce in his step. "Good morning, good morning! Ta-dum, ta-dee!" He sat down and started typing.
ZoŽ clapped him on the back. "Yo spike, what's it today, Sound of Music or 1812 Overture?"
He grinned and kept on typing: "Jane Callahan, 43, after a long illness, at Mother of Angels Episcopal Hospice, San Tomas..."
She grabbed her coffee and followed Perry to Meeting Room C which was along Mahogany Row not far from the Burtongales' luxury offices. Perry closed the door and sat down. He looked haggard. She sat down beside him and offered a bite of her donut. He shook his head. "I did a dumb thing, ZoŽ. What's that you got there?"
"Raspberry Sludge with a Party Sprinkle Sugar Coating," she warned, "yum. Want some?"
He shook his head.
"Don't know what you're missing." She took a bite and said with her mouth full: "You look like hell."
"I feel like it," Perry said. He stared down at his fingers which were scarred and detergent-dried. "I took a night cleaning job at the zoo."
"Hey, that's pretty smart, I think!" She stopped chewing as infinite possibilities for information gathering flashed before her. She pictured herself and Perry riding on giraffes at night, wearing cameras and peering over the treetops for a murderer.
He shook his head. "No, what I did was I took my wife with me. I thoughtI don't know WHAT I thought. We always do the cleaning jobs together. But there was something screaming horribly..."
"Probably the chimpanzee singles bar at closing time," she offered, chewing merrily.
"Stop it, ZoŽ. I realized I could have gotten us killed. Don't laugh. Try being there yourself at night..."
"...Okay," she said brightly. "No thanks."
He buried his face in his hands and shook his head. "I just don't know what to do now. I will never take Matilda there again."
She took a deep breath. "I did something too. I caught Vic Lara beating three street people on Friday evening. He had a shotgun on them and was working them over with a heavy steel flashlight. They were all bloody." As she told him, her light air gave way to a feeling of rage.
Perry held his head again. "Oh Christ."
"He let them go when he saw me. I called him every name in the book and took off."
"Great. No wonder he was short on the phone this morning."
"I'm sorry, Perry."
"You're going to get this whole newspaper shut down."
"Perry," she squeaked, "damn you. He was beating them. They were crying. They were bleeding."
"I'm sorry, ZoŽ. You should have seen him work over the winos on Canoga Avenue when he was a plain old salutin' dick."
"Can't we go to the police chief, Perry?"
"I wouldn't recommend it."
"I'm going to report what I saw. He was beating them."
"Yes, dammit. I've got to do something."
"ZoŽ. Listen. Vic Lara is where he is because he's a personal friend of Miss Polly Burtongale. Did you know that?"
"I don't care."
"Think about Max's medical insurance."
Back at the obit desk, Spike had finished typing death notices and was assiduously cleaning house. Her own desk looked like Nuremberg after the Oktoberfest. His desk looked as though it had been newly built and just delivered.
"How do you do that?" she asked. She eyed her dying tulip, her fuzzy dice, her papier-m‚chť duck (from Max in fourth grade), her pile of women's magazines (with slushy romances hidden on the bottom), her nylons box full of pot-pourri, and last week's apple.
He handed her a sheet of computer printout. Pride sunned his cheeks. "My first article," he said fidgeting as though he were afraid she might disapprove. "Jules seemed to like it. Even Mr. Willow grunted and I think nodded although I'm not sure because I was afraid to go into his office."
"I heard that." She flicked the paper upright and read: "Adolph The Gorilla, 15, was found dead last night of an apparent heart attack... Is this a joke, Spike?"
"Not a bit. Jules thought it would make a warm human interest story on page one of the local news. Unfortunately I have only been here a week and so I, per company policy, do not merit a by-line."
She whistled. "You'll be City Editor in a matter of weeks. Keep it up." Adolph (what a name, huh?): "...found dead of a heart attack in his enclosure at the Burtongale Zoo. Assistant Curator Dr. Roger Chatfield said he was speaking for himself and the entire zoo family, both human and otherwise, in expressing profound regret at their friend's passing. Dr. Chatfield said that Adolph had been adopted by missionaries in Kenya as an orphan just weeks old. His mother had been shot by poachers and dismembered for bush meat and witch doctor use. Dr. Chatfield said Adolph had a reputation as a quiet, easy going primate. Blah blah blah...said Adolph brought joy and will be sadly missed. "Good going, Spike. Nice article. I weep for Adolph."
She persuaded Perry: "Let's go see the occult bookstore." She had told him about Vic and the address book.
Perry relented, offering to drive. "Why do you want to go there?" Perry asked as they floated along in an ambiance of detergent, chlorine, and sponges. ZoŽ's skin crawled suddenly. The Dark Feeling? Flashes: Screams; beating; Frank; eyes of anger, eyes of terror;: and ZoŽ screaming, as she clutched the baby.
"What's the matter?" Perry asked.
"Nothing," she said quickly. She wasn't entirely sure why she wanted to go there, but she knew she needed someone along for courage. She sipped take-out cola as the car purred toward East Canoga and the Santa Ysidora foothills.
A knot formed in her stomach. The only time she ever went this way was to buy Max's special orthopedic shoes. The late afternoon light was wan, false; rain clouds strained thin, cool sunlight. "I get really nervous going up this way. I used to live out there with my ex-husband before he was killed. Things were really rocky toward the end." Her head felt heavy, and she rested it on her knuckles, elbow on knee. "I don't remember..." But she perked up. "I need to see the place. Maybe talk with the guy. After all, he was in Smith's address book."
Perry grinned. "Okay. I need a diversion anyway."
ZoŽ did a light makeover in the sun visor mirror. East Canoga turned into State 594. The pampered town streets of San Tomas gave way to wider open spaces with a country western flavor. Irrigated flowers and greenery changed to sun-dazzled sand, rocks, and shrub. Houses and businesses were mingled without zoning, and stood farther apart. A thing dropped tended to lie about for a long time, as evidenced by dusty, discarded items like a kitchen sink, a car engine on a pallet, a dog house lying on one side, a soup plate that looked more like it lay untouchably near the Titanic rather than on the desert floor. There were more pickup trucks, cowboy hats, roadside horseback riders. State 594 wound uphill into the Santa Ysidora Mountains. Perry and ZoŽ were not going that far. "I'll be..." Perry said as he powered down into second gear and the car crept onto a dusty square that doubled as lawn and sidewalk for a tumbledown house. The house had been worn to a gray pumice color by years of unremitting sunlight. A picture window in front displayed the sign "Harleigh Hale, New Age/B&W Arts," along with a black cat, a candle snuffer, some dried flowers, a picture of a smiling sun with octopus fins for rays, and a row of books. Perry turned off the engine.
A sign on the door read: CLOSED. They walked up to the window. The cat turned out to be stuffed, the candle snuffer had a skull face on it, and the books had titles like Dark Secrets, Love the Night, Santeria, Black Magic Revealed, Thus Spoke Satan. They each ogived their hands and peered inside. ZoŽ made out dark shapes: A stove pipe like an upside down L; walls lined with books; a Nazi flag; a skull on a cookie box; and an old-fashioned wooden floor radio that resembled a small juke box.
As she stared hard at the radio, tracing its lovely old lines with an admiring eye, a greenish skull from hell flew at her. She shrieked and jumped back.
Perry grabbed her shoulders. "What is it?"
"Something came right at me." She pointed, then wrapped her arms around herself and tried to seem small. She took a deep breath and turned toward the window. A bird juggled himself into better position to look at her. ZoŽ laughed. "It's a goddam parrot."
"Can you beat that?" Perry said shaking his head.
A green-yellow parrot held the grimy curtain rod in his claws and turned one eye toward them. "Do you think he's hungry?" Perry asked.
She shook her head. "His tummy's nice and round, his feathers are shiny, so are his eyes, and his claws look healthy." She added: "My friend Ann Temple had a parrot for years. We used to feed him fruit."
"You have surprising pockets of expertise," Perry cracked. "So what happened to the parrot?"
"Ginger? He caught pneumonia and died."
Perry looked shocked. "Parrots do that?"
"They're a lot like people. They don't have an original thought, and repeat all kinds of blather."
Perry peered inside again. "I think his dish is over by the skull on the cookie box. Looks half full of water."
"Then we can stop by again. After calling first."
Back in the car, she was glad to get away. Something, something, something teased her memory. About Frank MacLemore. A black and white mental photo. Violent. And this place...?
"Well, it's been fun," Perry said merrily. The twinkle in his good eye mocked her gently. ZoŽ began to feel a very strong Dark Feeling, and she was silent all the way back to the paper. Perry gave her concerned looks, and his humor fled, but he said nothing.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.