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
"Mom, you've been acting weird lately." Max lifted his dish, and slurped the rest of his cereal and milk.
ZoŽ stabbed a sausage with her fork. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I've been seeing my shrink about some old things, and I'll tell you some of it one day. Please trust me, I'm going to keep my cool."
Max folded his hands on the table. "I will help you all I can."
She laid her hands over his. "That's awful sweet of you. What you can do to help me is to keep your room neat and do your homework and be the good boy you have always been."
He squeezed her hands. "I love you, Mom."
She felt hollow, like a tree wounded by lightning, but things would be okay if only she hung on. "I love you so very much, Max."
Wednesday at work: Fires, murders, accidents, mankind at work. ZoŽ went through the motions as best she could. She sat in meetings and smiled and nobody knew how she felt just now. At times she seemed to slip back under hypnosis and tell Dr. Stanislaus: "I'm packing all these little pieces of painful memory and stacking them by the door for the mail man. I am going to mail them to Timbuktu." And he would say: "Good girl, Miss No Name. Keep working at it. Push it away. Push!"
She stopped in to see Jules. "How is Matilda?"
Jules looked gray. "Same, ZoŽ. Perry doesn't move from her bedside. You look kinda frazzled yourself."
"Same old vinegar, I see, but temporarily less poop-steam." His shaky fingers fiddled with his pipe stem.
ZoŽ took Max to Mother's house, where he was to do his homework and then watch a space movie. She met Vic in a dark, drafty bar and they sat far apart in a booth nursing steamy coffees. "Vic, I've been seeing Dr. Stanislaus."
"You've been watching me like a hawk, haven't you?"
Vic looked somber. "Yes."
"You never quit working that case, have you?"
"I should be mad at you for snooping on me, but I'm not."
Vic put a bottle cap on the table. Old Wooffentooth or whatever. "When I saw you put the whiskey bottle outside Hale's place and drive away, I knew you were on the track."
"When did you know I was starting to relive the past?"
"When you said you were going to see Doc Stanislaus."
"You all worked together, huh?"
Vic stirred his coffee thoughtfully. "You could say that, maybe. Every man has his personal agenda. We are wolves, hunting together when it suits us. Lone wolves otherwise." "Maybe if you remember it all, you'll be healed. About the other day."
"Yes," she said. "Why?" Why had he beaten those men?
He stirred. "I've been after this Satanic ring for years. There is a connection to the Jungle, but I don't know what. I showed you the altar, right? You don't know how many times I've been close, but they are so well organized, they always manage to cover their trail."
"Why do they do it?" She meant the Satanists, and she knew he knew that was who she meant. She thought of the well-dressed couple and shuddered. We don't want any trouble. She felt sick.
He shrugged. "Maybe some of them really believe in all that hokey. Most of them are too shallow to know any better. Many of them are extremely rich. Many come from out of town to better hide their tracks."
"They're in it for the thrill. They are each so dead inside that it's the only way they get their rocks off."
"I wish I could tell you where that cabin was, Vic."
He considered that. "The PD and some other agencies covered big swatches of those mountain ten years ago. We knew from Miss Temple that there was somethingyou were closed up tight as a clam"
"Frank threatened me."
"I figured as much, even back then."
"That baby's name was Stevie."
"Let it go, ZoŽ. He's been dead ten years. The world is hell. We have met Satan, and he is People."
"I recognized one of the people, Vic."
He looked startled. "What?"
"Holy shit." He stubbed his cigarette out. "ZoŽ, they've still got Mabel in county detention. I might be able to get to hermake a deal with her."
"I'll come along."
"No you won't."
"Yes I will."
He gave her a long stare. "I guess, ZoŽ, you're part of this whether I like it or not. You've been part of it from the start, without you even knowing."
She nodded. "To the bitter end, pal."
"You have to make a decision."
"The biggest decision of your life now."
"You may be putting Max in dangeragain. Does he deserve it? Can you handle the possible consequences?"
"We have a shot at nailing these devils and ending their horror once and for all."
"All right. Then come along. I'm tossing out at the slightest sign of danger."
"Thanks, Vic. I'll call my mother and see if she can keep Max for the night." She feared himthe Hard Manbut he had a decent streak. He had been the unseen pilot of her ship all these years.
In the three short days since ZoŽ's camping trip with Roger, the rainy weather in the mountains had turned icy cold. The snow level had descended to three thousand feet at night. A black fog roiled in serpentines along State 495 as Vic's car rumbled along on blocky snow tires. Night fell early.
"The roads are still clear," Vic said, "otherwise I wouldn't even try this. There's more snow forecast for tomorrow, so we might just luck out this evening."
In the back of the detective car, separated by a bullet-proof plastic shield, sat Mabel Stork. ZoŽ, morbidly curious, stared into Mabel's face, trying to rediscover that dirty gleam in the eyes, the mean grin, but Mabel was a blank.
"She's been around the bend a couple of times no doubt," Vic said. "Probably been on her way down hill for years."
Vic shrugged. "Poor kid. She'll get farmed out to a foster home."
Mabel's fist smashed against the scratched plastic. Rage was in her eyes.
"Yeah, you can hear me really good when you want to," Vic said as though he were speaking to a caged animal that would bite if released.
God, ZoŽ thought, Hard Vic. What had she, however briefly, seen in him? "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea," ZoŽ said. She felt scared.
"I got us a one-time deal with old Mabel back there, ZoŽ. Give it a chance, okay? If she helps us find what we're after, I let her go." He gave her a Look. "ZoŽ, deals are cut all the time. It's how things get done."
ZoŽ sat back miserably and let the achy fabric of the past envelop her. This was a lot like something that happened before. She'd come this way in the dark with Frank and Attila and the other man... So many question marks in her mind! Once Vic left State 495 and started crawling up and down hilly curvy little mountain blacktops rimed with thin snow, ZoŽ was utterly lost.
Mabel's fist smashed the plastic again.
"Give her some coffee," Vic said indicating a thermos. ZoŽ passed a dented steel cup through a slot in the plastic and Mabel's hard fingers took it. Was there a look of smoldering recognition in the woman's eyes, an ember pile of hellish light?
ZoŽ poured herself and Vic plastic cups of coffee. The bitter aroma was comforting. "Vic, does this have anything to do with the Burtongales?"
"Why do you ask?" His gaze, scanning the night, was opaque.
"Everything lately seems to." She slurped hot coffee, winced, and blew over the surface.
Vic shut the engine off. The hood banged, cooling. Snowy gritted lightly against the windows. The wind had a lame howl in its throat. ZoŽ pulled her coat tight, staring at the forest of pines waving in the darkness. The sky was a milky glow above the dark skyline of trees.
Vic opened the driver's side door. "You can stay in the car if you want to," he told ZoŽ.
"Not me, I'm not moving an inch from you." She slid across the seat after him.
Vic pressed something hard and warm into her hand. She looked down and saw that she held his heavy revolver. Vic rattled his shotgun loose from the dash. With flashlight in hand, shotgun on elbow, he stepped outside. "Easy, Mabel old girl," he said unlocking the back door.
Mabel, bundled in clean though castoff charity clothing, bounced out like a ball. ZoŽ tried to keep Vic between her and Mabel as they trudged uphill on crunchy snow pack. The revolver, no longer warmed by Vic's flesh, drew the cold to it. It wanted no warmth from ZoŽ's soft, pale fingers and lightly tanned paws.
Somewhere, a hound or a wolf keened, hills and valleys away, rippling over ZoŽ's spine. The keening was taken up by other canids farther away, in a relay of warnings. Suddenly, ZoŽ remembered the curve in the road where Attila had parked the truck with the [???] in it. "This is the place," she whispered to Vic, who did not answer. "I think," she added. Mabel stood stock-still.
There! ZoŽ recognized the sloping roof, lacy with snow. The blunt chimney. "This is definitely the place."
Vic sniffed. "Someone had a fire going in there not too long ago."
"Vic," ZoŽ whispered, but he ignored her. She wondered why he hadn't cuffed Mabel. Mabel watched, hare-like, still.
Vic turned the flashlight on. He was all concentration. He approached the worn blackish wood door, shotgun still cradled. ZoŽ followed, holding the revolver. Her hands shook as she held it pointed at the ground before her.
Vic gave the door a kick. On the second try, its lock snapped and it swung open. The flashlight stabbed inside: The familiar table, the stone fireplace, the door leading to...
Vic sniffed again, backed away. He trudged silently through calf-deep drifts outside. They went around the back. There, ZoŽ put together a vague memory of the nightmare landscape where Max had been taken from her so long ago.
Vic kicked in the back door. The flashlight beam picked around inside. Another hearth. A long shelf (for diapers?). A rusty cooking pot. "Place looks abandoned," he said quietly. He sniffed carefully. "There's been a fire here recently. A hunter might have stopped in the last few days, made a fire, then moved on." He stepped closer to the entrance.
A kind of hypnosis drew ZoŽ alongside him. There: this had been where she had laid Max down. There on that bench where tonight snow twinkled, having fallen through a hole in the roof. The place was glacial inside. Dead.
The flashlight beam meandered up and down stone walls hung with daggers of ice. Meandered back and forth, and finally came to rest on some Things on the mantel piece.
"I'll be damned," Vic said.
ZoŽ drew a deep breath, looking at a picture of herself. It was a picture of ZoŽ, ten years younger. Smiling like the sun. There were other pictures: ZoŽ and Frank, he holding her in one arm and a rifle in the other, and looking cocky woodsy mean. Attila and Frank on their motorcycles on a summer afternoon. And another person. A tall man with a beard, holding a baby. Max? ZoŽ took the flashlight, aimed its beam, stepped closer.
"You know what?" Vic said. "Someone has built an altar to you."
"Get out." But the evidence of her vision betrayed the common sense of her mind. Yes, there among carefully garlanded pine boughs, was somebody's altar to the past. With dreadful fascination, she shone the beam directly into the face of the man holding her baby. Those dimples. That beard. Those crazed hungry eyes...
As if in slow motion, ZoŽ and Vic turned.
The flashlight beam dipped, then rose again.
The light shone directly into Mabel Stork's face. She was running, a bundle (how could she move so fast?) of clothing hurtling at them like a missile. Her eyes were black with hate. Her teeth were bared like a zoo animal's. Her cap fell off, and stringy gray hair fluttered sweatily. A rusty ax, forgotten by some wood-chopping camper, waved in both hands, upheld over her head, as she raced directly at ZoŽ.
P O O O O M M M...
went the shotgun, jerking in Vic's arm.
Mabel faltered. The black rage in her eyes melted into confusion. Then she came again, ax still swinging, but in one hand, and low. The other arm swung loosely at her sidea bloody tangle of bloody, torn cloth, splintered bone, and slashed, purple meat.
P O O O O M M M...
the shotgun thundered again, blowing her out the door and into the snow. Vic ran after her, stood over her aiming the shotgun at her head, but Mabel lay dead still in the snow.
"Jesus Christ," ZoŽ said. Her heart fluttered, and she was seeing in waves of black and white. She felt faint.
"Easy," Vic said, stepping back into the ruin. He took the gun back from ZoŽ.
"That's him," ZoŽ said in a voice that was little more than a strangled whisper. She pointed to the picture of the man holding baby Max. In the picture, she recognized the hearth of Frank's cabin, miles from here, Frank's shack, long since fallen down and reverted to the forest. "That's the third man who helped kill Charlie Best."
Vic shined the light close. "Gilbert Burtongale," he said. "I thought so all along, but I never could prove it." He turned warily, scenting like a hound. "He was here not too long ago. This stuff is fresh. He must cherish those memories. Did you let him sleep with you?"
"Fuck you," ZoŽ said.
"Well?" Vic's eyes glittered with wolf jealousy. The shotgun hovered dangerously in his hands.
"No, you asshole. I hated him. Besides, Frank would have killed both of us if I had." It all came back to her: "We were cold and hungry. The baby could barely cry, he was so weak. Then, along comes this rich kid asshole. We let him stay with us and for a couple of weeks he paid for coal and food. His eyes were on me all the time, and I think Frank was about to gut him with his knife, like a fish, and smoke him, and leave him for the bears to eat. Then Gilbert came across with this idea. Frank and Attila were supposed to pull a big job for him. Something he wanted. So Frank and Attila let him stay some more."
"You weren't worried about your babies, you and Ann?"
"We were too scared of our men. We were prepared to die with the babies if our men couldn't protect us. It was the fucking Cult of Frank. We were all going to die. Only Frank and Attila rode out, sharing a handle of Forkenfuck or some grizzly piss, and they ended up going under a long haul truck, spread over a quarter mile of icy highway."
Vic nodded, setting the shotgun aside. "You were set free, except there was still the charge that you waited outside while Frank and Attila heisted First National Bank of San Dimas up the road. Ann caved, and you would rather take the hit. How stubborn you are."
ZoŽ ignored him, still stuck in the long-ago moment. She grew angrier by the second. "GilbertÖhe used to FONDLE me with his EYES. I couldn't STAND it. He wanted to ball me in the worst way. But then everyone wanted to. You too, Vic. You tried to make a deal with me too after Frank was killed."
Vic lowered the shotgun. There was no denial in his eyes. "That was a long time ago," he said. "You were wild and sweet. Could anyone blame me?" He added: "Luckily, that part of you hasn't changed. You just grew up. At least, I think you did."
They both laughed. She carried the shotgun, while he walked around photographing the dead woman, the altar, and whatever other evidence there might be.
Zoe and Vic locked the shotgun and camera in the trunk, and took one more look.
Mabel Stork's bluish face was already frosting over. Her hands were folded together oddly, as if in final prayer.
Vic said: "Mabel was one of my dead ends. Mabel Stork was a nurse, long ago, down the coast near L.A. She left her job right about the time a baby named Stevie Koenig disappeared from the maternity ward. Mabel was a Pediatric ICU nurse, so we never could pin anything on her. But other babies had disappeared in town, including two of her own. She split when things got hot. Her mind was going, I think, and she wound up in the Jungle with her one baby that she kept. Evvie. Come on, I'm going to take you home. And I'm going to look for Gilbert Burtongale." He walked around the body, one foot mounding snow over it like a grave. Then he headed for the car.
ZoŽ trailed along on the crunchy snow. "You're the Burtongales' pocket cop, aren't you? You've covered for them and they've covered for Gilbert and meanwhile you got yourself promoted to lieutenant."
"Shut up," he told her.
"How much longer are you going to cover for them?"
"I told you I'm going after Gilbert." He stopped. "Unless, of course, you don't want to testify."
She stood frozen. "Damn you, Vic. You know I'm afraid for Max."
"Okay," he said, "well then don't holler at me if you're going to keep covering up for Frank and Attila and Gilbert yourself."
They descended from the mountains, into the warmer, wetter coastal climate. It was drizzling in San Tomas. At her apartment door, Vic said: "You can't run from him."
She sorted her thoughts. "I HAVE noticed a van hanging around the neighborhood..."
"He owns one. I checked."
"And I HAVE been bumping into him, and he HAS been making those sleazy comments... Oh God, Vic, I need protection."
"I could put a lot of heat in here, but it would tip him off. I don't want to scare him away, I want to draw him in."
"You are not going to use me and my son as bait."
"Let's make a deal. You move in with your mother a couple of days. I put detectives in here to wait for him."
"What on earth does he want from me?" she wailed.
Vic stuck out a finger, catching a small white thing like a feather drifting through the air. He examined it briefly (a cinder? a snowflake?) then flicked it away. "Gilbert is insane, and he's stuck on you. Not only that, he's uncanny, ZoŽ. I kind of figure"(his eyes had a strange glint, something outdoorsy and wild to them)"Gilbert followed us and saw us at his shrine."
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.