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This Shoal of Space:

Zoë Calla & the Dark Starship

(World's First E-Book—Published On the Web in 1996 For Digital Download)

a Dark SF novel originally titled Heartbreaker

by John Argo


Preface   Chapter 1   Intralog  Part I-Chapter 2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9   10   11   12   13   14   15   16   17   18   19   20   21   22   23   24   25   26   27   28   29   30   31   32   33   34   35   36   37   38   39   40   41   42   43   44   45   46   47   48   49   50   51   52   53   54   55   56   57   58   59   60   61   62   63   64   65   Part II-Chapter 66   67   68   69   70   71   72   73   74   75   Outlog


Heartbreaker

Chapter 40.

Max had gotten into a fight at school that morning.

"Max," ZoŽ said as she met him, foregoing her lunch hour. "This is the second time I need to speak with Sister."

Low voice. "I'm sorry Mom." He ran off to the playground.

Sister St. Cyr wore the white habit and headdress of the Poor Sisters of Mercy. "...About Max's behavior," the nun said. She tented her hands on the desk. "Miss Calla, I'm always grateful for an interested parent."

"Well, I try to keep an eye on things."

"He's a fine boy," Sister said. "I've seen the tension in him. Well, I'll bet you haven't had a nice vacation in a long time. I recommend you take off for a day or so. Go to the mountains. Get away from it all and just be together."

"That's a lovely idea," ZoŽ said. "But I can't afford to take a day off."

"The weekend then," Sister said grandly. "Ah the countryside! Do you know what I do on my vacation?"

"No." I can't imagine, ZoŽ thought.

Sister rose and pointed to framed black and white photos on the wall. "I go to Montana and go horseback riding. That's me, there, in the dungarees and plaid shirt, roping that calf."

ZoŽ whistled.

Sister grinned. "I'm a farm girl. Born and raised in Montana. 4-H Clubs, the works. Believe me, I know what I'm talking about. You take your son and escape from city life for a while."

At the office, Spike nodded as she walked in and plopped her things down. He was in the middle of the crescendo of the 1812 Overture, and he made body English with his hips at every sputter-lipped cannon salvo.

ZoŽ carried her coffee to Jules's office. In passing she noted that Perry's desk had not changed; a foamed plastic cup of tea still stood where he'd forgotten to take it with him on the fateful day of Matilda's collapse.

"Hi, ZoŽ." Jules looked blue around the eyes.

"Jules, you look like you were up all night."

"I can't sleep well anymore." He threw his pipe down and rose. "Always thinking about old Wiz. And now Matilda. What's going on in this town?"

She did not have the energy to tell him about her secrets, the Cold Thing and the Dark Feeling. Leave those for Dr. Stanislaus.

"You'd better get out there," Jules said. "Murder and mayhem and you're the police reporter."

"Thanks." She heard the irony in her own voice.

"People are dropping suddenly all over town. I want a story."

"I'll do what I can. Where do I start?"

He hollered after her: "That's your problem."

There were notes on her desk. Call Roger Chatfield. Call Mother. Call Dr. Stanislaus. Call Father Lawrence. "Jeez, Spike, you're a human switchboard, huh?"

Spike was between performances. "You have a busy life."

"You may be right. How are they dying?"

"It has been slow."

She sifted through the notes. "Yeah, well it comes and goes in waves."

Waves like the seaÖ

Roger Chatfield. She left a message at the zoo.

Father Lawrence. Oh hello, Mary dear. Just checking...

Dr. Stanislaus. ...to verify your next appointment...

Mother. ZoŽ, dear, haven't heard from you and I thought I'd just call...

Why hadn't Ann Temple called? The bitch. Easy, ZoŽ. Maybe I'll call her this evening. Yo beagle-face. What's up.

ZoŽ began phoning. There were twenty-four people lying in comas in area hospitals. Drop Disease, some of the medical people were calling it. These otherwise healthy people suddenly went into comas. It was as though their minds had temporarily left their bodies; hopefully they would somehow return.

The phone rang. Roger Chatfield. "I thought I might catch you."

She smiled. "Nice to hear from you. I'm sorry I missed our date the other night. Things got really out of hand."

"Maybe you heard—we lost one of our gorillas?"

"Adolph. I'm sorry."

"I was thinking, ZoŽ, I know this is rather forward of me, but maybe you'd like to bring Max and we could all go camping this weekend. I'm taking Elisa and Rudy up into the Santa Ysidoras. You and Max can have your own tent. Privacy of course. Ahem."

She fiddled with a pencil. Her heart raced. "Yes, Ahem. Well... do you think Max could keep up? Camping, hiking, I mean..."

"We'll make it work. We're old hands. I take the kids up there probably once a month when it's not too cold. The Great Outdoors, you know."

"Sounds like fun!"

"I think you'd enjoy this."

"Roger, you don't know how perfect your invitation is right now."

"We all need to get away."

"Are you a mind reader?"

"Saturday morning then. We'll pick you up at eight."

She put the receiver down with the tiniest of clicks, not wanting to disturb the peace she felt. She imagined herself roping calves, and the thought made her smile.

As she picked up the afternoon dispatch package from the PD, she called to check in with Jules, all very routine. Jules informed her that Harleigh Hale's place had been torched Wednesday night, and Harleigh Hale's charred bones found in the ruins.

Jayzuz! She wished she had a helicopter as she drove east. Visions of Frank raising and lowering the tire iron over Charlie Best's blood and brain spattered head eight years ago crept into her thoughts, and she pushed them aside. She pulled up near Police Line tape stretched over saw horses. Harleigh Hale's truck was blackened, on its back with its roof flattened.

A sheriff's deputy waved to her to stay back. ZoŽ showed her press badge. "What happened?"

The deputy, a pretty blonde, shrugged. "Don't know. We may be looking at arson, but nothing is official yet until the M.E.'s report comes out."

"Any evidence of foul play?" ZoŽ suspected that Harleigh Hale had been murdered; she had an idea who the best suspect would be: the man she had erased from memory.

The woman shook her head. "The Fire Department is still investigating. Until they are done, this is a restricted area."

ZoŽ took out her company camera and snapped some pictures. As she circled around the back, she heard a noise coming from a clump of bushes. She turned and saw a pale little face staring out at her. "The parrot!" She started toward him, but he ran.

"I think that's Mr. Hale's parrot," ZoŽ said.

"I'd better call the county animal shelter."

"Such a beautiful bird. What will they do with him?"

The deputy pointed with her chin. "That ole boy's been hurt somehow. Look at the mess on his right wing."

ZoŽ looked. The bird's curiosity had gotten the better of him. Afraid though he might be, he had hopped around the side of an old mesquite stump. Now he eyed the two women like a distraught little old bald man, and a green one at that. His facial expressions ranged from absurd to pitiful, and the big rings around his eyes suggested only, please somebody pick me up and feed me, oh please. I need to love and be lovedÖ He cocked his head to one side.

"They'll put him to sleep, I bet," the deputy said.

"Did you hear that?" ZoŽ asked the bird. She put down her camera and walked toward the bird. He kept stepping backwards to run away, then always turned toward her and took a hesitant step forward. ZoŽ knelt about ten feet away and clicked her tongue. She held out her hand and snapped her fingers.

"Waaak!" the parrot said.

The deputy, who seemed to have a heart after all, walked over with her lunch box. She took out an apple and some cookies. "Here, you little shit. Probably your last meal as a free man." She told ZoŽ: "I just radioed the animal shelter. They'll pick him up within the hour."

"And they'll put him down?" ZoŽ asked.

The woman shrugged, hunkering beside ZoŽ with her fingers entwined and a look of sympathy. "He'll never fly again."

"The poor little so and so," ZoŽ said.

"Hi Winky Baby," the parrot cawed. He raced by, fluttering his good wing, grasped a piece of apple in his beak, and retreated to a safe distance.

"His name must be Winky," ZoŽ said.

The deputy rose and dusted her pants off. "Yeah, well..."

"I'd like to take him."

"The animal shelter..."

"Please!"

"I'll call them back and say the bird died."

"Bless you."

Winky made another pass, grabbing the rest of the apple. He devoured it, regarding ZoŽ with one side of his face. His expression was irresistible.

"Here, Winky," ZoŽ said.

The parrot hopped over and took a cracker. He retreated only a foot or so, staying within reaching distance. She made no move toward him.

"Hi Winky Baby," he cawed.

"You want to come home with me?" she asked. "Max will fix your wing. He knows how to do that stuff. And then maybe someone in Max's school will take you. Oh, we'll find you a nice, nice home."

"Hi Winky Baby," he cawed and hopped onto her wrist.

The deputy hollered: "He's officially dead. Get out of here with him, will you, before my supervisor shows up?"

"You bet," ZoŽ said.

ZoŽ saw that the bird's left wing was shattered, much of it missing. What was left was a suppurating stump and some tangled bits of feather. She thought she saw a shotgun pellet embedded in some swollen pinkish-blue flesh, but the parrot would not let her look too closely, and she did not just now want to raise the issue with the deputy.

Waving thanks as the deputy shook her head, ZoŽ drove off,.

Quickly racing home, she borrowed a large bird cage from Mrs. Abrahamson in 6A. Mrs. Abrahamson kept finches, but many of hers had recently died from colds, and she was still too hurt, and angry at them, to buy new birds.

ZoŽ set Winky up in the kitchen. "Water, crackers, some apples, oh and here's celery..."

"Winky Nice Boy," the parrot cawed, "Winky Nice Boy."

"Yes you are." She raided her shelves and her refrigerator. "Maybe tomorrow when we see Mr. Chatfield, he might know what to do with you. That's it, Winky! You are in like flynn. If nobody else will take you, I'll seduce Roger into finding you a little roost at the zoo!" With that she fled out to the car and back to work.

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Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.