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
On Tuesday morning ZoŽ woke an hour early and could not get back to sleep. Her sleep had been full of tooth-achy pain. She could not remember what she had dreamed about.
She considered the Burtongale book lying on her living room table, but was too tired to get up and read it. After lying in a steely morning light, thoughts rushing in disconnected circles, she rose and took a shower. Hot water runneled down the gulley of her back and quickened her a bit.
Max came to the table tired and grumpy.
She made pancakes and sausages. Toast and jam. "How are your legs?"
"You said the other night they hurt."
"I think I'm just coming down with a cold."
Spike seemed happily at work that morning. She still checked every day, fearful that it had just been a good dream and she'd come in one day and have to do it all by herself again. Somehow, Spike managed to do the work of two people.
Perry offered to take her along on his beat, but she shook her head. She puttered quietly editing Spike's obits.
"You seem different tonight," Dr. Stanislaus said at his table. A gray light swirled over his head, vague and undefined like smoky daylight.
She clutched the seat rest and struggled to breathe, to swallow, to remain intact.
"Would you like a glass of water?" he offered.
She tried to let go, but no tears came. Instead, her facial muscles felt stiff and numb and she spoke with difficulty: "I am losing my mind, doctor. I need help."
"I will help you," he promised. "Do you think you can relax? My other evening patient canceled, so we have time."
She pointed angrily at the microphone. "Are you taping this for the police?"
He shook his head. "The books were closed long ago. You don't have to worry."
"But Vic Lara came and talked with you about me."
She held her head. She was going a hundred miles an hour and the floor was a blur under her. She was coming apart. Her heart fluttered. Things inside were crumbling inside. The walls were cardboard and folding, wetly, after long rain. She heard herself sobbing. Felt tears streaming through her fingers. Tasted salt, the sea in her eyes. Let tear drops fall on her lap. Heard her own high-pitched voice quaver: "I loved Frank."
"I know you did." He remained behind his bastion, but he looked awkward, ready to leap to her assistance.
"I can't keep it inside any longer. You won't let them take Max from me, will you?"
She could not see him, but heard his voice as one heard another ship's horn in a storm: "Of course not." He had placed tissues nearby and she dragged a string of them out to wipe her face. She sobbed, then looked to see what he had placed on his desk.
The past was open now, a big cave, still partially shrouded in darkness. Memory wanted to keep its sick secrets hidden but she wanted to shine a light into every crevice.
"It's okay," he said gently. "You had a hard time, and the police were pretty rough on you and Ann. But it's long since over."
"I get to keep Max?"
She composed herself. Yes. Of course, how simple it all seemed. "I've done okay?"
"Nobody could have done better."
"I've been trying really hard since I got out of detention."
"I know you have."
She sniffled. "I remember... Frank and Attila came back from a big deal. The cops had our shack in the mountains staked out, but I got word to Frank and they were clean the first time Vic showed up with his goons. They tore the place apart but we were clean."
...(The cozy shack, the logs burning in the stone fireplace, the diapers strung out to dry, the little crib in the corner with the broken rail from Frank hitting her and she slipping, banging her head...but also the love they made, wild, while mountain wind sighed outside) ...
"Then someone"(who?)"asked Frank to help with a really big deal"(what?)"and he and Attila got a lot of money for bringing in this thing"(a thing?)"in a truck..."
"Do you remember what was in the truck?" Dr. Stanislaus asked.
She shook her head. "It was parked outside the book shop. You know, that Satanic book store..."
He nodded. "Harleigh Hale and Charlie Best's place."
"They were partners," she said. "And Charlie was supposed to pay Frank that night. We were all going to go party someplace. Frank had a stash of grass and pills someplace, and on the way we even picked up some beer"(she remembered the crackle of tires as Frank pulled the big old car into the liquor store parking lot; he made some rough joke and Attila laughed; Frank dark-haired and sensuous, sexy but flinty, and Attila blond scraggly biker tough...)"and then we went up there."
"Was the truck still there?" Dr. Stanislaus asked.
"Yes. There was someone there to pick it up"(she remembered a shadow, sitting in the seat beside her, tickling Max's baby chin: who?someone she hated and despised, someone really awful)"no, it was someone who rode with us."
"Do you remember who that person was?"
She tried. "No, I can't seem to pull it out. It's almost there. Someone awful. But then so were most of the people we hung around with." She remembered the trips into Mexico. The fights Frank had gotten into. A guy in Juarez left for dead. A lot of O God... "No wonder I feel bad about myself."
"You'll feel better once you get this out," he said.
"We got to this place, I mean Harleigh Hale's place, and there they were, Harleigh and Charley. Sounds like a song, huh? I had Max, he was just a little baby, and Ann was there. Yes, that's it, but there was still someone else, this awful"
"Yes, an awful man. Frank and I and Ann and Max we drove up there and Attila was driving the truck behind us, that's it. Charlie Best had the money and was supposed to pay Frank. Then this awful guy was to drive the truck away. Only Charlie was drunk, he had lost some of the money or so he said, and Frank started to beat him up."
"What were the other people on the scene doing?"
"Well"(she could smell the gasoline air, the mountain wind, the grass, the wood smoke coming from Harleigh Hale's chimney; but this awful other man remained a shadow)"Ann and I and Max were in the backseat of Frank's old gas guzzler. All we wanted to do was go party. Then the money problem came up. Charlie Best didn't have all of it so they started beating him up"(Charlie was on the ground, crying out, holding his head, and I began to yell at Frank to stop)"I tried to stop Frank but it got worse. Harleigh Hale came out with a gun but they took it from him and beat him up. Frank took the tire iron and... and..."
Dr. Stanislaus waited silently.
"...And finished Charlie off. I saw brains on the ground"(gray, glistening, like gelatin tinged pink, and nearby the fluffs of white hair still attached to a shattered skull)"and I..."
Dr. Stanislaus waited.
"...And I was just crying and screaming. Frank and Attila threw the body in the truck and dumped it at the zoo. Where I found the tooth recently."
"And the truck?" Dr. Stanislaus asked.
"The awful guy drove it away, I suppose. Least, that's what I figured afterward."
"You have no idea what was in the truck?" Dr. Stanislaus asked.
"No. But it wasn't drugs. It was something... from a museum... I have no idea. In those days I didn't know or care."
Dr. Stanislaus tapped the microphone gently, idly. "Okay. Let's fast forward. The body was found. Harleigh Hale testified in court that he came out and found his partner dead. The police, and I am speaking of the young detective in charge of the investigation, namely Lara, assumed he was lying under threat of harm. Without Hale's testimony, the case would have come to nothing. And it did, anyway, because Frank and Attila were killed a few days later in a motorcycle accident. The odd thing about that was that the brake line of Frank's Harley had been severed, so it looked like another person was involved. Maybe your dark awful man, whoever that was; the police were never able to determine who he was. And you don't remember?"
She strained(someone grinning; big and disheveled; selfish; an asshole, Frank had called him, who was he?)"I cannot remember. I do remember Vic Lara came into the shack again. He had a warrant and he was looking for Frank. He came in and kicked things around. I was holding Max and I was scared he would hurt him. He took Max and put him on a table. A police woman came and took Max away. Vic drove me to the lockup. In cuffs, for Chrissake. I'd forgotten all about that 'til now."
"I know," Dr. Stanislaus said. "I told him to keep you under control. Forgive me. You'd been on drugs. You were hysterical. I was afraid you might throw yourself out of the car or something."
She sobbed, choking, for a while, unable to speak, remembering the sickness of that day. Gradually she wiped her face with tissues, finding the last tears. "I've served a long sentence."
"Years and years," he said brightly. "Isn't that enough?"
She found Max asleep at his computer. Galactic war games were flashing, and she turned the machine off. Gently, she led her little boy to his bed and tucked him in. His hair was tousled and his skin was baby-fine. She laid her cheek against his and listened to his steady breathing. She stroked his cheek and kissed it. Then she gently closed the door and got ready for bed. She crept into bed and slept like a baby.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.