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
Next day at work, ZoŽ stopped to chat with Jules. He looked glum. And grim. And tired. "ZoŽ, ZoŽ, ZoŽ," he said. He'd apparently given up on the pipe. Its pieces lay on a ceramic tray on the bookshelf. "Good job on the story. I want you to do a follow-up today."
"Thanks. Jules, I can't believe you're going along with me on this." Her story was on Page One under her byline. She'd copped ten copies of the paper, planned to frame one. Her first page one byline. Jules gulped black coffee. "I haven't heard from Mart yet, but it will be quite interesting."
In the afternoon she thought about Evvie. Now there was a poor kid with not a soul in the world. She called the City, got the runaround, called the County, and eventually learned that Evvie Stork had run away. She phoned: "Vic, where could she have gone? To the Jungle? To Moonboy? What if the Satanists get her? Even Moonboy was scared of them."
"All right," Vic said. "I'll do some checking. Still mad?"
"Yes. Call me if you hear anything." She hung up.
She sat with her hands over her eyes, remembering the baby Stevie, and considering joining the police so she could become a detective and work on Satanism cases. She took off early and stopped by to see Father Lawrence. Same drill; she accepted the Eucharist and felt okay. I am not to blame for the hell in the world. "Father, I am worried about Mabel's daughter Evvie. She ran away from detention. She could be in the Jungle and I'm afraid Gilbert and his crowd might get her."
The priest nodded. "The Devil's work is never done." He held a sacred host in his palm and looked lovingly at it. "I understand what old Jonathan Smith was trying to do. I wish I had his courage. I'd like to face Satan holding one of these. I've always wanted to really test these out, see if the Medieval people were right about it. "
"Father, the girl?"
"Oh yes. Well, you might call Miss Polly. They have"
"Miss Polly?" She laughed. "I tried that already."
"You don't know how involved Miss Polly is in causes. Especially children. As you learn more about the Burtongales, you might see how hurt Miss Polly has been in life."
"Do you know her?" ZoŽ asked.
He smiled faintly. "Seal of the Confessional."
"My God," ZoŽ said, "then you know."
He turned his face away, old, pale, illumined by faith and furrowed with a lifetime of listening to the best and worst of humankind. ZoŽ was dumbfounded. She knew she would never get the information out of him. She wondered if Vic had already stood just as stymied outside this locked door that hid many of the answers she was looking for. Did the Bishop know? Did the Vatican? Was that why Mulcahy was so impenetrable? "Father," she said, "there is still Evvie. She has nobody to turn to."
He scribbled a phone number down. "That's Miss Polly's charity. It's called Liberi, which means 'children' in Latin. Give them a call. They may still be open."
ZoŽ glanced at her watch. Roger picked the kids up in the evening. How nice to have someone to share things in life.
She used Father's kitchen phone.
A British voice answered. "This is Martina."
ZoŽ did a double take. "Miss Strather. ZoŽ Calla."
"Oh yes," Miss Strather said. "I still have no comment."
"No, no, I'm calling about something entirely different. A young girl. Evvie Stork."
Martina paused. "I've heard her mother is, er, missing."
"She's dead." ZoŽ changed the subject. "I heard Evvie ran away and I was worried about her."
"I share your concern." After an awkward pause, Martina added: "I happen to know that Child Protective Services have located her and she is now in a foster home."
ZoŽ said 'hm' to herself. Now how had the Strather woman known this? Had Vic told Miss Polly and Miss Polly told Martina? Strange, how all this machinery meshed together in this town, and after growing up here she was just beginning to really see the net.
"Did you want to stop by?" Martina asked.
"I was hoping."
"You can call me Martina. Yes, stop by for a few minutes. Let's just make sure Miss Polly doesn't know I spoke with you, or we'll both be out of a job."
ZoŽ's woe-meter detected a faint under-twang, suggesting that one of them was already on shaky ground, if not already fired and banished by Miss Polly, and it wasn't Miss Strather.
After a brief drive across town, ZoŽ entered a new concrete building not far from Max's school. The stairwell still had a faint sour odor of lime, and the steel handrail was painted red. Liberi. Moments later, ZoŽ sat in a book-jumbled office.
A graceful, willowy woman, mid-thirties, entered and offered her hand. She had an English accent. "Miss Calla?"
"You can call me ZoŽ, and I'll call you Martina."
"That's perfect." Martina's face lit up as she went to her desk. ZoŽ sat in an armchair before the desk. Martina was unexpectedly attractive. A head taller than ZoŽ, she had silky hair and a narrow clear-skinned face. She had a gap between her two middle-upper front teeth, and the tip of her tongue kept bumping against it as she spoke, almost but not quite creating a lisp. She had bright blue eyes and moved gracefully.
"I thought you were the, um, Butler," ZoŽ said.
Martina laughed. "I enjoy doing a little volunteer work in a good cause, and Miss Polly approves."
"So you manage estates."
"An interesting profession, at least I think so."
ZoŽ was full of questions. "Any kids of your own? Hope I'm not being too forward?" There was a purpose to this visit, but she suspected neither she nor Martina knew exactly what it was. Maybe they just wanted on some subliminal level to walk around each other, kick the other's tires. Ah, women, ZoŽ thought to herself, what is it about us?
Martina grinned opaquely. "This volunteer work fills a few hollow spots in my otherwise busy life up at the mansion."
"No man to fill those hollow spots?"
Martina laughed. "Not at the moment. I'm looking."
"Yes," Martina said shuffling papers awkwardly. "Well, we did have a contact with Mabel Stork earlier this year. We sheltered Mabel and Evvie at our Canoga West Mission. I looked that up while you were on your way here."
"Does the girl know her mother is dead?"
Martina looked startled.
"I assume you knew." This was a reach, ZoŽ felt, but that old instinct was just in there digging away.
"Yes I did know," Martina admitted. She looked downright flustered.
She could only have learned that from Vic. Aha, ZoŽ thought. She pictured Martina in the sack with the Hard Man. Yes, they were such opposites, it might just work.
ZoŽ considered. "I'm wondering if shewell, her mother was involved in some really wicked criminal activities, and I wonder if Evvie could somehow produce a clue. I mean she's just a kid, but."
"Why don't we leave that up to the local police?" Martina said rather sharply.
"Fine. Well, you see, as police reporter it's my job to be one step behind the police. A step ahead if I can. Now if I were a step ahead of the police at some point, then all we'd have to do is about face, and then I'd be behind him again." The thought of Vic and herself doing such a dance struck her as hilarious.
"Him," said Martina. "You mean your friend the detective. Mr. Lara." It was a question.
"I guess it must have slipped out that way. He's your friend as well, or you wouldn't know about Mabel Stork."
"You are indeed the police reporter. I see. I must watch my every step." Martina's face took on a strange cast, as if she were going to explode; or as if she knew things she wasn't telling ZoŽ, which was in any case why ZoŽ was there fishing. "This Lieutenant Lara. Would you consider him an accurate, reliable source of news?
ZoŽ pondered about that. "He can be difficult at times."
"Yes, he rather seems the type." Martina wrung her hands, and looked, well, naked.
ZoŽ remembered both evenings in the woods by the zoo, the one where he'd nearly left her, and the other one, the rainy one, when he'd beat the three homeless men. "Scary, too."
"I had that impression myself."
"But his police work seems topnotch. Are you concerned about the quality of information he brings to Miss Polly?"
"Among other things."
"You think he did it?"
"Instead of the butler."
Martina laughed and shook her head. "It was Colonel Mustard, with the pipe, in the library." Composure restored, she placed her palms on the desk and pushed herself up.
ZoŽ took the hint and also rose. "Well, it's been a pleasure." They shook hands. "I'm glad Evvie Stork is in good hands." She didn't dare, suddenly, ask to see Evvie. Not yet. That would have to wait a bit. Vic might pass a few crumbs of information along.
Martina straightened some papers unnecessarily and looked embarrassed. "I wanted to meet you because I wondered who you were that you could cause such a commotion."
ZoŽ said: "I'll bet Miss Polly has a picture of me and throws darts at it."
Martina laughed. "Hardly. She does not confide much at all, but I have a feeling she sort of admires you. But be careful. She is a powerful, arbitrary woman, and right now she is grieving."
"And Gilbert," Martina said. "Her son and her grandson."
ZoŽ realizedGilbert, wherever he was hiding, was as good as in prison, or on death row. And it was the end of the Burtongale lineage. "The poor woman."
Martina's thoughts were elsewhere; she had the oddest little smile. "Maybe we could have lunch sometime, ZoŽ."
A possible new friend? "I'd like that," ZoŽ saidbut a little alarm bell stirred, deep inside her, ready to go off. Now what was that about?
At Roger's house, she found Vic's car in the driveway and noticed an unmarked car with government plates at the curb. Two silhouettes sat in the government car. Vic was just coming out. "Oh, ZoŽ. Good timing. See that car up the street? That's two detectives who are going to be keeping razor eyes on you. I told Roger all the rules. You let them know every time you leave the house. You keep the place locked up tight. You call those guys"(he handed her a business card with a phone number inked on it)"on their car phone and they'll be in there in no time flat. Got that?"
That evening, ZoŽ was brushing her teeth in the first floor bathroom when somebody knocked. Elisa? Brush and foam in teeth, ZoŽ opened the door. Max. "Wha-?" she asked and bubbles blew out of her mouth.
Low voice. "Mom."
"Ywhea?" She brushed, spat, ran water.
"Are you going to marry him?"
She rinsed her mouth, then the brush. "Max, it's too early to tell."
"If you do, can I have my own room? Rudy snores. He farts too, and the whole room smells."
She toweled her face, glad to be enjoying a lilac smell. "Darling, if that day comes, you'll have your own room. I promise."
"Meanwhile," Max asked, "are we going back home soon?"
She frowned. "Don't you like it here anymore?"
"I do. But it's just not home, you know?"
She knelt down and shook his pajama lapels. "You getting along all right with Rudy?"
"He's got a great computer, and we're working on stuff."
Memories of shareware flitted into her mind. "No more funny stuff, got it?"
"No Mom." Low voice. "Okay, well, goodnight."
"We'll be back in our place soon, I promise."
"Not before I get to know Rudy's computer, okay?"
"Yeah. So you're comfy so far, staying here?"
He stared at her. "Mom, we kids feel like were all on a bus going 100 miles an hour with you two. It's like in that movie Speed. Watching you two is scary. Like two crazy people, but that must be what love is all about for grownups. In the movie, the bus will explode if you go under 50, so we can't slow down, and we can't go any faster, so we're just hoping we don't go over a cliff."
During the night, after making love with Roger and after they both fell exhaustedly asleep, she had a nightmare. She was somewhere under, under... what? water? ground? A dark face stared at her; a jackal? with antlers or something? Wiz stood someplace on a far ledge, reaching out to her, mouthing words ZoŽ could not understand. She would point up, then down, then hold out her hand. There were other faces and bodies, too. A lot of strangers crowded around her. Was this an elevator? Across the void were the ones she longed to talk to: Wiz, Harleigh Hale, Jonathan Smith, Frank MacLemore (he was doing the same thing Wiz was, pointing, waving, holding out something). Then too, there was an airplane. It lay near the ship. No, it was part of the ship. There was a light on inside and when she went near, someone waved to her. Someone she knew. Smiling. No, crying. Pointing. For the ship and the plane were all part of some kind of enormous gadget. A bomb. That was it. A bomb. She had a vision of red fires raging for months, for years, all around the earth.
She woke with a strangled cry and sat up. Rubbed her eyes and listened to the rain. Roger's steady breathing drove the toothache of fear away. Just a dream... She flopped down, pulled the cover up, and went back to sleep.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.