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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 20.

In the morning as Zoë dropped Max off, fog filled the sunken entrance of St. Andrew's. The statues were frozen in desperate motions: they raised their crosses or folded their hands and looked up with pleading faces. Another gray, chilly day, the weather report said.

A ship of fog, a slice of the marine layer—since San Tomas was surrounded by the sea on three sides—sailed slowly in like a luff-rigged two-masted brigantine and settled in a shipwreck in that amphitheatre of weeping saints and crazed brick.

The morning was, as usual, a storm of phoned death notices, a race against time, a fight to even get to the ladies' room.

That afternoon Zoë confronted Jules: "You know something about Wiz, don't you?"

In his office, he gave her such a stricken look that she felt sorry for him. She pushed the door shut with a sweatered elbow and leaned over his desk. "I had a feeling something was wrong when you were asking about her the other day."

He declined his head. His eyes were closed and his skin looked ashen. "If anything has happened to her, I'll never forgive myself."

"Jules, what is going on? What's wrong?"

He looked up shaking his head. "I don't know. What little I know, I can't tell you just now. Trust me?"

She stormed out. First a cover-up and now this. She tried repeatedly calling Wiz's home phone, with no luck.

That afternoon, Jules and Zoë met in the personnel department. Joannes Berbere was an exchange student from Ethiopia. Small, with a broad bony face and a ready smile, he impressed Zoë with his excellent command of the English language. He seemed self-assured and displayed his diplomas and writing samples. He was a graduate student in economics at San Tomas State. His wife was about to have their first child, and planned to quit her job as a bank teller for at least two years to stay home with the baby. Berbere beamed.

"How fast can you type?" Zoë asked.

"I have been timed at 100 words per minute."

"Congratulations on your new job," Jules and Zoë both said at once.

"I'm so thrilled," Zoë said, soon after, over coffee at Vogelmann's.

"Me too," Jules said.

Jules looked nice in his light blue sweater, Zoë thought. Vogelmann's was warm and cozy, smelling of German baking and freshly brewed black coffee.

She folded her arms together and leaned across the table. "I'm worried about Wiz, and I'm worried about you."

"I'm okay," Jules said buttering a roll.

"This is getting scarier by the day," Zoë said.

"Tell me about it."

She called Vic and he met her. "I want to talk to you. About Wiz." They were in Vic's unmarked detective car under a weeping willow tree. He kissed her passionately. She struggled out from under him, pushing his hand out from between her thighs. He was a fox hound, in every sense of the word. He lay back pretending to be unconscious. She swatted him. "Vic, be serious."

"What did you want to talk about?" he asked resignedly.

"I— This is not easy for me. My boss, Jules, whom I love very dearly, knows something about Wiz that he's not telling me and I figure with her missing every possible lead has to count."

Vic nodded, yawning. "You're right." He looked out the window as if trying to come to a decision. Abruptly, he reached over, opened the glove compartment, and pulled out a plastic bag. "We found these at the zoo." He dumped the contents on her lap.

Zoë picked up a pair of glasses. "These look like Wiz's."

"There's no name on them, but I checked with your paper and, from there, with their health plan. Her optometrist prescribed those, astigmatism and all. The optician's shop confirmed they made that style of frame for that lady. They are hers."

"Where were they?" Zoë asked.

"In a drainage ditch in the forest, just outside the zoo."

Tears misted her eyes like a summer shower, and she sucked in a couple of sobs.

"Okay." He slammed the shift into gear and drove toward the interior of the peninsula. "I think you are either crazy or very brave and if you wind up missing or dead or in the hospital with some kinda weird pentagons up your butt I'll be a sad guy."

He drove alongside the zoo on Canoga until the zoo wall fell behind. "I'm going to show you something." Vic slowed at the canyons outside the zoo. He pulled onto a service road. An arrow pointed above a sign that read ZOO MAINTENANCE //PRIVATE ROAD// KEEP OUT. "I want to give you an idea of the kind of crazy things I think Our Teresa Chicko-wicko-witz has been involved in." Vic drove to the end of the service road, then kept going downhill along a leafy semblance of a path. She watched the shadows darken. Rolling over crunching pine cones, the car poked deeper into this forested no man's land. The path ended and the car stopped. They were down deep, maybe two hundred feet below sea level, in the canyon wilderness outside the zoo. The air was strangely cold, and mixed tree crowns (pine, eucalyptus, date palm) soared above in a floating gloom. He poked a fingertip at her chest. "Don't say another word until we're back at the car."

It was quiet down here, so still that when she stepped on a twig, she could hear the echo of its snapping bounce off an inky swirl of rock fifty feet away. Vic stopped. "Listen."

She listened. An indistinct murmur turned into the droning harmony of two silvery military planes flying in tandem. Evening sunlight glinted tangerine on their fuselages. "Just some Air Force planes," Vic said. "Seem to be having exercises lately. Wonder where they are based." Then he turned his attention to what was at hand. They walked into the darkest part of the woods. She stumbled a little because the path was uneven and the visibility bad. She thought she saw blankets spread here and there but once when she took a closer look it was a twisted piece of cardboard.

A bird broke loose, startling her. Vic gripped her wrist. "Come on, we've got to hurry before it gets dark." He used her wrist to turn her, and she, cringing at what she might see, looked straight into a horrifying death face in the bushes.

Its empty eyes stared at her. Its foul rotting skin looked shriveled. Both its open mouth, and the hole where the nose had been, gaped as if frozen in a last desperate breath. Its stained teeth grinned. Browned flowers were strewn on the makeshift altar under it.

Zoë put her hands to her mouth. She gasped so deeply and sharply that her legs tingled. Chills ran up and down her spine. She was able to utter only a single word, a question, through her fingers: "Wizzie?"

Vic shook her from behind. "No. Look closer." She did. It was a mask of some kind. The dead brown skin was supermarket bag paper. The teeth were glued-on palm seeds. She squeaked hysterically. Relief drained down her body like shower water.

Vic pointed. "There among the flowers. There's some other stuff that had been glued on but fell off. Paper eyelids. Sea shells. This thing's been here quite a while."

In the cool piney air, deep down in the forest, she smelled something that was not right. Something burnt, like a fire gone cold, with a faint odor like meat left exposed too long. For a minute or so, she remembered the Dark Feeling. It swam up like a black smoke under the dome of her skull, obscuring the windows of her eyes. It surged like black water through the hidden canals of her body, splashing through the grottoes of her chest. Her heart pulsed once, twice, with a painful twinge like a small electrical current cruelly applied. She blinked rapidly.

The Dark Feeling ebbed as soon as it had come. There was another altar nearby. Its mask was made of a white paper plate with eyelets cut out. Common seashells formed an intricate design suggesting a frowning face.

Vic prodded. "Let's split. Hey, come on, let's get out of here." His eyes darted about. She noticed his right hand was under the left fold of his jacket, and the hammer of a large pistol stuck out. "It's getting dark, Zoë. Once we lose the advantage of daylight..."

She inhaled deeply, then squeezed her nose shut and leaned forward to see what was on the second altar. Darkness was fast falling. It was getting pitch black down here, and she looked longingly up to the eucalyptus trees high up on the zoo ridges. Dusk inked the crude wooden structure built with obvious care by people who had neither nails nor paints. From the flat of the altar, among withered flowers, the flayed skull of a dog stared eyelessly up at her. Its teeth looked greenish and she realized that the skull had sat in state like this for a long time. Moss grew from its muzzle in a furry tongue. Then the smell— underneath the altar lay two chickens, probably emigrants from the zoo. Their torn feathers lifted quietly in a faint evening wind. Their eyes had a cooked, bluish glaze. Their bones had been removed and protruded from a charnel pot nearby.

"OOOOOOHHHHHHH!" she groaned, pulling her hands from her face and letting her held breath explode outward as she staggered away. She pulled in delicious drafts of fresh, damp air aromatized by leaves and berries, by humus and bark.

Vic gripped her wrist and towed her along. "Ouch." Something in her arm crackled, and she tried to pull it away from him. She couldn't get it free so she ran forward to relieve the tension on her arm. In so doing she stumbled and fell on all fours. "Please stop hurting me."

Vic stood at a crouch, .357 magnum revolver in one hand, feet spread for balance, other hand palm out in a warding off motion. "Did you hear something?"

She scrambled up. Oh Golly Jesus, she thought, those Santeria people are going to skin us alive. Already she could feel the fish-gutting knife along her spine. Vic's eyes were wary slits as he started up the slope. "Wait for me!" she whispered desperately. Already it was so dark she could not make out the ground directly ahead. Somewhere up the slope, an amber street light glowed consolingly, but far, so far out of reach.

Vic was quicker and got slightly ahead.

Was he leaving her? She was too scared to call out again.

Behind her, twigs crackled.

Vic was a blur up ahead, and she struggled to catch up.

Behind her, feet ran, making dead leaves skitter through air.

Whoever, whatever it was, seemed to be running from hiding place to hiding place, watching.

She heard singing, and her skin crawled... Voices, singing, distant, barely audible under the wind...

She scrambled forward, banging her knee painfully on something (a rock? a tree root?). Limping stiffly, she used her hands and good leg to scrabble behind Vic.

The street light drew closer.

It was drizzling up here in the free, open world of normal people, with cars swishing through puddles, and shadows lying long in alleys, and neon lights cozy in the windows of otherwise dark little retail shops.

Vic bent down and grasped her arm again—gently. "There. It's okay now." He still held the revolver, but in a more relaxed manner as one would hold a brush or a book.

"You scared the hell out of me," she said rubbing her sore arm and wrist. "And you have a grip like steel pliers."

"Wait here," he said, "I'll get the car."

"Don't leave me—" she started, but he was gone.

She heard choir music clearly now. It was as though plugs had been pulled from her ears. The stained glass windows in the nave (the main hall or 'ship') of the basilica of St. Mary Consoler glowed in brilliant colors: sky, blood, custard... The windows seemed to vibrate with choir practice. Piercing voices—women, she thought, altos—had given way. Now Zoë heard the operatic voice of a male tenor singing Jubilatio. The organ slammed out tiered chords in shuddering bursts upon the rocking air. Like smoke from a chimney, the wind wrapped these praises in drizzle and spun them upward. An unseen jet labored in the swollen sky. Its whistling turbines swallowed the music.

Headlights swept by. "Get in!"

Near the edge of the botanical gardens, Zoë spied a little girl with large eyes. The little girl, bundled in rags, was held in hand by a heavyset woman, also in rags, whose skin color was ambivalent under all the dirt. The woman carried a plastic trash bag over her shoulder. The bag's volume and weightlessness suggested empty cans.

Vic waited as Zoë closed the door and buckled up. As they drove away, Zoë strained her neck to see the woman and the child. "Look at those poor people," she said.

He grunted. "Probably devil worshippers with the rest of them down there."

"Vic!" she said. "You're so hard!"

"Give me a break, Zoë."

"I thought you were going to leave me. And look at me," she said, "what a mess." Her nylons were in shreds. Her dress was torn and ready for the rag pile. Her shoes were scuffed and muddy.

He said: "You don't appreciate the situation. I forgot how suddenly it gets dark down there. Know what? I think those people down there can see in the dark. Now maybe it's just 'cause some of them are Indians but that don't prove anything. I'm one fourth Indio myself but I see in the dark like I got brass plugs for eyeballs. You know what we call that section down there on the PD? The Jungle, that's what. That's the return to nature of all the people who couldn't make it in the civilized world."

Vic rattled on and she was beginning to resent his cool indifference. She kept thinking of the woman and the girl. She wondered if they had enough to eat. If those clothes were warm enough.

"I'll see you," she said getting out of the car.

"Hey wait—" he called after her but she ignored him. She slipped quietly in the apartment door. Her mother and Max apparently were not home yet. She did not yet hear the unmistakable whirring of Mother's fan belt as her aging boat turned the corner in stately slowness.

Zoë sighed with relief. Leaving the ruined dress on the floor in her bedroom, she grabbed her bathrobe and pattered nakedly to the bathroom, apple breasts bobbling.

Hot water massaged her spine. She turned slowly, eyes closed and lips sputtering, rubbing her sore arm. Giving the shower a rest, she used her best milled soap, a mauve Jardin Primavera with lavender scent, to cover herself in thick lather. She reflected that Vic Lara might be more of a Doberman and less of a Labrador. And she decided she would gather up some clothes and canned food to take to the street people. And she realized that, having once again felt the Dark Feeling, no matter how briefly, she was not finished with It nor It with her. She wondered if it was Frank trying to reach her. Was there, after all, a Beyond? Were there devils and goblins, to be driven away (but only so far) by choir music? She turned the water back on and rinsed off. She wished she could rinse her brain the way she was rinsing her skin. She rubbed her palms along the flat of her belly, then over the curve of her hip and along the firm flesh of her thighs. She felt to make sure the soap was gone from the hair around her Venus mound. She held her breasts and looked down at the large caramel nipples and thought, Vic, you asshole, I think you blew it already, just by being you.


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