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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


Chapter 14.

Max dawdled over his breakfast. "You screamed again last night," he said with a mouthful of cornflakes.

"I'm sorry, I can't help it. Come on, we've got to get going," Zoë urged. Feeling lazy and immobile, she bit off a piece of sugared and buttered raisin bread toast with one hand while twiddling a pencil in the other.

"You know, Mom, Fred Civitelli has been taking piano since he was six and now he's going to start a rock band. Can I take guitar lessons?"

She shrugged. "I'll tell you as soon as I finish balancing my checkbook."

The phone rang. It was Howard Berger. Her stomach twisted. "Zoë, how have you been." He had a clear, intelligent voice, now with mixed shades of hesitation and desire.

"Fine, Howard. How's your cat?" She tried to remember its name, a beautiful Angora with silky white fur and a pretty little face filled with feline and female expressions.

He laughed. "Bitty? Oh, she's ... around. She was trying to avoid another cat and bumped into a rose thorn and got an abscess, so that just cost me a hundred bucks at the vet's. How's Max?"

"Fine." To think she had been intimate with this man. She hated his game: he seemed to always think of the two in parallel, his cat and her son. He seemed to be signaling, look, here's how well I take care of my cat, just marry me and you'll see how well I'll take care of...

"I called because I know it's time for his physical."

Damn you, Howard, she thought. "He's... fine. He's sitting right here and we're having breakfast."

Chastened, he said: "I figured you would be. I don't want to bother you at work, and you don't seem to return my calls."

"I can't talk right now, Howard."

"I understand." His voice thickened. "All right. Okay. Look. Here's the deal. Here's what I think. I'm going to ask you if you'd like to meet me for lunch."

"Thanks, Howard, but we've been around and around on this, and I don't want to hurt your feelings, but the answer is still no."

"All right, Zoë. I'm going to cast off. Thanks."

Quickly she hung the phone up.

"Howard?" Max said.

She nodded. She tore off another bite of toast with her teeth. Mouth full, she picked up the pencil, looked at the checkbook, and threw the pencil down.

"He's creepy," Max said.

"Thanks, Max. I needed that."

"I'm just trying to keep you out of trouble, Mom. If you marry someone, I've got to either leave home or live with the guy, so I've got a personal interest."

"I promised you, Max, I would never bring a man in this house that you don't feel comfortable with."

"You're a hot chick, Mom. You'll find someone nice. Just don't settle for losers."

"Thanks, Max." She wondered if Vic Lara was more of a loser or a not-so-loser. She added softly: "Now put a lid on it, get the lead out, and get ready for school—or no TV or computer games tonight. Now move!"

On the way to St. Andrew's Grammar School, they stopped for gas at a corner station. Max went inside to buy cupcakes. Zoë paid, then went outside to pump gas.

The pump was slow. The numbers dribbled by, and she looked at her watch. Max was taking a long time. A blue van was parked at the next pump island. She hooked the pump handle on automatic and sauntered back, craning her neck to peer around the van.

The windows were opaque. Vague figures moved inside. Zoë frowned, unable to locate her son's silhouette.

The pump clicked on, spilling numbers in the little window, and she kept an eye on it. She kept the other eye on the broad picture window.

No Max. How long could it take to buy cupcakes?

Click... click... click... went the pump. At last, the amount she had paid for. The pump slowed. It stopped. She pulled it out, replaced it on its holder, replaced the cap on her gas tank...

The van was still there. She dodged around it and between two cars.

Just then Max came out with his cupcakes.

Her heart sank. Gilbert Burtongale was with him, tall and wild-haired. Gilbert's eyes were filled with a crazed light veiled by friendliness.

"Hi Mom," Max said. He had just eaten one cupcake. Click, click, click went Max's crutches.

"Oh ho!" Gilbert exclaimed, seeing her.

Zoë was furious. "Max, come on, we've got to hurry."

"Lady Luck strikes again!" Gilbert exulted.

This was no coincidence. He must have been following her. Men had done that before. Followed her around, seeking the excuse to casually fall into conversation. She could see it from his glance. "In the car," she commanded Max.

Gilbert stuck his hands in his jeans and shuffled up close, looking down at her, smiling. He said softly: "Come on, Mrs. MacLemore, don't be hard on me."

She spat back: "I'm not Mrs. MacLemore."

"All I want is a chance. Think of all I can give you." Tiny amounts of foam or chalk or something slimy white, like runoff from a drainpipe, coated the corners of his mouth, making her gag.

She wiped the back of her hand against her forehead, feeling faint, feeling perhaps the onset of the Dark Feeling. She meant to say something piquant, but words jammed in her throat and she whirled, running back to the car.

"...least talk to me!" he was hollering with the first underlines of annoyance. His eyes moved from clever to hurt. She popped the clutch and roared out of the station. "…will marry…-o -atter what!" she heard him shout after her in wind-torn fragments. Marry that insane creep? She'd die first, but she'd make sure the cockroach exterminator came for Gilbert first.

"Did I do something wrong?" Max asked.

She shook her head. "No. No you didn't. I'm sorry I yelled at you. I think that man has been following us. He scares me."

"He does?" Max, mouth full of cupcake, turned his head. "Hey look. He's getting into that blue van."

"Yeah. So?"

"That van was parked on the corner by our apartment the other day. I know because he has a zoo decal on the rear bumper. Jeremy and I both noticed it. It's the Smiling Sun one, the only one missing in my collection."


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