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= Starlight Deep Within A Gothic Sea =

Phantoms & Ghosts in a Borges Key (Virtual Reality)

Classic Science Fiction Novel by John Argo


Part I: Zoë Calla


Heartbreaker

The Haunted Village (website) 1996 C&C Publishers Clocktower Books, Brian Callahan's artwork; with John T. Cullen
Chapter 2.

Zoë breezed into the City Room of the San Tomas Herald, ignoring a dirty look from Managing Editor Mart Willow.

At the Obituary section, tucked in a nook near the newspaper's morgue (library), Zoë let out a big breath and threw down jacket, hair brush, purse, and jangling keys. Terri 'Wiz' Kcikiewicz, her fellow obit writer, was just finishing a midmorning yogurt. Odd duck, Terri; kept a vase in the form of a skull on her desk. Anchored in a sea of paper, Terri looked up and her glasses slid down her nose, as they always did.

"Hi Wiz," Zoë said. She sipped coffee from a foamed plastic cup and brushed her blonde curls.

"Hi kid. How's the boy?" Wiz had a gap between her upper front teeth.

"They found a blip on his right leg. The doctor is going to consult another specialist."

Wiz looked sad. "When do you find out?"

Zoë sighed. "He said a day or two." Pushing aside an overwhelming cloud of dread and grief, she threw her hands up while circling around her desk looking for her stapler. "Why is Mart Willow here? I thought he was on vacation this week."

Wiz cleaned out her cardboard yogurt cup with a paper towel. "He was. They called him back in. Must be something big. He's been growling around like Father Zeus all morning."

Zoë found the stapler and banged on the top drawer handle of her desk, at the same time pulling on the middle drawer. On the third try, the desk unlocked itself. "Don't suppose anyone will ever fix this thing. Everything is going to pieces, Wizzie. My car, my hair, my life."

Wiz nodded. "Well, the main thing is you and Max. He's going to be okay. Speaking of old bumble-butt…"

"Oh God." Zoë scrambled into her chair and logged into the newspaper's microprocessor network. She sat brightly and erectly, clicking away at the keys as Mart Willow's sullen redness floated past. The morgue door slammed and Zoë exhaled.

Wiz slipped the empty yogurt container into the huge handbag by her desk. Zoë liked Wiz, eccentricities and all. Used the cups in her garden, Zoë remembered. Sometimes she envied Wiz, even if Wiz was fifteen years older. Wiz had a guy in her life, and she carried a glow. Zoë, after breaking up with Howard Berger three months ago, had zilch for romance. Zoë attacked the first obit: Rocco Balsamo, 89, died in Belgrave Park after a long illness. Mr. Balsamo had been a member of Plumber's Union Local 5679 for fifty-nine years. He was also a past Grand Panjandrum of the Lodge of Oriental Potentates. What was a panjandrum, and was that the right spelling? "Hey Wiz, pass me the dictionary, will you?"

"What are you looking up?" Wiz asked as her glasses slipped down.

"Pan-jan-drum. Why?"

"I was just wondering if you were near the t's someplace."

"I could make a detour." Zoë licked her finger and turned pages. Her left contact was beginning to sting.

"Theologian," said Wiz, whose spelling was legendarily bad. "One ell or two?"

Zoë started to laugh. Wiz looked sheepish. Zoë felt a frown replace her laughter. "Hey, you got a dead one there?"

"That's why we're in the obit department."

"No kidding," Zoë said. "Max was saying something about a Faloshian, I thought he was saying. Couldn't figure out what he meant. One ell, Wiz."

"Thanks. Here, check this out. It's a doozy." Wiz tossed a handful of pages across.

Zoë picked up the copy. As she did so, she bit loudly into a large red apple. The morgue door opened. Oh no, she thought, and looked up. There was Mart Willow, looking directly at her. As she looked at him, a dust mote flew up and her eye burned. She blinked at him several times in rapid succession. She hid the offending eye with her hand. Mart huffed off to his office.

"Winking at him now," Wiz observed.

Zoë lowered her head onto the desk and hid under her hands. She shook her head and wondered why she had not called in sick.

"Cheer up," Wiz said. "I'll take you to lunch."

"Oh goody. Maybe I can eat some poisoned mushrooms and posthumously prove to my mother that I really did care about anything. Geez, this is weird." She read the beginning of Wiz's obit: Johnathan Smith, 68, died under mysterious circumstances yesterday evening on Zoo Lane. Dr. Smith, a professor at Whitbread Baptist Seminary in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was a prominent fundamentalist theologian… "Good spelling, Wiz."

"Went through the checker three times."

"Died right near the main entrance to the zoo, sounds like. That's what Max was talking about," she repeated in wonderment.

"Note," Wiz said, leaning forward so that her ebony hair dangled lankly. She said in a very soft voice, "Died on Zoo Lane. Right on the Burtongales' doorstep."

Zoë caught the implication. The Burtongale family had founded San Tomas and owned chunks of it, including the zoo. "Do you suppose that's why bumble-butt, instead of shooting elk in Canada, is here shooting the shit with us?"

Wiz nodded. "Afraid so. The old Burtongale mafia rides again. And here comes another one now."

Jules Loomis, City Editor and, like Mart, member of the Burtongale clan by marriage, stopped at Zoë's desk. Jules was short and pudgy, given to wearing unironed white shirts and baggy pants with trademark suspenders. He held papers in one hand and an editorial pencil in the other. Hair uncombed, he puffed on a curved-stem pipe. Zoë liked his tobacco; it wasn't aromatic; too much bite in the aromatics, Jules had once explained after coffee and Danish at Vogelmann's; it was more woodsy like a hay barn in the fall. Jules had hired Zoë six years ago, and he liked her, tended to protect her, although Mart was technically Jules's boss, and might have fired her long since.

Jules, not given to formalities, nodded to Wiz while restuffing and relighting his pipe. To Zoë: "See you a moment?"

She took a few moments to tidy up so Wiz could continue obits. Then Zoë walked down the hall where he was already back in his office. She knocked on the door.

"C'mon in."

She let the wood window-door slide shut with a glassy rattle, and eased herself into one of the old-fashioned wood office chairs around his desk. The morning edition lay folded nearby. A sidebar read: "BEAR DEAD IN CAGE. (Special) Andy, a four year old grizzly bear, unexplainedly…"

Jules relit his balky pipe and put his feet up on a desk drawer. "Coupla things. One, just want to let you know Mart Willow was in here this morning sounding me out about why you were late again."

Zoë felt a welling up of anger.

"I told him it was your son's checkup. Then he mentioned you've been out or late a bit more than usual the past week or two and I had to say I suppose that might be true, because it is true."

Zoë banged her fists on her knees. "I'm sorry."

Jules calmly continued: "I also told him, hey look, I seem to remember the same thing happening every three months or so like clockwork and damned if it ain't the week before your boy's checkup. I told him I figure she maybe can't sleep for worrying and why don't he go away and worry about his own problems."

"Thanks, Jules. Honestly."

He added darkly: "There is the other thing too."

She knew what it was and felt a rushing in her ears. A dark, turbulent spot in her memory flicked on, blackwhite blackwhite, censoring, canceling…

"I don't like to bring it up, but of course Mart knows you had some difficulties with the law years back. You know I think the world of you, but from time to time that will come up again."

Blood rushed in her ears, and his voice came across like words filtered through a wall.

"Oh well," he said, that settled. Puffing on his pipe, hands in pockets, he walked around the office. "You've been after me to get on the City Room staff as a reporter. I'm going to send you along with Perry for a while. Let you play assistant police reporter. See how you do."

"Yow!"

"I've pushed it with Mart Willow and he says no. Zoë doesn't have a degree. I said neither do I but I'm city editor. He didn't say anything but his look said, you'll never maker it any higher. Anyway, I was talking with Perry Stein about you. He's willing to take you in the field."

"Jules!" She gripped his arm. "Yowee!!"

"Shh-hh, don't let Mart Willow see you. Seeing you happy always ruins his day."

She clapped her hand on Jules's forearm. "What is it between me and him? Why does the sight of me put him in a rage?"

Jules puffed and gazed far away. "Oh, I don't know. It's only a guess. Chemistry, probably. It happens like that. He's an old office nazi from way back, and you're sort of a free spirit."

"Why do you stand up for me, Jules?"

"Because, frankly, my dear… You're almost the only ray of sunshine in this dismal place. Go with Perry. Take a shot at it. I want to give you your chance."

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