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
Breakfast at the Chatfield home was a quiet milling of sleepy bodies around the kitchen serving counter while Roger cooked. Later, Roger and ZoŽ found a few moments alone in the hallway as the kids waited in the driveway.
"I'll take Rudy and Elisa to school with Max," ZoŽ offered.
He kissed her. "Okay. When do I see you again?"
She wrapped her arms around his neck and laid her cheek against his chest. "When you like."
"Yes!" They looked into each other's eyes. "I'll talk with Max," ZoŽ said.
"I'll talk with Rudy and Elisa," he said. "You two could spend a week." His eyes lit up. "That's it! You can't go home yet. You don't want to stay at your mother's. You don't have a friend who could... Say, it's perfect. We'll take advantage..."
"What about the danger?" she asked.
"I'll get us under surveillance. I'll have all the locks changed. And we'll put you in the spare bedroom next to Elisa." He added: "My gun is bigger than Scara-Lara's. I'm serious. I have a .44 Magnum Dirty Harry Special that blows walls down."
"I'm serious. Let Gilbert show his pimply ass. He'll be the next idiot on the moon."
After dropping off the kids and picking up the morning PD pouch, ZoŽ arrived at the City Room. Jules, looking gray and swamped, accepted the photos and press releases with barely a nod. He was hunched over his terminal, laboring on a story about the disappearance of a zoo employee named Johnny Gepp.
"Jules, can we talk for a moment?"
"Sure." He looked up reluctantly.
"I'm not sure how to begin, but here goes. Somebody has been sending me news clippings." She laid the envelope on his desk. "It's gotten too scary. Somebody wants me to be involved, and I don't want to be."
Jules frowned as he pored over the clippings.
"Jules, it wasn't you, was it?"
He looked up. Laughed. "Are you kidding? It's all I can do to keep myself, not to mention you, out of trouble."
"I figure if I pass these things along to you, you'll know what to do with them. I'm just curious about one thing. How come you knew about Wiz getting killed?"
His expression was pained. "She was a white witch. I didn't take it seriously at the time. I was trying to give her a crack at police, same as you. It was Mart Willow's wish. She had me take her to the Bishop, then the zoo."
"She did seem a bit weird," ZoŽ agreed.
"If anyone owes it to stick his neck out now, it's me."
"You were just being a chauffeur."
"I was her supervisor."
She rubbed Jules's shoulder sympathetically.
ZoŽ took Max to a deli near St. Andrew's for lunch. "Max, did you enjoy yourself yesterday evening?"
"Yes, I sure did."
"You know that we're supposed to stay away from our apartment for a few days because of that horrible Gilbert. Would you rather stay at Grandma's or at Rudy's?"
His eyes grew wide. "Wow, let's stay at Rudy's."
"Okay," she said feeling glad inside. "Dr. ChatRoger and I are getting to be good friends, and..."
"You guys are in love, huh?"
She felt her cheeks glow. He was starting to bray when he spoke. She was sure it would only be a phase. Elisa was no doubt in puberty, and would any moment now develop the ability to slay men with the Icy Look. ZoŽ felt she had a thing or two to teach Elisa. She, in turn, would put the nip into Rudy's bray-honker, and the boys would become two presentable little gentlemen who would know things like on which sides of the plate to put items of silverware, or how to tie a manly necktie.
Max laughed. "Mom, come on, it's just like the movies. You two are like lovesick sheep."
"That's lambs, Max." They ate quietly, and she wondered at what age she had known what lovers were. Or did. Could her little child already understand?
On her way back to the paper from a false alarm fire, she stopped on Mulberry Street. Mother seemed different somehow. "Hello ZoŽ, dear. So nice of you to drop in." Mother and daughter sat in the sunny sewing room and ate salads. Mother had that new bright look, like someone converting to a very strict religion, in which you were not allowed to eat candy, drink schnapps, or say darn.
"Haven't heard from you in over a week, Mother." ZoŽ licked mayo from one finger with a smack.
"Oh yes, well I've been busy and I figure you've been occupied." Mother's teaspoon went ding-a-ling-a-ling in her coffee cup. "Have to leave you young people your own way, you know."
ZoŽ shook her head. This, from her mother? "I just came from a fire." She used fork and toast to heap eggs, ham, cheese, and romaine into a vinegary load.
"Oh how exciting. Have you been promoted?"
Mouth full of salad, she said: "It's up in the air."
Ding-a-ling-a-ling, went the spoon like a train bell, and Mother did not even correct her about talking with her mouth full.
"Mother, are youÖokay?"
"Why of course, dear. Never felt better."
ZoŽ left feeling bewildered. As she drove away, she gave a last glance. Sure enough, Mother had picked up the garden hose, and now smiled and waved after her daughter. Was there an extra brightness about the house?
ZoŽ called Vic before leaving the office.
"Nothing yet," Vic told her. "I've had people in your place for two and a half days and our man hasn't shown up. How's life at Mother's?" His tone told her he knew.
"Oh dry up. I sure wish you'd catch this SOB so Max and I can move back home."
"Yeh, right," Vic said.
Yeah, he knows, ZoŽ thought. What am I saying? I'd die if there weren't this excuse to spend a week with __. Suddenly she felt abashed that strange men were in her place, probably looking in her underwear drawer and who knew what else.
Vic said slyly: "Roger Chatfield contacted me this morning. Very, very confidential. He wants a surveillance unit near his house, but he does NOT, I repeat NOT, want Miss Polly to know."
"Oh? Vic, you have such a way of always making things awful. Yes, I stayed at Roger's house last night."
"Relax, I'm just teasing," Vic said. "I was a bit pissed, is all, that I had two guys by your mother's house last night and you weren't even there."
"So? If he's stalking me, he could think I was there."
"I'm pulling the two guys from your mother's to Roger's. We don't have hundreds of people."
"I never expected you did," she bit back. "Vic, just catch the fucking guy and stop giving me a hard time." She hung up on him. What a pain.
The phone rang. "One more thing, ZoŽ. Don't get too cocky. I'm looking for at least two missing persons, including Wallace Burtongale and a guard from the zoo. Gilbert's out there and when he's ready he'll come after you."
This time, Vic hung up on her. So there.
Roger slipped the door shut after the kids were asleep and took ZoŽ in his arms. She pressed against him. His hands roved down her back and rested on her buttocks. She stood on tiptoe and kissed him.
He said: "I've waited for this moment all evening. Just to be alone with you. To hold you." He slipped into bed while she looked for a bathroom.
The master bedroom was a long, narrow, low-ceilinged attic, a pleasant room, brightly paneled in maple. Padding nakedly about, ZoŽ found lots of closet space; a lot of it empty and, from clues like a tipped over white shoe, she deduced it had probably been Susan's; how sad.
In a closet, in a chest marked "Susan Burtongale," ZoŽ found some high school pictures of a sweet, pretty blonde with serious eyes who vaguely looked like a Rudy without the blare and the porcupine quills.
Feeling like an intruder, she let a plastic-wrapped yearbook slip away after a brief glance.
The trunk was full of things a magician would use to entertain: A top hat, a black wand, a tangle of silk kerchiefs in all colors, a bag of dice, packs of playing cards, a picture of young Susan dressed up in front of an audience just as she lifted her hat and bowed; how poised, ZoŽ thought; how sad. She closed the trunk, shut the closet door. Lots of mirrors.
She turned this way and that, inspecting her own figure. Still firm. Jiggly breasts. Too short to be a model, though several agencies had once feverishly competed to test-shoot her face. They'd called her the most beautiful woman in the city (Los Angeles) when she smiled. Maybe a little firmer and fuller in the rear and thighs than the supermodel look, but what the hell. She'd gotten two or three lingerie ads at that major beds & bras chain, then nothing more. Better to live, enjoy the occasional whipped cream Napoleon, and sip margaritas without worrying about calories. And those diet magazineshow to eat pounds of chocolate cheese cake while pretending it was okay because the recipe was in a diet book. Not for me, ZoŽ thought. If a man's gonna want me, we'll eat waffles with butter, and go jogging together.
Roger lay naked on the king-size bed watching her. She knew he was thinking it was like getting another large dog. Let her run around, sniff everything.
She peeked into the bathroom. Holy Moses, it was as big as her bedroom at home and done in honey colored marble and blue and white tiles. She tiptoed in to pee. An oversized bathtub, like King Tut's sarcophagus, stood in the middle. A shower enclosure was in one corner. Two sinks with mirrors on a wall. A door led into another room. There was a double sauna, now cold; probably part steamy room and part dry room when hot. "The whirlpool spa is outside," Roger hollered. "In the garden. Seats twelve."
"Wonderful," she said and her voice echoed among the tiles. She slid into bed and welcomed his warmth. The bed had a three-tier headboard with book racks; stereo controls; wine rack now empty save for three dangling glasses; a caddy for last-minute removal of watches, rings, wallets, earrings.
Rain pattered and splattered outside. It peppered the window panes while they made endless love. Satisfied and sleepy, they cuddled together. The clock in the darkness shone: Four a.m.
The house was dark. And silent. Starlight showered photons that collided, exploding with their own ghostly rays in gleaming dark-wood floors. She wanted to see this house of mirrors on a clear, full-moon nightveils of Scheherezade, moons of Foo Man Choo! An exotic fantasy, a magic that only good taste and decency could buy. Buffeted by still-whirling hormones and good vibrations, she let the sleep boat take her downstreamÖ
A floor board creaked, and Max, who had been half asleep, opened his eyes wide. He was thinking about his Mom and Roger. Max wished Roger could make her happy. He knew how stubborn she could be, however, and what he liked about Roger was he did not try to make her be someone other than she was. Howard Berger had made her uncomfortable, and she'd tried to fake it pretty well. In the end, Max was glad to be rid of Howard. Roger was different. He was neat. So far. Again the floor board creaked. Max half sat up and listened. Someone was breathing in the hallway outside. Max reached for the baseball bat on the floor.
A forced whisper came. "Hey!"
Max rolled up his eyes. "What do you want, Rudy?"
"Hey, I'm on the shell with Jeremy." Shell meant computer.
"You're supposed to be in bed."
"We're doing a game. I thought you'd want to get in."
"Rudy, my Mom would kill me if she knew I was back on that."
Rudy drifted into the room, his pale skin and straight upstanding hair transfigured to silver. "They're asleep."
"Have you been watching them?" Max sat up, angry.
"No, listening. They were horsing around upstairs but now my Dad's in his bed and she's in the guest bedroom by Elisa."
"Rudy, you're a sneak."
"You're no fun. I thought having a brother would be fun."
Max bit his lip. Mom hadn't really said it, but he and she must be kinda careful because it wasn't their house. Roger must like her a lot to have her and Max stay here.
"Come down for a minute, Max Doofoid. Or pack your crap and go home."
"I can't, asshole. Your Dad's keeping us here. You think I want to hang around your crummy house? And with YOU?"
Rudy shuffled to the door. "Chill out."
"I hope your dad's asleep," Max growled as he used a crutch tip to slide his slippers close in the dark. "And my mom."
"They're cutting Z's," Rudy said. "Like they ran a marathon and then got drunk."
"Okay." Max used his wooden crutches, that didn't make any clicking sounds, and they went down the stairs one creaky step at a time. Mr. Chatfield turned over in his sleep with a loud groan, and the two boys froze on the stairs. But he resumed snoring, and they tip-tip-tipped down to the first floor hall.
Elisa's door was closed, and the boys assumed she must be asleep. You could tell, Rudy had already informed Max; if Elisa's light was on, she was reading or doing homework or maybe jabbering on the phone with her million creepy girlfriends; if just her Marilyn Monroe retro-nightlight cast its stain under the door, then she was asleep.
Max followed Rudy along the dark corridor. A few times the rubber tip of his crutch squeaked on the floor, and both boys froze and listened.
Nothing. Outside, wind sighed and rustled nervously in tree branches. Inside, a floorboard creaked, a snore filtered around, a dog snuffled in his or her sleep. "Here," Rudy whispered. He pushed open a door Max had not known existed. There were doors leading to broom closets, preserve closets, storage closets, piled rooms of books and chairs and sheets. But this was an unused room filled with old dust. An electric bulb hanging from the ceiling cast a fuzz ball of 40 watt light. The abandoned Victorian libraryjust empty shelves of ornately carved woodsmelled of mildew and rat droppings. Three old wooden chairs stood in no discernible order. On an otherwise bare table stood a glowing computer terminal. The terminal was plugged into the room's only electrical socket; it processed data using a single line to a hole in the floor. "Whew," Max said, "what is this place?"
Rudy looked proud. "It used to be a library, over a hundred years ago, and later a storage room. The door was locked and nailed shut when Lees and I were babies, so we wouldn't go in here. I just pulled the nails out and Dad doesn't know a thing."
Max felt a twinge of fear at making Mr. Chatfield mad and maybe screwing things up for Mom. "We shouldn't be here, Rudy."
"I live here, I know the rules. You do what I say."
"I don't know." Max looked up at the ceiling, where spiders hung. "Where'd you get the computer?"
"Well, I couldn't use the one in my room or Dad would get suspicious. Then Jeremy told me how to fix up this old black and white TV set that was in the attic. It's simple. All the input and output is done through Dad's system, but since his is linked to the research institute at the zoo, the Web connection and processing are done on their system. Doesn't use much power; nobody will ever know!"
"Didn't know you were such a computer nerd," Max said.
Rudy looked proud. Just then the steady white light on the screen flickered. Letters in large pica type began to scroll out, and Max read: "Captain Colorado calling the Space Cadets!"
"Oh no," Max said, "that's how we got into trouble before."
"Yeah, Jeremy told me all about that," Rudy said running his fingers over the keyboard like a maestro. "This is different. It's all cleaned up now. This is the real $89.98 Captain Colorado Game from a store, not the screwy one."
Max inched forward for a closer look. Already, enemy fighter ships were massing around Altair. Max licked his lips. "Move your battle station around," he said, "or you'll get creamed right off the bat, and we're done for the night."
"I'm trying to move all five of them," Rudy said busily. "How about a hand here, Dog Ear Spock, instead of the long jaws?" Rudy worked two joysticks and a keyboard all at once. The keyboard clicked, like careful footsteps. Rudy's tongue was between his lips with concentration. Two of the enemy fighters were slowly peeling away.
"Careful," Max said, "they're going around behind Altair. They'll come out at your back."
"I can only do so much at once," Rudy protested. "Grab the effin' stick, will you, dumb nuts?"
"Okay, Captain Blight. Man, you musta ate a box of Dr. Charter's Little Nasty Pills." Max slid a chair next to Rudy's. "I just hope they don't make you fart."
The two boys manipulated the joysticks and made adjustments on the keyboard.
A faint draft stirred through the room, bringing with it white specks no bigger than sugar grains.
Max and Rudy were becoming besty-testy friends, as only siblings could be.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.