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
Next day, still shell shocked, ZoŽ drove the kids to school. They trooped into the marble garden of saints at St. Andrew's. Kids buzzed around each other like ions. She drove home to Roger's house. Home? Roger had been regretful, actually very supportive, a real sheep dog. Could her life really be changing gears like this? Hard to believe. Free of work-a-day, she gingerly tried to make a housewife of herself, maybe a super-Mom. She began to feel a little better, thinking about immersing herself in home life. She could swing by once a month at the apartments and collect the rents for Mother. If this got serious, they'd even have an extra apartment to rent. But whoa there, she thought, take it one day at a time. On impulse, she stopped at a supermarket. Scary business, the Mary Lull in her said; what if he kicks me out? What if he turns out to be a secret pederast or something and I have to leave him? And now out of work? Take a chance, the time is ripe, the ZoŽ in her said. Who dares wins.
She bought a pile of stuff, including fifty pounds of dry dog food and a case of wet dog food in cans. Pushing the cart around, she planned some meals for this (her?) new family.
Arriving home, she loved the gray sky, the chill air smelling of earth and weeds and water. These things reminded her of someplace faraway and good. Everything required learning. Opening the balky screen door, hassling with a pile of keys to get through the heavy wooden front door, backing the car down the long drive and around the back to the kitchen entrance. Keeping the dogs tied up (they were all mud and paws, barking happily to be played with) while she brought in the groceries. Then she had to learn the stove. And the washer and drier. And the air conditioner/heater. Everything in the house was old but solid. Everything worked well according to the engineering of forty years ago.
"Woofer and Tweeter, your dishes are big as kiddy pools," she told the dogs, remembering Max's wading pool when he was three. She stood bravely in the muddy yard while rain slatted down and tried to figure out how a 5'4" woman weighing 115 pounds could tilt a fifty pound bag of dry dog food into a twenty-foot wide dish without slipping a disk, or slipping and landing face first in the mud. The latter of which happened. Finally she had the dog food rumbling into the dishes, and the dogs threw themselves happily slobbering over their dishes.
She took off her muddy clothes inside and wrapped Roger's bathrobe around herself. She waded through a week's worth of Chatfield laundry and eventually figured out the washer. A load of clothes in the dryer (Roger!) had lain wet for days and now smelled like limburger cheese. Peeyoo! She held her nose. While the laundry rumbled and tumbled, she went into the kitchen and put everything she'd bought away. In the process, she sponged the shelves clean of thick miasmas of crud. They needed relining with fresh bright shelving paper, she decided.
She was on her hands and knees, with hair disheveled and cheeks streaked, the bathrobe spotted with soapy dirty water, when Roger tromped in at lunch time. "You still in your bathrobe?" he asked, looking at the clock.
She made a growling face and knotted her fists at him.
"You're playing dog," he guessed. "You're all muddy."
She stormed up and kicked his shin with her bare foot. "Bathrobe my elbow, I've been cleaning and and laundering and and..."
"Easy." He captured her kicking and dirty and carried her into the living room. "I saw all the grocery bags and the mops and soaps and buckets. Do you know there's soapy foam running down the driveway and out the gutter for a block and a half?" He mauled her neck with his lips. He started to pull open the bathrobe to kiss her caramels.
She stopped him. "Roger Chatfield, you take off your muddy shoes and leave them outside. Then you march up to bed and get some rest."
He hugged her. "You sound like a wife."
She held her bathrobe closed. "You need a wife, Roger. Your shelves are full of crud. The laundry is all mildewed and piled to the ceiling..." She pushed, and he went upstairs.
By the time she padded up the stairs, he was sound asleep. She showered, changed, and crawled in beside him. She fell asleep in his warmth.
When they awoke a little later, the room was filled with a chromed light sliced by louver slats of shade. "What time is it?" she murmured.
"Two in the afternoon."
She noticed the drizzly light outside. "Oh my God. Gotta pick up the kids."
"You needed your sleep. I left work early and picked them up."
"At least one of us has a job."
He climbed into bed and embraced her.
She let him nuzzle her bare belly, and slipped a hand into his shirt. "Mmmmmmm...."
They made long lazy love, rolling and sighing, spooning and kissing, and afterward they lay side by side listening to the rain. "I love you, ZoŽ."
"I love you, Roger."
"There hasn't been anyone in my life like you, ever."
She murmured: "Susan was a beautiful woman."
"Yes she was. I loved her, and I still love her memory. But I loved her in a different way than you. She was a Burtongale. She was pretty, perky, had poise, reserve, clever conversation. You are all those things and more, in your own unique way. You're refreshing. Not a Burtongale. Not yuppie-wuppie, snide & snort. You're real. I want to keep you."
"I want to keep you, Roger."
"Honest." She kept one palm between his legs, and they nearly fell asleep again.
But he had to go. He was charged with energy. Regretfully, she sat wrapped in a blanket while he donned cords and dark T-shirt around his tanned wiry body. Slipped heavy gold watch over hairy wrist. Arched back while pulling on heavy white socks over even toes. Stepped into running shoes. Buckled zoo belt. Sweater. Windbreaker. "You look like a woodsman," she said. "I could bite you."
"Oh I nearly forgot," he said. He pulled a sandwich baggie from his pants pocket.
"Yuck," she said. Several dead bugs were inside. She shivered. They were huge. "What are those Things?"
"Spiders," he said holding the baggie up to the quicksilver daylight.
"Ack." She saw husks, dried liquid, broken legs like wires, brown fur all jumbled together.
"Get used to it." He sat on the edge of the bed. "Think. Andy the bear died the same time Jonathan Smith was ripped apart. Lilly the jaguar died the same night Wiz disappeared, and the ME later determined Wiz had been mauled by something like a big cat."
"You think the jaguar killed her?" ZoŽ asked.
"There are a lot of loose ends yet, but something has to make sense in all of this."
"Wiz wound up outside the zoo, and the jaguar was dead in its enclosure."
"Precisely," he said. There was an ominous glint in his eyes. "What's the connection? Is it people? Science? or something supernatural? The whole situation is nuts, ZoŽ. We have a dead gorilla. Most loving beast you could imagine. Suppose now you get the gorilla to kill someone..."
"But whom?" she asked.
"Whom are we missing?" he asked.
"Christopher Marlow. The head in the jar."
"Okay, maybe he got killed the same night Adolph got killed. But let's fast forward. Now it's a couple of nights ago, and our white rhino dies. Suppose again there's a dead human involved."
"Who this time?"
"One of our zoo security guards is missing, disappeared while on his clock rounds the same night the rhino died. The unarmed parking lot guard variety. Steady man, been with the zoo a million years, never any trouble. Missing a few days now."
"Does Vic Lara know all this?"
"Of course. We reported the guard missing."
"Was Lara surprised?"
"I don't know."
"I wonder if Lara is killing people."
"Anything is possible, ZoŽ. Remember George Washington was killed by the spiders, but not a single spider was found?"
"You mean J.W. Washington." She recalled the whisk of his broom, the snap of his scoop.
"You knew him?" Roger asked in surprise.
"I met him briefly. I had an attack by the pagoda and he came to the rescue."
"The pagoda?" Roger frowned. "Hmmm, interesting. That's covered with White Stuff. Anyway, this morning I was thinking. It's the reverse of the gorilla situation. There we have a dead animal, the gorilla, but no human body. Here we have a dead human, but no dead spiders. Unless..."
She helped: "You went into the whatchamacallit..."
"The insectary," he said, "and I started combing through the cells one by one, table by table."
"Sounds creepy," she said.
"It was, sort of. I could never be an entomologist. I was alone in there and it was sort of dark because of the weather outside. Things kept popping and crackling, and I kept thinking a big tarantula would crawl up my back any second."
"Gawd-rrrr," she said making fists and shivering as the very thought of such a beastie climbed up her own spine instead, making her do a little tarantella to shake away the imaginary spider.
"I found these"(He waved the baggy, making broken legs dance)"jammed behind some cardboard dividers as if they'd been trying to get out. Dried up, broken, dead as doornails."
"That would seem to confirm your hypothesis."
He looked at her. "Maybe. If we can find the bodies connected to the deaths of the rhino and the gorilla, we may have a case."
"I, me, myself, Watson. You, by distant safe consultation."
"Thanks. I loathe spiders. All animals have their place but if I see a tarantula in the wild I just scream. If I scream, will you come and rescue me?"
"I will always rescue you, even when you don't need it."
"Don't underestimate how much a woman may need it."
"I'll be back to rescue you just as soon as I finish this piece of business at the zoo," he said.
"There is a huge boulder down along one of the main drags. Not something you'd notice much, but one of the guards commented that there might have been an earthquake because he was sure the thing had shifted position about ten feet."
"A huge boulder?"
"We're talking about twenty tons, ZoŽ, at least. I went there and looked at it and I didn't tell anyone, you're the first person I've told, but his time clock was lying therewith the strap going partly under the boulder. And then I noticed a very faint smell; like a graveyard."
"Pooo." She held her nose.
"Yeah. If he's under there, then we've tied another pair of loose ends sort of halfway together. We've got guard and rhino. Then all we need is to find the rest of Christopher Marlowe and see if he's got gorilla marks on his neck or something."
She checked the clock. "I'll pick up the kids. Bye, Roger."
He came up behind and gave her a hug. "Darling. My sweet."
She turned and kissed him tenderly. "Take care of yourself, baby. I don't want to lose you, okay? Come back to me, please." She nipped his nose with her lips.
"I promise," he said and strode out with a jaunty, happy expression.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.