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, Obits was a bitch as usual. She made her deadline and then called the M.E. No autopsies had been done on the four zoo employees; dead end.
Then she entered the newspaper's library, directly adjacent to where she and Wiz had their desks. A newspaper's library, known in the trade as "The Morgue," contained thousands of prefab obits on famous people currently alive. Background on nationally or internationally famous celebrities, politicians, and so forth had been provided by the wire services over the years. Generations of San Tomas Herald reporters had compiled data on locally known people, like the Burtongalesno inside skinny, no damaging info, of course, just p.r. When a famous person died, you printed a few paragraphs with the cause of death, added the canned info, and presto, you had a story that might be pages long, but instant in the making. ZoŽ did not expect much information on the dead zoo employees or on theologian Smith, but it was worth checking. She slid microfiche sheets through the light and magnifying lens one by one: Washington, J.W.; Appleworth, Mary; Jenkins, Ken; and Andino, Rosario; but there was no listing for any of the names. Should there have been? She read her hard copies of the obits over again. Jenkins had been 49, Andino 53, and Appleworth 27. In fact, J. W. Washington had been 57. One thing they all had in common, for sure, was that they had not died of old age.
She called the zoo. Dr. Chatfield expressed delight to hear from her. She asked: "I was going over some obits, and I noticed that five zoo employees died during the past several months, suddenly, in the prime of life. Do you feel there might be a connection? Maybe an environmental hazard?"
"Coincidence, Miss Calla. Pure and simple."
"It's a mortality rate like Waterloo."
"You're not planning to do a sensational expose, are you?"
"No, but even if I were it would not get past the editorial staff."
"I will be happy to escort you around the zoo if you'd like to do a nice series on some of the animals. The paper does it like clockwork about every three years, and it's time."
"Thanks, I appreciate that." She thought, hanging up, well, maybe some little stories might get me in the back door; but right now I think I might have a big story. She started contacting next of kin. Mary Appleworth's widower, John, a garage mechanic, was sympathetic but not very helpful. "I've got three kids, and it's all I can do to make ends meet. There is some insurance money due, and I was told by the lawyer to say nothing or I might lose the money. Sorry." He hung up.
Rosemary Jenkins, widow of Jenkins, blubbered a little bit. "They were pretty forceful."
"Who, Mrs. Jenkins?"
"The lawyers. They told me I'd have to keep my mouth shut or I could be sued and lose the insurance money."
Bulloney, ZoŽ thought. "What's the name of the insurance firm?" But Mrs. Jenkins had hung up.
Jesus Andino, a doctor and the widower of Rosario Andino, hung up after providing the name of the law firm.
J.W. Washington's widow was too hysterical to make sense, so a sister spoke for her: "Yeah, there were lawyers in and out, you can be sure. They were talking a lot of money, but they said we got to be very careful who we talk to, or the insurance might not pay up. Who did you say you work for?"
ZoŽ hung up.
The law firm was Kane, King, Kahn. Sounds like a giant jungle gorilla, ZoŽ thought. She looked their number up in the phone book.
"Burtongale Building," a receptionist answered.
Instantly, ZoŽ knew where the law firm was; in that twelve story brick office tower, nearly a century old, owned of course by the family it was named after. She pictured leering gargoyles, creepy towers, haunted turrets, hidden corridors, and that vast, yellow and blue-tiled basilica reception hall, rising on Moroccan arches, whose marble floors were filled with whispering men and women under a domed pall of cigarette smoke. The same long-dead architect, a Burtongale who had explored Africa in a safari hat and brought back a shipload of what more modern people would call stolen goodsantlers, furs, statuettes, a large black magic stone like the Black Stone of the Apostle at Mecca, and lots of pictures of naked dark women with hanging breasts. He and his loot now lay buried in an ivy-shrouded Victorian mausoleum in the zoo, not far from the smiling sun on the wall, except the great stone, which had caused unspecified mischief on the journey home, and had been dumped at sea off the coast of San Tomas before Burtongale's ship put in at San Tomas' tidy little harbor.
"Please connect me with Kane, King, Kahn." Like invasive vines full of creepy energy, the Burtongales infiltrated all life in San Tomas.
"They have separate lines, Miss. Which one do you wish to speak with?"
ZoŽ thought fast, and said at a guess: "The one that's married to a Burtongale."
The receptionist said innocently. "They are all married to Burtongales."
"One sister-in-law, two cousins."
"Gimme the sister-in-lawplease."
"That would be King. Just a moment please."
Amazing. The Burtongale family seemed to overflow with women, and the men they brought in all occupied points of power in San Tomas. She wondered who King was married to.
A woman answered. "Janet King."
Well, swallow my words. A cousin of Gilbert Burtongale, as anyone in San Tomas knew, but now the connection seemed more vivid to ZoŽ. "Ms. King, I have a friend who recently passed away at the zoo, an employee named J. W. Washington. I was wondering if you were handling the case."
"Yes, I am," snapped Ms. King. "What is your interest in the matter?" Ms. King sounded like a thorough bitch.
"I was also stung by the spiders, but I didn't die. I lost the use of my left arm though, and I would like to sue."
A big long sigh. "Very well, Miss..."
"Chang. Phoebe Chang. Just out of curiosity, who is the insurance carrier?"
Hesitation. "American Canoga Insurance. Why?"
"I see. How soon can you come see us, Miss Chang?"
"How about this afternoon?"
"Fine. We'll arrange for a doctor's exam, and offer you a nice settlement." Sound of pencil scratching on paper. "Two o'clock?"
"Oh yes, that's fine."
"Do you know where we are located? Can you find us?"
"Yes, of course. Unless my condition gets worse. You know, blindness. Further paralysis. But I'll call in that case." ZoŽ hung up. Tapped her pencil, staring at the phone. Then called Information to get number and address of American Canoga Insurance. ZoŽ called the number.
"Burtongale Building," the familiar receptionist said.
ZoŽ hung up.
She raced into Jules's office and closed the door. He looked up, puffing on a fresh pipe and raising quizzical brows.
"Jules! I think I'm onto a major story. There has been a string of deaths at the zoo, and I think they are being hushed up by the Burtongale family. It's all connected."
Jules listened patiently. "ZoŽ, you can be a great reporter some day. There's one more thing you need to prove."
"The common sense to realize that you work for the Burtongales and they will fire you if you so much as put a word of this on paper.
"Patience, child. Now go on, tag along with Perry and stay out of trouble."
But Perry had left for the afternoon and ZoŽ was too frustrated to stay at her desk and get ready for the next day's obits. On a whim, she called the information operator in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and asked for the phone number of Whitbread Baptist Seminary. She spoke with a Dr. Philomel Crosby, Professor of Bible Studies. Mr. Crosby was a young man, and taken with her voice. "I'm fishing for a story," she told him. "The man died here, and it was all so sudden that they buried him without much of a story."
"Well," Dr. Crosby said, "we will miss Dr. Smith. He was something of a firebrand, to be sure."
"What do you mean, a firebrand?"
"Well, in his later years he became more and more taken upsome would say obsessedwith the idea of making Christianity as concrete as, say, science or mathematics. He wanted to PROVE"(she could hear the ringing of Crosby's voice in some church rafter)"that God and Satan are real."
"And this brought him to San Tomas?" she asked.
"It's a rather odd story."
"Dr. Smith was here a long time, and he did a lot for the seminary. One of the many legacies he left us was his Museum of Satan. If you're ever out this way, you should stop by and see it."
"What is in this museum?"
"Things of God and things of the Devil. Ordinary folks may scoff, Miss Calla, but good Christians take the Word of God quite literally. When he says there is a Hell, you better believe there is. But the good news is, when he says there is a Heaven, YOU better BELIEVE there is a heaven!"(how the rafters rang!) "In this museum, Miss Calla, the good Dr. Smith was gathering artifacts from around the world. Voodoo dolls from Africa, evil statues from several ancient empires, a Satanic Bible from England...well, you get the idea."
"You're putting me on."
"This would make a lurid story, if a person wanted to"
He said sharply: "We have had requests like that, but we stay away from them."
"I work," she said, biting her tongue, "for a legitimate newspaper. All I am looking for is a little background. So what does this museum have to do with why Smith was in San Tomas?"
"We have kept this out of the papers, Miss Calla, but Dr. Smith believed the devil lives in the San Tomas Zoo. How ironic that he died there the way he did. To bring Satan out of hiding, he took with him one of the artifacts in his museum: a wooden statuette of a West African rain devil. That's a demon who makes the animals in the jungle go into the villages and kill people. His reasoning was that if he could prove there is Satan, then there must be God. He was on a divine mission, Miss Calla, and maybe it was Satan who tore his heart out because he got too close to the truth."
"Thank you," ZoŽ said. Another story Jules would quash if I even mentioned it to him.
"Did you want the correct spelling on my name?" Dr. Crosby asked.
"No." She let the receiver slip quietly into its cradle. D-o-o-f-u-s, with one eff. The image of a rainy jungle, and beasts coming out to kill people, haunted her.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.