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
In the car, headed towards the zoo, ZoŽ asked: "Perry, why are the Burtongales all nervous about this?"
He made a cynical face. "Afraid of the publicity? Paranoid? Who knows. I'd like to leave this town and get on a better paper. One not owned by a ninety year old woman dictator."
When ZoŽ and Perry arrived near the zoo, they found, still piled to one side, sawhorses and tangled yellow tape marked "Police LineDo Not Cross." There were stains on the sidewalk, puddles with long thin paint-like runnels going to the gutter. ZoŽ knew the smell of dead animals in bushes, and these stains had in them the smell of death. The stink invaded her sinuses and hammered her brain, making her feel faint.
"Are you okay?" Perry asked.
"Excuse me," she said and walked away quickly. She held a small bottled water. She made it about a half a block to a sandy area and there blew lunch like a garden hose.
Perry hollered something from a distance but wind tattered his words.
She waved and yelled: "I'll be okay in a minute." She rinsed her mouth with water.
Something gripped her mind and made her walk slowly, as if searching for something. She took small steps. She held her purse in both hands. It was very still there on the sand. A frog burruped nearby. A cricket cricketed. A bird clucked. Something violent had happened here on the sand long ago. It had been covered by blood. By deep sadness. She bent over as though programmed, and picked up the tiniest of things. At first she thought it was a seashell. Then she saw it was a tooth. A human tooth, too big to be a child's; somehow, she knew: an old person's tooth, bronzed with age underneath, bleached by years on top where it had lain on the sand, this beach not of the sea but of time. An echo welled up in her mind: Herself, long ago, drowning in tragedy, something to do with this tooth. She put the tooth in a clean tissue and hid it in the bottom of her purse. Then she gargled from a small bottle of mouthwash.
"...Taking it rather hard," he admonished. "If you want to be a police reporter..."
"Don't talk just now," she ordered.
He fell silent and touched her elbow, and thus they walked to the zoo entrance. There, the whatever that had just roiled the floor of her mind stirred the sand one last time: Her legs tingled, and her heart fluttered in clustered beats. It was as if a cloud had briefly darkened the sun. She became dizzy as she stared up into the elaborate 19th Century scroll work atop the zoo entrance. Bridging several brick and marble pylons was the legend "Wallace Burtongale Memorial Zoological and Botanical Gardens of San Tomas." As she read the legend, its letters began to writhe and wiggle in her mind. A sickness knifed her gut. A knowing of death, a shock of dying. But whose dying, hers? Something, briefly, touched her mind. An elderly man with mussy gray hair and truthful eyes stood inside of her, his lined face shining and finally free of pain. Her inner self turned away in deep guilt and shame and helplessness. Had she helped kill him? What else was there in this deep internal nightmare? But there was no accusation in the man's eyes, only an understanding she knew she did not deserve. He held out his hand as if she had something of his.
"ZoŽ!" Perry was shaking her.
She held her head in both hands, but her mind was her own again and she let go. "I'll be okay," she said. The feeling had passed, but her legs felt weak.
"You're white as a sea shell," Perry said, looking alarmed.
"Let's go for that big story," she said, heading toward the neo-Egyptian ramparts, jackals, and sun disks, of the zoo portal.
Everywhere inside the zoo, there was evidence of construction (or reconstruction, ZoŽ wasn't sure which). Small pickups carrying electrical or plumbing supplies crawled on the pebbly paths among the habitats of elephants, giraffes, and wildebeests. Ladders leaned against walls, canvases were thrown over benches, orange cones stood in odd places. Men and women in overalls moved purposefully. Vans were parked in odd places.
The domed hall of the main administration building rustled with footsteps and voices. A receptionist behind an oak lectern directed them down a long hallway. The walls were covered with huge panels showing prehistoric animals. Brontosaurus, ninety tons of him, yachted through a pond. Whatsasaurus shrilled fearfully as T. Rex made salad out of him. At the end of the building was another, smaller domed hall with a tiled floor. A large portal led out into a small parking lot fringed with tropical plants. The air inside the dome was pleasantly cool. There were several office doors, each with its brass name plate. One nameplate read "Dr. Wallace Burtongale VI, Ph.D., Curator." The next door was that of "Dr. Roger Chatfield, Ph.D., Assistant Curator." On this door, Perry knocked.
"Just a minute," a man's voice shouted. The door opened. Dr. Chatfield, a tallish tanned man in his thirties, wore khaki. "Please pardon the mess outside. We're doing some major remodeling." He was good-looking, but ZoŽ did not like him. Too self-assured, with those serious eyebrows.
Perry evidently knew Chatfield, for they shook hands like old friends. Perry introduced ZoŽ.
With Chatfield was another man, tall, balding, about fifty. He wore a priest's black suit and white collar. He wore steel-rimmed glasses and an expensive gold watch. He waved a banana-sized cigar. Chatfield said: "Mr. Stein, Miss Calla, allow me to introduce you to a friend of the zoo and gardens. Bishop Donald Mulcahy."
Mulcahy jammed the cigar between his teeth and energetically seesawed their hands. He had to bend down to do so. "Pleased to meet you." He seemed more a hard, realistic businessman than a priest at first glance. "We're over in the cathedral basilica near the zoo." Mulcahy said, "Church and zoo are old friends."
"Mr. Stein and Miss Calla are from the newspaper. They've stopped by to see me about the Smith matter."
"Oh?" Mulcahy sucked thoughtfully on his cigar. A steel-wool tangle of smoke floated away from his changed face. "How interesting. Good, Roger, well, I won't keep you. Been nice visiting. Good day, Mr. Stein. Nice day, Miss Calla."
The bishop strode off. He left a shawl of smoke over one shoulder, and ZoŽ was surprised that she sort of liked the smell. Probably not your nickel stogie. More than likely, from the looks of the bishop, a pampered and humidored delicacy. His smoke had a dry, rare essence that reminded her of the smell of money in bank lobbies.
Chatfield had a high-ceilinged office with book-lined walls and dark furniture. ZoŽ and Perry sat in sturdy leather-padded chairs making a semicircle before Chatfield's desk. "Can I get you some coffee?" His gaze told her he was interested in her.
Perry nodded. "Please. Given the way the morning has gone."
"Black no sugar," ZoŽ said, wanting to keep things straight-forward.
"Been a real bear, I take it," Chatfield said as he poured from a ceramic service. They sipped from thick souvenir cups ZoŽ found pretty: A maroon panda climbed in green bamboo against a creamy off-white background. How nice, ZoŽ thought, to be able to work in an office with greenish light filtering in overhead.
"It's Miss Calla's first day on the police beat, and already she's had to see a dead guy with his heart torn out and visit the scene of his murder."
ZoŽ flushed, angry that he would be patronizing. If he mentioned anything about her barfing, he would get his head thumped. Chatfield hovered like a boy sitting on a fence rail. "Are you interested in police work, ZoŽ?" Bright voice.
She nodded. "It's a killer."
Chatfield glowered a moment, then laughed. Perry said: "I tried to reach Wallace Burtongale all morning, but the secretary says he's unavailable for comment."
Chatfield said: "Maybe I can help you?"
ZoŽ noticed photos all over his desk. A boy and a girl. Were they his? And the brunette with the mysterious smile and the sensuous eyes; his wife? Wow, Dr. Chatfield, you've done well. And now he was interested in ZoŽ? Whoa, no lipstick of mine will find its way to this man's collar.
Perry said: "This guy just happened to get his ticker ripped out on your doorstep. Come on, Roger, why the zoo of all places to dump a body? The guy was a theologian. Was he on a religious quest? Remember, I'm giving Miss Calla the A-ticket tour of investigative journalism."
There was a sudden shaking, a droning that rattled windows and drowned out conversation. They looked up. ZoŽ glimpsed the dark-camo fuselage of a military cargo plane modified with all sorts of antennas and listening dishes.
"Perry, we've had bodies dumped here over the years, you know that. All those transients living down in the woods behind the zoo, all the drugs... I had a call from Miss Polly"(the 90-year-old Burtongale matriarch with the world view of an Albanian dictator)"this morning. She wants to downplay speculation. There is absolutely no connection between the body and the zoo."
"Not that the zoo has anything to hide." The question tumbled from ZoŽ's lips, laden with sarcasm that surprised her. She caught her breath and looked up into Perry's open-mouthed stare. "What about the dead bear?" she blurted.
Chatfield's brow wrinkled. "Andy," he said in wonderment. "I have no explanation," he said honestly. He shrugged. "As Miss Polly has often remarked, what this zoo is all about is the tourist dollar. What's good for the zoo is good for the town. Jobs, Miss Calla. I'm asking you and Mr. Stein not to overplay the zoo angle."
Before they left, ZoŽ pulled the tissue from her pocket. "You are a biologist, right? Would you have any idea what this is? I found it near the zoo entrance." She gave him the tissue.
He unwrapped it with a puzzled face. "Why, it's a tooth." He held it up in the filtered light. "It's a human tooth. From an adult." He smelled it, ready to rumple his nose, then merely shrugged. "It's old." He handed it back to her. "It's some poor alcoholic vagrant's lost tooth." He smiled broadly. "You find all kinds of things at the zoo."
"Jeez ZoŽ, it's not anything you did or said, but I kind of got the idea you were a bit frosty with him," Perry said when they were outside walking on the zoo grounds.
"You were just imagining things, Perr'. I was wondering, though, why you didn't pump him some more for a crisp story angle."
"ZoŽ, there's no logical connection between the zoo and this guy's death. We're a family paper, not a tabloid."
"I'm sorry, Perry, I'm just trying to be gung ho here on my first and probably last day as temporary acting assistant police reporter."
"A little less picante please."
"Come on, I'll buy you a root beer at the souvenir shop."
Perry wiped his forehead in the noonday heat. Overhead, the silvery C-130 was doing slow circles over San Tomas Peninsula. "What do you suppose he's doing?" Perry said watching the plane.
She shrugged. "Probably just playing in the sunshine." They walked across the zoo grounds. "Don't you just love this?" "Let's take a short cut," Perry said. "I'll phone in a short piece to make the late afternoon edition." Perry led her along a narrow, grass-choked path hidden in the swarmy shade of ancient magnolia trees. Suddenly she felt again the numb feeling she'd felt outside the zoo. She put her hand to her forehead. Oh no, not again!
"ZoŽ, what's the matter?"
"I- I'll be all right. It's justthe heat, maybe."
"I hope so." Perry took her elbow and gently guided her along. Her mouth felt dry and her heart beat rapidly. The trees were swarmy with insects. Shade hung in the tree limbs like molasses. They came to an odd little structure. Its roof was of mission tile, pagoda-curved at the edges. On the northward side was a three-foot relief of the sun, rendered as a dreamy dimpled face stippled with moss. The eyes seemed closed. Its smile was at once promising and ominous. Its solar rays were wiggly. The path ran in a broad circle around the Pagoda. There were several benches in the inner edge of the circle.
"Here," Perry said, "sit down."
"Thanks." She was taking quick, shallow breaths. Her skin felt cool, but was wet with perspiration.
"I'll go get you a soda. Stay here."
"No" she grasped his sleeve.
"It's just a hundred feet away on the main drag," Perry said. "Some ice water maybe and then off to see the zoo nurse, huh?"
Before she could stop him he was gone. She clasped her hands between her knees and sat back. Startled, she leaned forward. propelled by a breeze from the shady canyons, a hot dry wind raked her eyes. There, was there someone standing in the smoky shade just past the utility house? She rubbed her eyes and stared. Frank! No, that's crazy. Frank is dead. Stop it, ZoŽ. Maybe I need to see my shrink again. When she looked again, the figure was gone, replaced by wavering round leaves.
Something brushed by her leg and she started together, hands upraised, hair standing on edge, drawing in a breath as sharp as an inward scream.
"Sorry to disturb you, Miss." A heavyset, middle-aged black grounds keeper in overalls shifted a curved pipe from one corner of this mouth to the other. He wore leather work gloves and carried a whisk broom and dust scoop, both on long handles to prevent stooping. The pipe smelled woodsy. The Dark Feeling left her as abruptly as it had come over her.
"Oh, please, don't mind me," ZoŽ said happily. "I was just staring.. at the.."
"That there's an interesting lookin' building, ain't it?" His brush whisked right and left, and the dust scoop jumped like a small dog at his feet, snapping up the flying dust and debris. Whisk, whisk, went the brush; Snap, snap went the dust scoop as if to nip at his ankles.
"That's a utility shed?"
"Yes ma'am. That there's the old central power and gas and water house. They shut it down to put in a whole new power line from the city. That shed there is going to be just a backup. Got a diesel generator in there in case the power goes down. Sorry I disturbed you."
"I'm kind of glad you did, Mr."
"Washington. J. W. Washington." He pulled off a dirty glove and shook her hand. His hand was dry and heavy, reassuring somehow, with thick smooth fingers and a fine little gold ring.
"ZoŽ Calla," she said, rising. She couldn't resist: "Not Roger Washington?"
He grinned. "My uncle." Whisk, whisk, he went; Snap, snap went the dust scoop. "You be good now, hear?"
"Oh I will, Mr. Washington. I swear I'll try."
He seemed to hear the sass in her voice and gave a knowing little gurgle of a laugh as his broad back receded along the walk.
She took a deep breath and sat down. One part of her was tempted to run and find Perry as fast as she could. But another part of her wanted to hang on, to stay, to find out just what it was about this day and this place and about herself. She had the deep, turbulent sense that someone or something was trying to communicate with her. And she had the more disturbing feeling that somehow she had changed. Perhaps because someone or something had somehow taken up residence in a dark and little-visited rear corridor of her mind.
"ZoŽ!" Perry came running, holding a big cup in one hand and wet paper towels in the other. The dear!
"Thanks, Perry. I'm better now." She drank ice water while he held a cool towel to her forehead. "What men don't go through."
She did look back, on the way out. The sun on the pagoda was smiling to itself, perhaps filled with the taste and the memory of her fear. The eyes were still nearly closed, but in a manner that suggested they had been staring after her, and quickly shut when she turned to look.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.