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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 56.

In the morning, all the noise three children and two dogs could make, they made. ZoŽ felt kind of housy-happy peaceful presiding over breakfast. Max and Rudy argued over toothpaste, which ZoŽ resolved. Elisa was mad at ZoŽ for using Susan's old hair curler, which Roger resolved—Elisa shortly came with a contrite face and kissed ZoŽ's cheek. And so it went. "Don't you think you ought to take a day off?" ZoŽ suggested, rubbing his back while Roger cooked. She would like nothing better than to spend the day in bed with him.

The children watched. They all knew.

"I'd love to," Roger said, "but you have no idea of the work I've got sitting there. Especially now we've got lab results coming in on the dead animals."

ZoŽ filled the plates of the children cafeteria style as they passed by. "What an organization you've built here," she said. In the back of her mind was the thought that soon the story she'd done yesterday would attract national attention and maybe she'd be on television. Not that she cared, except it might mean someone would take her seriously as a news person.

"Yeah," he said over his shoulder, "I missed my calling. I should have studied restaurant management." Later, he looked wonderful in his dark suit and raincoat. He carried a briefcase and umbrella. And on the arm panel inside his luxurious Porsche lay a pair of leather gloves. She leaned in and sniffed the leather. "Oh, scrumptious."

He gave her his direct look. "I love to hear you laugh."

"What do you mean?"

He reached out and put his arm around her neck. He pulled her face close and whispered: "I mean you beaming and handing out pancakes, naked under that robe, and your laughter just tinkling in that old kitchen. Nobody has laughed like that in there for a long time."

She kissed his temple. "I'll tinkle in your kitchen as long as you'd like."

He roared off, nearly running over a trash can, and she laughed. He looked sheepish and she waved, doubling over. He peeled away grinning.

When she walked into the newspaper office, she knew immediately something was wrong. Jules's office had a peculiar empty look. Oh Jesus, she thought as she walked with leaden feet to her desk. There it was, a note: "See me. Mart Willow."

"Yes?" Her voice was a whisper, her knuckle cold and trembling on his door frame.

Mart Willow turned his red face toward her. He had neatly combed gray hair, an awful cheap suit, belt too high over a slightly bloated alkie-stomach, broken vessels on his cheeks, nose ruddy. "Sit down."

She sat down and waited, counting the pulse beats in her neck.

It took him a moment to finish what he was doing and speak.

She could barely hear him. And the world was a-swim around her.

"Coffee?" He pointed to the full service counter in the wall of his office.

She shook her head.

"Miss Calla, overall you've done a good job here, even if you have been late a lot and so on, I think Jules has discussed all that with you." He slid a sheet of paper before her. Her blurry eyes could only make out that it was a letter, but she couldn't read it. "Jules is no longer a member of the staff. He was asked to move to the editorial side directly under me and refused. So he was terminated." He paused to let that sink in. "As a consequence, we are making some other reassignments. You will no longer be working the police beat."

ZoŽ had seen it coming, the minute she'd seen Jules's empty office. That kick had been headed her way for a long time. "I considered putting you back on the obit desk, but our Ethiopian friend has that under complete control. So I must inform you, Miss Calla, that I am terminating you effective this morning."

A cold surge of adrenalin shot through her. She was numb, and it felt as though her life were draining away through her legs.

"You will vacate immediately and never return. You will be given two weeks' pay, cash or check whichever you prefer—talk to Human Resources—plus two weeks' severance pay, and whatever benefits the paper owes you. You can see the HR people on your way out to arrange all that." He rose and extended a pink hand.

She rose on shaky legs, backed away. There were lots of things she wanted to say, but couldn't think of any just then. Floating out of his office like a dead log in water, she heard herself say: "I saw the first kick coming for years, but I completely missed the second one. Good work, Mr. Willow. Hope you become human some day. You can tell Miss Polly for me she's a loser—you all are a bunch of losers."

She drove to the apartment in a daze. Roger had given her a house key, but she wanted to be alone. Someone had piled bags of blossoms on her doorstep. Oh Jesus now what? Someone else had begun sweeping the mess up and evidently left in disgust. Mother, no doubt. A broom, a dust pan, and a trash bag stood nearby. Pink/white rose petals made a tongue from the mouth of the bag to the flagstone walk.

She thrashed through the beautiful mess and unlocked the door. Inside, just under the door, she found a slip of paper. Someone had printed in ballpoint: Green Witches Will Help You, Don't Fear. She left the note on the coffee table, overwhelmed, and went into the bedroom. She left her good clothes on the bed, and lay down. Unable to nap or even think clearly, she dressed in jeans, crew socks, running shoes, t-shirt, and sweatshirt with hood. She felt as though someone had ripped a hole in her. She'd shot herself in the foot. She'd done this herself. She'd been warned, and she'd barged right ahead. Worse, she'd gotten Jules canned. Now she was farther than ever from her goal of being a professional news reporter; and, in San Tomas, she was plain finished. Miss Polly and Mart Willow would see to that. Maybe anywhere in the United States. Maybe she could dye her hair, return to Europe where her ancestors had left two centuries ago, and change her name in an attempt to start over. How would that go? Bonjour. Je suis MademoiselleÖerÖ ZoŽÖerÖCallayonnaise. Et son fils Maxime or Maxois. Rhymes with Gallois. C'est la plume de ma tante. Tra-la-laÖBeret et toutÖClaire de luneÖShe'd had two years of college French, and it was the closest she could get to her proper English-Irish-Danish mixed breedÖ

Oh what the hell. She bawled like a kid.

She sat by the sea in her Mustang, and felt low.

Her hands gripped the steering wheel as though she and Old Bessie were doing ninety, but they were just parked at the beach and going nowhere. Definitely going no place. How am I going to face Mother? Here I was employed and proud of myself—didn't even know it—and now I'm out on the street. How am I going to face Max? He depends on me for medical coverage, not to mention little things like food, shelter, etc. How am I going to... she lowered her face onto her knuckles... face Roger? Here at least I was working at something moderately intellectual like writing, even if it was obits, and now I don't even have that. She stepped out of the car, slammed the door shut, and walked toward the sea with her hands in her pockets.

Gulls screamed and she watched them fight over food. The way of the universe. Eat or be eaten, kill or be killed. The gulls reminded her of Mart Willow, the Mart Willows of the world, tearing each other to pieces over crumbs. A gray giant with horn shell beak was bruising a little white gull, which backed away with eyes that didn't understand, and feathers awry. She tossed a pebble at the gray gull and he backed away viciously screaming at her, threatening with his wings. "Right, Mart," she said. "Come to mama. I'll rip your head off and shit in your neck."

Meanwhile, in a victory for the good guys, the little white bird tossed a big bread crumb in the air, swallowed it, seemed to give the hovering bruiser the finger, or the claw, and sailed away into the sunset.

It was cold at the rim of the world; a drab day like inside a glass marble on a rainy day. The sea crashed in, rugs and carpets of it unrolling. A few hardy surfers in black wetsuits braved the elements. Their heads and spread arms rode on the water. She could see now that the earth was truly round. As she stood on the damp sand, she almost had to look up to see the surfers. Fascinated, she stared at them, mounting wave after wave, while the noise of the sea and the gulls garbled into a single drone. The Cold Thing stirred. Sluggishly.

COME HERE... it said in the back of her mind where there were no waves, only a standing pool...You can die in peace, right here, out of your miseryÖ

COME HERE... it repeated drowsily and she walked forward. YOU ARE BLESSED —LET US LOOK AT YOU... we will repair youÖ.

ZoŽ stopped when she felt cold water swirling around her thighs. She looked down. Gulls cawed, wheeling, and the sea pounded but her head was clear again. She shrieked and jumped out. Her pants, her shoes, her socks were soaked. Icy seawater shocked the tenderness between her thighs and snapped her out of this suicidal reverie. She screamed mentally at the hidden eel: "I may be down right now but I'm getting right back up again. I'm in love and nothing is going to take that away from me!"

The eel backed away, puzzled, leaving her mind empty, except for the memory of its presence. That was like a throbbing wound needing to heal. She bought aspirin and coffee at a Mega/Rx and drove to the apartment. Again the waiting blossoms, growing soggier in a changing wind that brought stabbing rain drops. ZoŽ cried hard, all the way from her car to her door, and inside the apartment, head bowed over folded arms at the bare kitchen table.


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