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
The next day, ZoŽ loaded a bunch of Max's old clothes into the trunk of her car. On midmorning break, she bought a nice thank you card and mailed it to Vic. She was thankful, but she kept the card as free of undertones or overtones as she could. Didn't want him reading anything into it other than thank you. Spike ("...it's a long way, to Tipperareeeee....") was really catching on. His good eye for detail delivered her of death notices. They got the obits put to bed on time and then had the luxury of preparing for tomorrow's rat race.
The copy girl brought the mail to each desk. She dropped a package on ZoŽ's desk. ZoŽ opened it and found a book and a note. The note was from Father Lawrence: "You were asking about the B's. I remembered that I had this. I'd like it back, please. Best, Father L. (Remember your daily prayers!)."
Wow, she thought, delicately inspecting the old volume. It was an 1895 edition of "Wallace Burtongale II, A Life of Adventure, As Told By Annabel Burtongale." The heavy board-covers were done in swirly reds and yellows, with faded leather edging. She sat on the edge of her seat, held the book between her knees, and flipped through it. There were pen and ink drawings, finely executed in lined steel shadings like old patent office pictures of machine parts: A camel and an Arab boy near a pyramid; a paddle wheel steamer on a river lined with palm trees; an explorer in pith helmet (Wallace II?) in a violent moment shooting a lion; a sphinx in glossy black stone surrounded by turbaned workers with haunted eyes... Quickly, she pressed the book shut and slipped it into her lunch bag.
That afternoon she left an hour early and drove to the Jungle, the wood by the zoo where she'd seen the primitive horror masks. She sat near the maintenance road leading behind the zoo and waited. The sight of the woman and small child still tore at her conscience. She had a box of blankets and clothing in the trunk for them. Rain drops pong-ponged on the car roof while she kept her gaze fixed on the leafy canopy of the Jungle. The basilica was dark and silent.
While she waited for street people to appear, she wrapped her legs in a blanket and munched chocolate-malted-milkshake-flavored popcorn still warm from the take-out stand. Coffee latte in a foamed plastic cup steamed on the dash. She flicked idly through the radio stations, finding no music for this moment. She turned the radio off, content to listen to the rain. Forced into idleness, she walked through the city of her mind, visiting places of which people generally did not think during their busy lives. These were not generic crossroads like 'work' or 'home' or 'play,' but nameless side streets of the self, of long-ago joys and fears. Some of them evoked a hazy inner smile, others an endless drizzle of tears. Somewhere in that metropolis of her psyche, sprawling now miles below as if glimpsed from a jet, was the nested conspirator who had made her city lights flicker, flicker, darkly, sickeningly...
That is it, the microscopic ZoŽ, pedestrian with a suitcase and a windblown skirt, said to herself on a street corner with no name, in a city called ZoŽ, that is it! The power station... If she could find the power station, she could find what was browning out her lines...it was the answer to all her questions!
Transposing herself once again to the amorphous jet window, she tried to project her comprehension over the utility grid far below. She tried to recall the Dark Feeling. Tried to home in on its source. But there was no lump in the snake, no bubble in the straw, no feeling anywhere on the grid...
TIME TO LAND.
Wait, one thing. A brief message. A phone call. A radio signal. A something. The echo of a smile. A wriggling sun.
She cried "Huh!" and sat up because all around the windows of her car there were faces. She surveyed the scattered popcorn in her lap. She realized she had fallen asleep and had a dream; something about flying and about being lost on foreign city streets and about the sun on the pagoda (wiggly limbs, smile that made her shudder). All her sudden realizations in the dream were lost. She was as far from the answers to all her questions as ever. She looked at the twisted, deformed faces staring in at her while they pressed their fingers on the glass like minnow bellies. She rolled down the window a half inch and gulped mouthfuls of wet air faintly soured with unwashed-body smells.
"Are you all right?" asked a narrow face with an open sore in blond chin stubble.
"I'm fine," she said. She recognized them now: the street people she'd come to help. She rolled down her window, aware it was a gesture both brave and foolish. Vic would lacerate her if he saw her doing this. They crowded around their leader and she saw they were men women and children of all races and ages. Their sodden rags clung to them, here and there colored with false gaiety by a bright logo like 'Wild One' or 'Party Animal.'
"There was a woman with a little girl. I saw them the other day."
Eyeballs exchanged telepathic glances. "That must be Mabel Stork and her little one, Evvie," the blond man said as though speaking of a neighbor. "Hey, anybody seen Mabel?"
"Oh, she gots the little"
"Yeah, man, she de lady dat... ."
"She workin' de Mission up around Canoga," said a knowledgeable voice. The ragged ones were hard to distinguish from one another. ZoŽ thought of Charles Dickens's novels and thought what am I doing here? Is this a time warp? People like this don't exist anymore. Is there a Ripper among you, dear folk?
A dark face floated in. He had one good eye; the other lay shut as though asleep. Dreadlocks lay heaped over the ears under a green yellow and black tam. He grinned. "Moonboy here. You nice lady. I read your mind." He had a lilting Jamaican accent.
What are you doing here in the drizzle when you could be hom, in the islands, where it's warm, smoking ganja?
He nodded as though in conversation. "Jah! No work here no more. You think this is bad you should try them docks in New York and over Port Elizabeth way."
She stared at him thinking about the woman and the little girl.
"Ah," he said, "Mabel Stork and little Evvie now." He turned his face so the good eye could scrutinize her from several angles. "You not the police now, are you?"
She shook her head.
"You been seen here, de folks was talkin' about." He reached a long bony hand into the car and she stared down at the ebony fingers, half expecting them to go for the buttons of her blouse. Instead, they moved toward her hand. She looked at his fingers, then at the pink tongue straining between his teeth, then back at his fingers. And realized what he wanted. She handed him the big styro coffee cup. He lifted it like a chalice and drank until he made a gratified groan. "Ahhhh!" he said and handed it to the next one. "Here, Christopher Marlow, drink."
She watched the blond chin stubble, the Adams apple bobble, and wondered how old is that kid, sixteen?
Moonboy grinned. "You bring good coffee. You no cop, you too soft. And dumb. NaÔve." The grin faded like a light shut off. "You got something for Mabel Stork?"
Her hand sneaked to the window crank. "I have some clothes for the little girl. Or any other children with you. And I can get more," she added with the desperate thought if only they let me go.
Moonboy laid a hand on the window as if to hold it down while he looked left and right considering.
Her heart throbbed fearfully.
"All right," he said. She felt his power, and realized she was getting a reprieve (but from what? the altar down below?). "You leave the things with me. I see that Mabel gets them. And Evvie."
She handed him the trunk key. Darkness was falling, and no way was she getting out of this car.
"You come again," he said in a booming voice. "You no cop. You bring what you can because" (he pointed down into the Jungle) "we all cold. And hungry," he emphasized. "Bring food."
"Yes, cans. Anything."
"Hey, steaks!" someone squeaked.
"French fries & catsup!" another shouted.
"Filet mignon with mushroom caps."
"QUIET," Moonboy said. She heard and felt the trunk slam shut. The key materialized and she plucked it away. "Thank you," Moonboy said. "You ain't stuck on the cop, is you?"
She glared at him, her cheeks burning.
"He got nice hats, and a gold ring, and sharp shoes he like to kick a man with, and always de pressed suits." Laughter erupted behind him.
"Thanks," she said. "Listen, it's been swell, but I really just wanted to give the stuff to Mabel and the little girl, okay?" She turned on the engine and felt reassured by its steady power. "Me gotta go now, okay Louie?"
He waggled his head. His eye looked daunted. "You a saucy one. Go on, now." He waved majestically. Shadowy figures cleared out of her way. She turned the wheel and rolled forward.
"You come back with food!"people shouted as she drove off. The voices were filled with desperationespecially the children's.
As she drove down the familiar streets toward home, her eyes stung. Her hands were trembling so badly she had to pull over in a well-lighted gas station and just sit for a few minutes. She would never tell anyone about this. You could have been raped or murdered, she could picture her mother saying; or Vic: Why do you do these things, ZoŽ?
Because I can be a real asshole at times. Max would have lost not only his Dad but his Mom as well. She started the car. I meant well, that's all. As she glided past the open work bays of the gas station, she heard mechanics laughing (oh welcome all the familiar sounds of life!) and a radio blared old rock tunes.
That night, after Max had fallen asleep and she herself was tired and ready to slip away, she sat in her living room and brought out the old book Father Lawrence had given her. The book lay heavy in her lap and the words and pictures floated in a haze as she skimmed through it, too tired to really read. Annabel Burtongale had written by way of introduction:
"My grandfather, disenchanted with the life of business and commerce laid out for him by his father, went East to Yale and studied Oriental History. Not satisfied to be merely book-learned, he set out in 1862, while that most tragic of Civil Wars ravaged our nation, to explore in turn each of the great empires that had given birth to our own civilization.
"My grandfather made, in all, seven journeys by packet that took him to the now slumbering mounds and monuments of Sumer, Akkad, Ur, and Babylon in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley; to Canaan, where David and Solomon, and later Jesus, walked; to Egypt, where once Pharaohs ruled; and finally to the West of Africa, where the camel caravans from Sudan and from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco meet the Congo jungle trade routes at the fabled outpost of Timbuktu.
"My grandfather, as I shall relate, encountered the suspicions of modern viziers and grandees, as well as the ignorance of primitive people living upon the ruins of forgotten greatness, at every turn. On the island of devil worshipping witch doctors in Togoland, he barely escaped with his life, having coveted a stone idol too dear to its pagan worshippers to let any man part them from it.
"But from Egypt he did bring, in his last expedition, from the haunted temple ruin of Blessed Mason Imhotep on the First Cataract of the Holy River, the fine Black Sphinx that stood until recently in the entrance to our family's zoological garden. And it is to this sensitive issue that I must ultimately turn, for in a precipitate act of impulse, my grandfather ordered the cursed statue, that weighed some twenty tons and had been shipped across sea and land at great cost, dumped at sea off San Tomas..."
Troubled, ZoŽ wanted to read further, but tired, she yawned, slipped the volume shut, and fell asleep on the couch.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.